Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Titles: Getting acquainted with the Buffett family.

(This is the second in a series of posts about recent books about history and business in Nebraska.)

In the Spring of 1867, one Sidney Buffett left Long Island, New York, where his family had lived and worked since the 1600s, and took a train West to Omaha. There his maternal grandfather, George Homan, owner of a livery stable and operator of the local stage line, gave him work and introduced him to the local business community. Two years later, in 1869, Sidney Buffett opened a grocery store on south 14th Street in Omaha.

The Buffett grocery business would last through three generations and 100 years. It supported and often employed Sidney's progeny, a large, hard working, prosperous, civic-minded, politically involved Omaha family. The Buffetts, always proud of their grocery's pioneer status among Omaha businesses, built their understanding of what mattered in life from their experiences as tradesmen. If family came at the top of that list, success in business was right beside it. In trade, they could not affort to be profligate, or greedy, or to seem so. They were careful with their money. They valued hard work. They were reminded every day of the value of their connections with customers, employees and other businesses. Day by day, in small things as in large ones, they cultivated good relationships with others. They were intensely practical, and when they saw troubles ahead, they saved enough money to sustain their business in hard times. By this means, they grew their business through two terrible depressions, one in the 1890s and another in the 1930s. Buffett's lasted until 1969, and closed then only as regional chains and supplier combinations threatened their profitability.

Bill Buffett's book, Foods you will enjoy: The story of Buffett's Store. (Concord: Capital Offset Company, 2008) is the story of the Buffett's Omaha grocery business. The author is Sidney Buffett's great grandson. The book draws on the family's letters and photographs, on local museum collections and old newspapers, on reminiscences by several generations of the Buffetts themselves and by their former employees and customers, and on the author's collection of contemporary advertising materials. All in all, this is very rich source material. For many years, Buffett's store was a community institution in a way that businesses once were but no longer seem to be.

The history of the store is told in three dimensions. The first dimension is a narrative, following family memories, letters and local and business history. A second dimension is the inclusion of many telling excerpts of the source material itself, including letters, contemporary newspaper articles, business documents, and letters and later reminiscences by former employees and customers as well as by the Buffetts themselves. A third dimension is a graphic history, integrating photographs, period media reports, and period advertising materials. Some of the advertising is seen displayed in the store in period photographs, some is now reproduced in color to give the book a real graphic punch. In each of these three dimensions, the book is strikingly well conceived. Each of the three perspectives could almost carry the story by itself.

Librarians and scholars are sometimes unjustly skeptical of self-published works. Although this book would be considered self-published, it was professionally designed by Book Designer Rick Rawlins. Not surprisingly, it won an AIGA 2009 "Best of New England" Design award for its designer. Throughout, the book is a reminder that technology now makes it possible to create very high quality books whose expected publication runs are so small that previously, they could never have been published at all.

Some of the more memorable things about the book, for this reader, include: The character of Ernest Buffett, as it shines through in the business and family advice he wrote to his sons. The very different way people used to shop, with a clerk gathering individual items from a written list while the customer browsed.
Credit too was handled differently. Like one of the Buffetts' customers, in the midst of the Depression of the 1930s, my own grandmother bought the family house outright with cash borrowed at a grocery store, and paid it all back with interest in a year, along with her monthly grocery tab.

Not every Buffett went into the grocery trade. One of Sidney's grandsons, Howard Buffett, went off to college wanting to be a journalist. Marriage, and evidently, an effective admonition from his grocer father, led Howard to the more practical, better paying business of selling insurance. In time, Howard moved on to be a stockbroker, then Republican congressman from Omaha.

Howard's son, Warren Buffett, the investor, would become the most famous Buffett of all. Warren has said that his start in business came at Buffett's Store. For some months in 1943, Warren Buffett lived with and worked for his grandfather. In his own short contribution to this book Warren Buffett recalls that his job at the time was to take dictation from Ernest, who was writing a book whose title was to be "How to Run a Grocery Store and a Few Things I Have Learned About Fishing." Grandpa Buffett, Warren recalls, "considered these to be the only two subjects really worthy of commentary."

The author is an insightful historian. He remarks at the beginning of the book that nowdays he buys his toothpaste at a chain store with more than 5,700 outlets in the United States, and he recalls a time when he bought that toothpaste in a local one-of-a-kind drug store. His book seems to remind us of aspects of character and community that we still need, but find hard to sustain as arrangements of work and family life that built them fall by the wayside.


This is Bill Buffett's second book. His first, also recently added to our collection, is a memoir of his mother, Katherine Armina Norris Buffett (June 13, 1906-August 17, 2004). Dear Katherine (Self published by Bill Buffett, 2005) is a family scrapbook. It combines Katherine's own memoir about her early life with family photographs, excerpts from letters she wrote and that others wrote to her, some of her recipes, poetry she cut from the newspaper, and so on. Scattered throughout the book are envelopes with onionskin sheets on which are printed the texts of various letters from people recalling Katherine or thanking her for some of the many things she did for others.

The book design is interesting. It evokes a family scrapbook with a precious archive of letters pressed between the pages, but the packets of onionskin letters are fragile, and in consequence the book will not stand up to use by many hands.

Like the later book, Dear Katherine succeeds in what it sets out to do. Katherine's warmth, generosity and sense of humor shine through. It is also an interesting portrait of a midwestern woman of her generation.

Almost all of the materials reflect Katherine's careful cultivation of the informal connections of kinship, friendship and community. These materials testify to the great value her generation placed on such connections, as well as to the way the women of that generation shaped their own lives in a time when the making of a healthy social world was largely women's work. The Foreword reveals the intensity of Katherine's attention to connection. Bill Buffett writes that in the last weeks of her life, when they had spoken openly about her dying, "She looked away, then at me and asked'How will we stay connected.' I assured her we would. This book is part of that effort."


These books are quite interesting and are valuable entirely on their own. They have much to tell us about life and business and community over the past century. But it is probably inevitable that some readers will be mostly interested in the Warren Buffett connection. Alice Schroeder's thorough and much admired 2008 biography, The Snowball. Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, covers some of the same territory, and shows that Warren Buffett is a very complex character.

Taken together, these books reveal many common threads and shared understandings between Warren and the larger Buffett family. The most striking, for this reader, grows from the family's consciousness of the importance of connection, and their realism, judiciousness and generosity in building networks of business associates and friends. Whatever its other resources, genius needs a firm grip on reality to succeed, and in schooling their generations in the care of connections with their community, the Buffett family created a kind of 'Buffett brand' of realism that appears to survive in Warren Buffett's way of doing business.

Stephen Cloyd

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sunday, November 15th Ames Reading with Jeff Barnes

The Heritage Room welcomes Jeff Barnes as its November Ames Reader. Barnes has recently published his first book, Forts of the Northern Plains. In preparing this guide to the historic military posts of the Plains Indian wars, Barnes traveled some 13,000 miles to visit 51 historic sites making photographs, doing research and interviewing informants about the forts and their history. A freelance writer and fifth-generation Nebraskan Barnes has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. He is the past chairman of the Nebraska Hall of Fame Commission and former marketing director of the Durham Western Heritage Museum. We look forward to hearing about his adventures. The Reading will take place Sunday, November 15th at 2:00 PM in the Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors on the third floor of Bennett Martin Public Library in downtown Lincoln.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More New Titles: A book about the city of Lincoln--November 2009

Among the new titles that came to the Heritage Room in the past several months are several that share an interest in local history and local businesses. These books address some of the many ways in which our local economy and the character of family life are interconnected. Heritage Room staff will share thoughts inspired by several of these books over the next month or so. We begin with:

Mary Jane Nielsen and Jonathan Roth, Lincoln Looks Back. (Foreword by Gil Savery) Lincoln: JMJ Inspirations, 2009.

This is a large format book richly illustrated with black and white photographs from the Edholm & Blomgren Collection and the Nebraska State Historical Society's MacDonald Collection. The book surveys Lincoln, Nebraska's social and commercial landscape, its neighborhoods, schools, businesses, restaurants, drive-ins, and bars from the 1950s to the present. It offers a kind of nostalgic celebration of the kinds of things people remember about a town after the years pass, things like teenage hang-outs, schools, interesting buildings, a big fire, a first visit to Robbers' Cave, meeting a local television personality, or a visit by a national celebrity like Gene Autry or Elvis Presley. The text is a collection of short vignettes and recollections by the authors and the many long-time Lincoln residents they corraled into contributing.

The authors have done a wonderful job of bringing the many photographs and individual reminiscences together. They seem to capture the spirit of a certain era very successfully. But their account thins noticeably in the late 1970s. What? No-one wants to look back at the 1980s? Well, anyone who lives in Lincoln now might realize that the book describes Lincoln during an historical era that was ending by the 1980s. In that time, Lincoln's businesses were still mostly locally owned, even along the then nascent "Miracle Mile" North of O Street along 48th Street. In that time, Lincoln still possessed, even on the "Miracle Mile," its most intensely commercial space, a distinctive local landscape, created by local businessmen. In that time, Lincoln still had a commercially viable downtown retail district, attractive to shoppers. If (local) business was better off in those years, community life and family life were also stronger, then, than they would be years later.

If we want to ask why the city of those times differs so much from today's Lincoln, we leave Nielsen and Roth's book behind us. But we will return to it.

By the late 1970s Lincoln was in trouble, but it was a kind of trouble it would not perceive or begin to pay for until decades later. Developer Joe Hampton was on the city council in the 1970s, and no one in city government was interested in the planning commission's doubts or the pleas of sometime city planner Doug Brogdon to limit suburban development, to keep the downtown area alive. As elsewhere in America, there were huge fortunes to be made in the suburban build-out. With so much money at stake, the build-out could not be slowed or moderated by planners who could see trouble ahead. The present writer recalls a neighbor, one of his mother's friends, crying in her front yard. Had her dog died? No, she was crying over the city. "They're just ruining Lincoln," she told my mother. This lady had attended planning commission meetings for years, but after that evening she stopped. There was no longer any point to that kind of involvement.

Like other American cities, Lincoln was transformed by suburban build-out. The downtown area lost most of its larger retail businesses. What remained were much smaller businesses catering to students from the University and downtown office workers, and lots and lots of bars and restaurants. Today Lincoln's commercial landscape is dominated by national chain big box stores and franchise fast-food joints. Money spent in these places leaves town right away.

The main shopping areas are now spread out over great distances: North 27th Street, South 27th Street, Cornhusker Highway, Highway 2, various businesses on O Street, both East and West. The sprawl makes Lincoln an ever more inconvenient and unattractive place to shop. Someone willing to drive the distance between these areas might easily remember that a bigger city, Omaha, is only 50 miles away. There, the big box stores are bigger, and there are more of them. Omaha's boxes are even, sometimes, closer together. Someone not willing to drive those distances can now shop online. As a poorly planned conglomeration of developments, built by different developers on different hillsides, with only the weakest of centers, Lincoln can expect its sales tax revenues to continue to fall.

America's suburban sprawl been described as plundering the future in order to raise production and consumption in the present. In his 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler (not a Nebraska writer) described the way this has corroded our sense of community. "The American highway... is now like television, violent and tawdry. The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages. We whiz by them at fifty-five miles an hour and forget them, because one convenience store looks like another. They do not celebrate anything beyond their mechanistic ability to sell merchandise. We don't want to remember them. We did not savor the approach and we were not rewarded upon reaching the destination, and it will be the same next time, and every time. There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular."

This passage of Kunstler's helps me answer the questions I asked when reading Nielsen and Roth's Lincoln Looks Back. No, I don't believe anyone wants to remember the 1980s. In fact I doubt that anyone will bother to write the kind of nostalgic treatment of Lincoln as a community that these authors did for later decades. In the memories of Nielsen and Roth's interlocutors, and especially for those remembering their teenage years, Lincoln's "Miracle Mile," the city's commercial edges and homegrown fast food joints were exciting places. But when the edge metastasized, and became a cancer that ate everything else, it made a wasteland. Nielsen and Roth present us with a group photograph of the businessmen who built the Miracle Mile ("Those Magnificient Men of the Miracle Mile" is its title), just as an earlier generation presented us with "the 'O' Street Gang." Would anyone today bother to take a group picture of the managers of Lincoln's big box retail stores? And if they did, would anyone care to publish such a picture? Kunstler is right, we don't want to remember these places.

Lincoln made sense as a more compact city. If it had retained some of that compactness, it would been distinctive in comparison with Omaha. It might have been a more attractive place to live, shop, and to do business. Without that distinctiveness, Lincoln's future looks bleak, since Omaha, only a little ways down the road, has a bigger population and with that, more resources, including more interesting retailers. It still seems surprising that Lincoln did not do better over the years, given the twin advantages of the presence of State Government, and the University. Government workers and University students are an economic resource, and no doubt they have saved the downtown, which is only moribund, from becoming a deserted urban combat zone, as it might have become, in their absence.

In other times, the presence of state government and the University might have reminded us of the importance of public concerns. Adequate repect for public purposes is the essence of good urban planning. In his book, Kunstler observes that the "joyless junk habitat" that we see along our commercial highways and arterials is a product of our having discarded public concerns to pursue "a fetish of commercialized individualism." Unable to give anything but lip service to public needs, we had "nothing left but private life in our private homes and private cars." So "we wonder what happened to the spirit of community." We discover that we "created a landscape of scary places and became a nation of scary people." Our ugly, anonymous places empower those who lie, cheat and steal.

Kunstler laments suburban sprawl as a cultural and environmental catastrophe. He shows us that sprawl is now a physical embodiment, a map, of our character and of the poverty we will face in the 21st century. Sprawl embodies our lack of connection, it maps our lack of respect for public goods, it maps our hatred of nature, it maps our greed, it maps our lack of respect for each other (consider the way people drive on expressways like Lincoln's North 27th Street). Low density sprawl, with its monotony of housing types and strip malls, is utterly dependent on cheap energy, and "virtually impossible to retrofit with decent public transportation." Distant from productive economic actitity, these are future slums. Not every McMansion can have a second life as a money-making group home.

The sprawling mess of suburbia will be a monument to an America that imports almost everything and that has exported its skilled and industrial jobs of all kinds to other nations. Building the suburban wasteland has been a way to shore up employment, to store workers, and keep the country's economic decline from becoming too soon visible. Yet the historical period defined by low gasoline prices, and by complacency about trade policies and technology and the outsourcing of American jobs seems about to end. As the wreckage of suburban sprawl becomes increasingly costly to live with and remedy, we will remember this era with anything but nostalgia.

Lincoln already struggles to escape the problems brought on by this kind of development. Teenagers form their social networks not at the Drive-in, or any of the other places Nielsen and Roth describe, but on-line. Local business leaders and politicians are trying to remedy the sickening of the center with new development, a new downtown arena, the Antelope Valley Project, and retail recruitment. But many of these efforts seem to share the assumptions of the passing age of “happy motoring.” (Kunstler's term) Some, though, as in the Haymarket, try to build on the remains of an earlier and more attractive urban environment. The local trails network tries to make the place more livable, and sometimes succeeds.

For this reader Lincoln Looks Back served as a reminder of an entirely lost world, separated from us by a disaster--one we barely understood as it engulfed us. The contrasts between that world and today's are striking. It is scary to step back from the Lincoln we think we know, and realize that physically, it so largely resembles the landscape of "the futureless economy" that writers like Jane Jacobs and James Howard Kunstler described long before the recent mortgage crisis began.

Stephen Cloyd