Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Paradise Lost

The first job I ever had was working for a small weekly newspaper in Boonton, New Jersey, called the Times Bulletin. Tom Trenholm and his family had owned the paper since the 1800s. That fact was proudly displayed on the masthead of the newspaper. When you walked into the Times Bulletin building, you could smell the melted lead that went into the molds—known as hot type—that would become the printing plates for the next newspaper.

Mr. Trenholm was slightly overweight, always chewed the remains of a big cigar and lived in town. Things were slow and personal and friendly. I was 16 years old and Mr. Trenholm was glad to have me as a weekly humor columnist despite my lack of resume. After all, I was Louise and Al’s kid from down the block, and he thought it was nice that I wanted to write.

I don’t mean to sound like a walking antique, but I miss those days when business was personal on all levels, not just in the boardroom inner circle. After several generations in Mr. Trenholm’s family, the Times Bulletin was purchased in the late 1970s by a newspaper chain that closed it down and left our small town without the heritage of a caring, local paper. They now distribute a pre-fab newspaper with some localized news of Boonton and several other communities thrown in. I don’t know if any of the people who work for the paper have ever lived in Boonton or even know all that much about the town.

While I didn’t realize it back in the Seventies, the day of the small family-owned business was becoming endangered as large businesses in the next few decades would hungrily devour them or undercut them with low-priced foreign labor. Local hardware stores, clothing stores, drugs stores and dime stores fell victim to larger chains, and many Main Streets withered with the advent of malls.

This is not to say that people are not starting their own businesses anymore. They certainly are. But this is often done with the goal of being bought up by a larger company so the owners can retire as millionaires, as opposed to handing the business down to the next generation and keeping things personal. My last full-time job as a writer, before I went freelance, was for a company that made the transition from a quirky, fun-loving entrepreneurial environment to a more driven, self-important corporate milieu. I’ve seen it happen many times over the years and it never ceases to inflict me with culture shock.

I guess that’s progress. Corporations employ many people and there are workers out there who thrive in an impersonal corporate environment. Perhaps my discomfort with it is simply a sign of age. Or perhaps I’m just old enough to remember what others may never know.


  1. Very cool read...and about my Grandfather.

    My father(the son of the Tom mentioned above) Thomas now Thomas Sr. (my brother is Thomas as well) is still in the printing business, as is my brother.

    Before the Times building was sold I used to go with my Dad to "the plant" when he needed to run one of the old Chandler & Price letter presses for the occasional ticket numbering job. I always (and still) love that old equipment.

  2. So nice to hear from you. Your Grandfather was responsible for starting my career!

  3. Great column! I liked it not just because I too toiled at the Times-Bulletin (after you, but I think we know each other). You've really nailed the transition from small and/or family-owned business to the corporate environment, and the loss that results.