Friday, April 22, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 2


A Local Business is Born"  is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

Continuing from Stone Industry in Portland in 1968, things changed slowly. After completing Portland State University once again I found myself out of work with family to support. I was accepted into a apprenticeship Marble Masons program with Blazing Granite, attending brick layers school on Saturdays, and working as a marble setter when there was work. Due to my long hair I was always the last one hired and first one laid off, on these commercial buildings, I was quite small to be lifting massive stones on hanging scaffolding, but did all right when my feet were on the ground. Not everyone is suited to this work but I made the most of the opportunity nevertheless. 

My friend Peter Rigutto whom I blog about advised me to try my own marble business, he thought I had the stuff it would take to make it since I was getting so little work as a marble setter it made sense to me. I loaded remnants of marble in a old Chevy van I owned. Art, whom I blogged about, let me clean out his piles of stone remnants at Blazing's yard. My wife and I loaded them onto our front yard, until I found a old quonset hut, in SE Portland I could rent really cheap. My neighbor and friend worked for George Halverson, a large contractor developer and dam builder, Mister Portland so to speak. George talked to him about me, and he gave me two heavy-duty grinders, which I still have, and a supply of leftover two-by-sixes tongue and groove which George and I used to put a partial floor in the quonset hut. We brought in gravel to finish of the floor. I built some work tables, and acquired a used skill saw and carborundum saw blades found through a local source of Pacific grinding wheels for my grinders. I then shifted the stack of stone remnants to the shed. No orders, no prospects of work – A BUSINESS WAS BORN.

Fortunately for me, Blazing, as it was developing its commercial imported stone business, had plenty of problems that had to be solved by a stone man with my expertise, so I could make some wages by working for them off and on. The first large imported job they did in Portland was a nightmare. They hired a masonry company to install the Georgia Pacific building, all good old boys but none of them had ever seen cut stone before. They somehow slammed the granite up using me to recut all the misshaped pieces on the job site and and add to stone were needed as they installed the stone. I secured a portable air compressor to level the pavers these brick lays installed with my Troy and Holden tool. I had to beat the exterior pavers flat enough to walk on, and grind the interior lobby down so people wouldn’t trip as they entered the elevators. I remember one night, as I worked inside the elevator lobby, a night watchman came up behind me with his club up to hit me. He apparently did not get the message, and me with my long hair in those days looked like a problem to him. Years later a now-deceased friend of mine replaced all the walls around the plaza of the building because the granite pavers expanded with temperature and the parapet walls were snapped off. Ron reset the walls on top of the floor, sadly he fell under his mower later in the summer, we who knew him missed him. 

These sort of problems provided me with work opportunities in those lean years. One summer was spent on staging, solving a problem on a large Carrara commercial building. There seemed to be a chemical reaction set up between the metal Unistrut, the caulking, and the stone, leaving an oil like stain three or so inches above and below each joint line, causing huge payment dispute. Stone experts were brought in to solve the problem; no answers came forward. I was asked to look at the problem. I had little experience with what appears to be oil stains. They always seemed to get worse and travel around when messed with, so I came up with a plan: cut away what appears to be the problem, the caulking, torch the stone to set, or fry, the stain like frying grease in a fry pan, turn it brown but set, and bleach it white by placing casting plaster and bleach poultice on this vertical surface. I worked on it all summer with Big John, now a successful stock broker, then a good friend who helped me roof my house on Saturdays and Sundays. I don't recommend this process to anyone, but the stone company was paid, and I often look up even today as I drive by this building and see those slightly lighter three inch bands above and below each joint line and smile about the summer Big John and I, two strange looking hippies had.

Carrie Amiton, a friend from night classes in urban studies at Portland State University, joined me about this time. She brought a sense of art and design and encouragement to the fledgling stone shed operation. She developed posters and made a brochure for next to nothing and relief-carved stone planters, part of the sales effort. I developed a line of custom inlaid hearths and fireplace surrounds all precast on a sandwich panel system I developed, all out scrape remnants I had gathered. I remember selling some, one to a famous car dealer in Portland, his wife – bless her soul -- asked me if I could make the hearth inlaid pieces smoother (I hammer textured them to contrast the surrounding dark walnut travertine) when I poured the hearth out. Such was the understanding of stone craftsmanship in those days.

Carrie enticed a television show to do a ten-minute show on our operation I wonder what ever became of it, or the wonderful women that put it on the air. The show was called EVENING I remember. My family must have been the only ones to view it, for I never had anyone comment or was ever asked about it. During this period I got a travertine tile bath job. I fabricated a red granite bathtub and red granite trim around a travertine shower and a custom fireplace job for a jeweler, who had stores in Eugene and Portland. It was a big job for me -- five thousand dollars with maybe $2500 in materials. He must have been happy with the job for he came out to the stone shed and gave a check for the project then left town with the store's inventory I believe. A lucky break for me.

Stone hearth, built strong

Stone hearth, lightweight

Carrie's planters

Carrie came up with a promotion plan I liked. We put a carpet in the back of my van and set up a display of the product line. Two fireplace mantles and hearths, a custom stone table and some planters I believe. We drove around to architects' and designers' offices and knocked on their doors and asked them to take a look. Mostly I remember they were dumbfounded and had no comment that I can remember. This may have been due to the fact that all my fireplaces were three dimensional in order for me to build a unit that was self supporting. We entered Portland first Saturday craft market with a tent full of stone tables, planters, relief carvings, and a fireplace surround, It rained like hell, I got a bad cold I remember and was offered a goat for a stone table. So much for that.

Old Town stone shop

About this time a family friend, a Portland police officer, told me about a small space on his beat in Portland then called Old Town were trendy folk could mingle with down and out drunks and other outsiders on weekends and shopping excursions. Latter I got to a point were I used to say lets share the wealth and bus the poor folk out to the malls on weekends. What was I thinking. I set out painting the 30 x 50 store all white ,It had 20 foot ceiling, I put in antique glass fixtures I salvaged from Port lands historic Custom House,built all the display cabinets, and worktable. Put in new carpet, bought a fancy fireproof awning out front had a women hand paint signage on the windows. I then set up stone tile displays, which were just becoming available, fire place displays, and a new idea I developed artistic stove hearth and back wall displays all custom crafted and pre-built. Wood burning stoves were were popular at this time. I had Rodgers Fireplace Shop set up popular models and I displayed my work under and behind. I of course built displays for his shop as well, even put one in popular night spot next door. Mostly they were built out of black slate and my marble rem mint stash. I asked my wife to mind the store while I worked in the stone shed. To make the story short, my wife left me to work at a dress shop around the corner and start her new life, the street people busted the windows, with my hand-painted signage, and held a torch to my awning and melted large holes in it, all in the next year and one half. Then the sky-glass broke in a Portland rainstorm and flooded the building. I dug a hole in my back yard about 20 feet in diameter cleaned out the store and buried all my stone mantles and hearths and planters along with my tools including some pretty good Troy and Holden air hammers and planted flowers in a large circular flower bed probably two feet high. Gathered my two children and asked my friend Roger for a job selling wood burning stoves and fire doors and heat extractors, so to be close to my children.

Charlie & Sharie in front of a pre-built wood stove hearth

My wood stove
During this period, maybe two years, Blazing Granite stumbled along as always, with three people handling all of Portland’s stone fabrication needs. The owner, Mr. Macy, asked me somewhere around 1977 if I would come in and give local stone fabrication one last chance, since his son wanted to abandon it all to gather in favor of a stone erection only company. They were getting pretty big at this unique high risk industry. At the time I was breaking up crates to keep my house warm in a wood stove and living on beans with two children. Of course I was happy to give my full effort. I reorganized the shop personnel, much to there anger, even threats of bodily harm, and set out to make the most of Portland’s fabrication stone business. 

There was little work to be had even with a slim crew. Stone work just was not popular. Finally Mr. Macy asked me to try to find buyers for the business. I started by paring down the inventory by selling it off to a Vancouver, Canada stone shop where stone was popular still. I eventually found a buyer who didn’t have any money but had a good line of credit at a bank. To the best of my memory it sold for about $100,000 – saws, polisher, hand tools and supplies, slab inventory and forklift. We had a commercial floor project worth maybe $25,000, and a mall art project worth maybe $20,000 on hand. The rest was blue sky. Mr. Macy, bless his soul, gave me an old pickup truck – whose cab side door wouldn’t close completely – to drive since by this time I was flat broke due to a bad relationship. 

The new owner Leland and his wife located a building on the east side of Portland, it had a low ceiling, just high enough for the forklift and no water drainage to speak of, but it did have a truck ramp and big office space for showroom. I, with the crew, set out to build a low concrete retaining wall topped with wood decking, and put all the equipment in a logical row on top, starting with a tilt table I designed to load slabs on saw since we didn’t have room for hoists. This solved the drainage problem and kept our feet dry.

We built a wonderful display room which included a red granite kitchen. The new owner's wife had a expensive brochure made showing the displays, which also stated that marble was beautiful. That was the marketing in those days. Myself, Herman, Mike, Dan, Jose, and Leroy were ready to do Portland’s stone fabrication, which we kicked off with a gathering of the design community where I gave a nervous talk. Once again I had a regular paycheck. 

For the next three years Abby Marble bumped along in Jimmy Carter's 20% Interest rate with about a $175,000 bank note. What a deal. I beat the bushes for any work, small commercial projects mostly from design offices, but the big opportunity came from a contact I made with Alexander Manufacturing, a large cabinet manufacturer. They did hotels top to bottom, in their large Portland facility. Red Lion Inns was hot and growing, I promised we could make it happen by us adding the marble to the cabinets before they shipped them to the job site. Speed was everything. We did it well. Also provided the table tops, a good business for them and us.

Abby Marble Co. shop

Brochure for Abby Marble Co.

We were suited to fast production it took to keep up,but it wasn’t enough to sustain us, and eventually monthly visits to the bank to get more money was part of the job. I remember we all tried hard, and worked as a team,but the interest hill was just to high. Finally, after losing the contract for KOIN Tower to a low bid Canadian company, we went under. That was the last straw for us. (Incidentally they butchered the marble work with their low bid, even today as I go on the escalators I look at one-half inch gaps filled with caulking. You get what you pay for eventually. 

Our checks bounced as Abby folded, however the purchasing agent for KOIN, a wonderful woman, gave me personally a small contract for some office furniture, and architect Pat Hills gave me an order for some custom prefabricated furniture for a bank job in California, done by local architectural firm BG BG. I gathered Mike and Dan and we started to work in my garage, back to burning wood crates in my wood stove for warmth. This must have been around 1982 What a business it was.

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