Once in a storytelling career, if one is very lucky, a character like John Bassett III comes along. JBIII is brash. He is inspirational. He is a sawdust-covered good-old boy from rural Virginia, a larger-than-life rule-breaker who for more than a decade has stood almost single-handedly against the outflow of furniture jobs from America.
I first wrote a feature on him for The Roanoke Times as part of a series on the impact of globalization in southside and southwest Virginia. More than 19,000 textile and furniture factory workers lost their jobs in Henry County and Martinsville, but two hours away in Galax, John Bassett fought back to keep his 700 factory workers employed.
It’s the patriotic story of a family legacy, a relentless work ethic that includes 1 a.m. phone calls to factory managers and remarkable grit. As JBIII likes to say: “Americans used to have confidence. We’d take on anybody — the moon, Hitler, the Panama Canal. We’d kick their asses and give ‘em nine cents change.”
The same week President Obama spoke of “re-sourcing” jobs to America, JBIII announced he was expanding his Vaughan-Bassett Furniture into the vacant plant next door and hiring 115 more workers. Beaming over sawdust-covered glasses, he told me, “When you never went cheap with the woman down the street, you don’t have to come drag-assin’ back.”
So I’m writing a book now called “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town,” and, Lord willing and the Smith River don’t rise, Little, Brown & Co. will publish it in 2014. If you or your relatives worked at Bassett Furniture Industries or at Vaughan-Bassett in Galax, I’d love to talk to you. (E-mail me at email@example.com.) If you have historic photos from either of those venues, I’d really love to talk to you. Columbia and Harvard journalism programs awarded it the J. Anthony Lukas Book-in-Progress prize in May.
The book is currently being edited, but you can go ahead and “like” the Facebook page, where I’ll be posting excerpts, tidbits, outtakes and reviews.