retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There aren’t many events that are so seared into my mind that I remember them as if they were yesterday.

But that’s precisely the way I recall 25 years ago today.

I was working for a trade magazine at the time, and my editor, Bob Hughes, and I were in Louisiana, to work on a series of profiles we were doing. We were at our motel, getting ready to leave for an interview, and I was idly watching the television - and saw the liftoff and, a few moments later, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

This was pre-internet, pre-24 hour news cycle. The only place to get up-to-date, immediate information was from television and radio ... and I remember vividly how difficult it was to go do the work, simply because I didn’t want to be disconnected from the flow of information. And I remember being strongly affected by the explosion; like many people, if somehow felt personal, as if our world view had somehow been irretrievably altered by the shattering of innocence.

I’m not sure many of our kids will ever have that moment. One of the negative byproducts of the internet age, I fear, is a kind of abiding cynicism about life - they’ve seen it all, they’ve heard it all, they can see it or hear it again on demand, and not that much seems to surprise them.

That’s too bad. Because those moments of complete and utter shock are, I think, important. They are a learning process, they are part of our personal maturation. And there’s nothing wrong with a little innocence, especially when you are young.

That’s gone now. I remember it slipping away a bit on a Sunday in November in 1963, when my dad and I were watching television and saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. And I remember it happening 25 years ago today.

It was a distinct possibility that Company Men, the new film from John Wells, would be a well-meaning but plodding polemic about what happens to middle-aged guys who lost their jobs in the Great Recession. But it is much better that, owing in part of some terrific performances by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner, each of whom turns his character into a full-blooded person, not just a plot point. Maybe I should have expected more going in; Wells, after all, was the guiding force behind both “ER” and ‘The West Wing,” both intelligent and television dramas with an eye for both content and context. I suspect that I may have been influenced by the fact that this is not the kind of movie that Hollywood makes much anymore, and Company Men - which, in essence, is the other side of Up In The Air.

The thing is, Company Men is painful to watch, and I’d be willing to bet that there hardly was anyone in the theater who did not know someone - perhaps many people - who went through what the characters do in the movie. In that sense, the movie gets it absolutely right. It may not be as inventive or as delightful as Up In The Air, but it shows fidelity to the emotional truth of the current economy - that we live in a world where too many companies succeed not by making things, but by making money, and that this has led to a ”greed is good” environment that lionizes all the wrong things.

As for the actors, Affleck continues to demonstrate that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong, that there are, in fact, second acts in American lives - he is compelling and utterly believable as a man who finds his career over almost before it has started. Jones is great, as always - there is just so much world-weariness behind those eyes that you understand his character before he says a word. Cooper is also terrific in a relatively small role; there is a moment when he comes face to face with his competition in the job market, and it is heartbreaking. And finally Costner is excellent as Affleck’s blue-collar brother-in-law, a carpenter who builds and renovates houses, and who sees the world of conglomerates and stock options with considerable cynicism. They all look like guys with lived-in bodies, not Hollywood stars, and that helps the film’s veracity.

There are many business lessons in Company Men - about how we treat ourselves and our employees, and about we view the nature of work. Painful to watch, at moments, but worth the time.

Boy, do I have a wine for you this week - the 2008 Turley Zinfandel from the Dusi Vineyards on California’s Central Coast - it was marvelous and mouth filling, served with a fabulous steak and garlic mashed potatoes. Unbelievably great. It is a little pricey - I’ve seen it listed on the internet for between $50 and $70 per bottle - but for a special occasion, it is just wonderful.

This week, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Associated Wholesale Grocers’ Kansas City division at its Excellence in Merchandising Awards Banquet, and I want to both thank them for the hospitality and congratulate them for having such aggressive and ambitious members. I was impressed by the folks I met and the enthusiasm I saw for the art and science of retailing. It’s a jungle out there, but these folks seem more than up to the task.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday ... by which time we probably will have been hit by another couple of snowstorms and another foot of snow.

Until then....Slainte!
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