Monday, July 8, 2013

The end for Mister Louie's place

      The message came by e-mail on May 24, and it was entitled, "Here's some news ..."
       It was only a picture, the one you see to the left ... OUT OF BUSINESS.
       Not good news. Not totally unexpected.
       A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply Co., LLC -- closed. It had operated for 74 years, since Abe A. Gilbert came from Fort Worth in 1939 and set up shop at 4037 Mansfield Road in Shreveport.
       It's been a family business -- run by Mr. Gilbert from its inception to his death in April 1966, then by one of his sons-in-law, Lazar Murov, and for the past 17 years by Bill Braunig, who married one of Mr. Gilbert's granddaughters, and Ron Nierman, one of Mr. Gilbert's grandsons. (It was Ron who sent me the message.)
       It was our family's business, too, in a sense. For 28 years, it was where Louis Van Thyn worked. It was Dad's place. It was Mister Louie's place.
       So, yes, this business going out of business left me a little sad and nostalgic. I'm not alone.
       Bill's title was sales manager; Ron's was manager of operations. Both had been involved in the business for 30-plus years, almost half their lives.
       "I feel very bad," Bill told me this weekend. "I'm upset because I was managing the pipe business, and it's been there a long time. But it's not going to work anymore, and there was no use losing more money on it."
       The bottom line: (1) Business fell off because, for one thing, people dealing in pipe were moving out of North Louisiana because the Haynesville Shale, as Bill explained, was a "dry play," not much liquid involved, thus little or no need for drilling pipe; (2) there was no one in the family who wanted to carry on the business; (3) the cost of overhead -- insurance, property tax, maintenance of equipment and meeting payroll, and more -- was too much to maintain.
       They dealt in steel pipe, some new but mostly used, second-hand pipe, oil field pipe and road casing pipe, and pipe you could use to build a fence or put up a sign, and they dealt in scrap iron. They made deals with oil and gas companies, and the offshoot was some shares in the oil business.
       The small deals, an individual or small firm, coming to the yard and purchasing some pipe, didn't bring enough income, not when it required people to find the pipe, clean the pipe, or cut it, lift it or carry it, load it on a truck, or drive a truck.
       Sure, it was a small business -- only nine employees -- but also an aging one. Almost all the employees were in their 60s or older.
       "It was inevitable that at some time we would have to close," Bill said. "Too much of a drain on the bottom line to cover our expenses.
       "This is the right thing to do, the right time."
       Actually, because of sheer loyalty, it probably was a few years past due.
       Bill will continue in business, but only as a broker, d/b/a WMB Pipe Limited, lining up deals between firms in the Ark-La-Tex or beyond and hiring commercial trucks to move the pipe. And, for now, Bill and Ron will continue to work from the old office and yard on Mansfield Road.  
       The job was waiting for Dad when we arrived in Shreveport in January 1956. Mr. Gilbert -- the benevolent Mr. Gilbert -- had offered it to the Shreveport Jewish Federation as part of the sponsorship for an immigrant family.
       (The joke, told often by Dad, was that when he heard he was going to work for a pipe company, he thought that meant smoking pipes.)
       I've written about the job, and the Gilbert family (April 23, 2012):  In short: Dad became the yard foreman.
       He was in charge of the yard crew and, as Mr. Gilbert had done so often, in charge of getting pipe organized and loaded on trucks. He was often on the road, all over East Texas, South Arkansas, North Louisiana, South Louisiana (Grand Isle is about as far south as you can go), inspecting pipe, making the arrangements for deals.
       I made a few of the shorter road trips with Dad, and really, I never got how it worked, how they made money. He tried to explain it to me often, and once when I was in high school maybe, he suggested I could follow him into the business. But sports, and sportswriting, was far more appealing, and that was OK with Dad, sports fan that he was.
       Of course, there were hundreds of visit to see him at the yard for a variety of purposes. As you came in the front door of the main building, his desk was to the left in the front office.
       One vivid memory: From May 1970 until the day he left, he had a copy of my first column for The Shreveport Times -- on Fair Park's state championship baseball team -- under the glass covering on his desk.
Dad's retirement day at A.A. Gilbert
 Pipe & Supply;  that's our Rachel,
 almost 5 then, presenting a gift.
        Another memory: The yard crew -- the "boys." Looking back, it was a politically incorrect term, but common in Shreveport 1950s and '60s. These were men, some of them hard-working, some not. They called him "Mister Louie," and he depended on them. And they knew they could depend on Mister Louie.
        Some of Dad's guys that I remember: Big Willie, Little Willie, Clarence Jelks, and especially "Sam." Everyone called him Sam; his name was Benjamin Franklin (honestly). Dad loved him as much as anyone in the company.
        Sam was a big guy, maybe 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, same age as Dad. As soft-spoken, and polite, and genteel as could be. He, and some of the others, would come to our house and help with projects. My mother would invite them in for water or coffee; Sam, brought up in the segregated world, seldom, if ever, would come in the house.
        In a neat twist, when Green Oaks High School opened in 1972, the starting quarterback on its first football team was Benjamin Franklin -- Sam's son. So I got to write stories that put his name in the paper a few times. It was small payback for all that big Sam had done for us.
        I could write a separate blog on Abe Gilbert, but I'm going to limit it to this. He was an old-fashioned businessman, not all that organized, but full of energy, full of optimism, a good trader, a great dealmaker (even if he didn't write it all down) and -- above all -- totally generous.
        Generous, perhaps, to an extravagance he couldn't afford. But the Van Thyn family certainly can vouch for how generous he was.
         "My grandfather was maybe not as wealthy as it seemed," said Mark Murov. "But he was a high-rolling, bigger-than-life person."
         Mark remembers the pockets full of change Mr. Gilbert had for his grandkids (and other kids) and the people in business he kept on as "stringers" and employees he kept on even if they didn't exactly earn their keep. He was a beneficiary because he, too, had benefitted from others' generosity.
          Mark remembers Ron Nierman, as a boy, saying he wanted to be like Grandpa: "A big tipper."
          Bill Braunig, who joined the family a few years after Mr. Gilbert's death, said he heard often that "he was a terrific salesman, and he was a kind person. He really cared about people."
          I can vouch for that.
          Dad's last day at work, in April 1984, was very special for us. They had a party for him and among the gifts was a Seiko watch with an inscription on the back: "To Louie, from the Gilbert family." I keep that watch in the drawer by our bed; I'm looking at it now.
         That day, one of Mr. Gilbert's daughters remarked, "We thought Louie would be here only six weeks or so. He stayed 28 years."
         I also kept my Dad's powder blue A.A. Gilbert work shirt. It now fits me perfectly. Just a few weeks ago on Father's Day (also my birthday this year), I wore that shirt as a tribute to Dad. I intend to do that every Father's Day.
         And, now, it also will be a tribute to the company my Dad, and many others, loved so much.


  1. From Mark Murov: Perfect, Nico. The Pipe Yard deserved a eulogy, and no one could have done it better.

  2. From Magdalena Rood: Amazing that they lasted as long as they did. I remember your dad giving us a tour soon after we arrived in Shreveport. Seemed to me your dad was proud of both the business and his role in it. Interesting role those employer sponsors played in American immigration in those days. I never realized those sponsors weren't required to sign up for the long run; 6 weeks is hardly enough time for a complete transition.

  3. From Helaine Nierman Braunig: Thanks, Nico, for the lovely tribute and the sweet memories. Mister Louie was an integral member of "the family business."

  4. From Maxie Hays: Nico, that was awesome. Wonderful story. I've often wished that I had
    something from my Dad to wear on Father's Day. Awesome way to remember your Dad.

  5. From Christy Bickham: Loved this story on your dad. Recognized Helaine Brauning as my daughter Katie Bickham's senior English teacher. She was a great teacher. Katie learned much from her and has gone on to work on two masters degrees: one masters in English and about to graduate U. Of Southern Maine this month with an MFA. Love to Helaine from Katie. Keep blogs coming!

  6. From Jimmy Russell: This is a sad time for many. How many businesses that used to be in Shreveport are no longer there? I can remember when I was around 10 or 11, my dad would have to go to a sales meeting at National Biscuit Company on Fannin Street. The family went (from Minden) and my mother along with my sister and I went to all the stores she wanted to shop. The only reason I was OK with it is we got to eat at Morrisons on Texas Ave. I can remember crossing the bridge from Bossier into Shreveport on Saturday morning; it looked New York City to me as Saturday was a big day downtown. It surely does not look that anymore. Time brings changes we do not necessarily like but we cannot change it.

  7. From Mickey Lowe: Boy, for a guy who no longer lives in Shreveport, you touch on a lot of people I know. In my third career, I have done a lot of business with Mr. Bill [Braunig]. He is such a great man. We ordered drive pipe from them all the time. Mr. Bill and I became friends over the phone and when I would pick up the pipe for jobs, our conversations were about good food and places to eat. He told me about a restaurant in New Orleans (Hole in the Wall) that was great. He always brought us a case of Texas oranges at Christmas time. But [the pipe yard closing] is a sign of the times in Shreveport. I hate to see them go, but all good things must come to an end.

  8. From John W. Marshall III: A tremendous column, Nico. Inspiring, thought-provoking, sobering, memory-inducing. And it all started with a simple act of kindness by a man who was “paying it forward.” To think your Dad stayed 28 years at a place where he thought he would be selling tobacco. The part about Sam was really good -- think of all the people who work in obscurity their whole lives, never making much money, not being recognized or given any awards, just being the salt of the earth and making the lives of the people around them better. I really like the picture of your Dad’s shirt and your tribute to him by wearing it on Father's Day. All of this history and these recollections will now be preserved for posterity, as they should be.

  9. From Sylvia Pesek: Another great piece, Nico ... a perfect microcosmic view of similar events that are taking place all over the area. What a wonderful accolade to a type of business that is rarer than hens' teeth anymore, but which used to be the norm ... businesses where a man's word was his bond and a handshake was all the contract a person was expected to need. To those of us who grew up at that time in this place, this is the landscape of our soul.

  10. From Vince Langford: Your blog on the Gilbert company going out of business was a weeper. I was trying to think of similarities with Tulsa companies. When I go back to Tulsa and drive around, I look to see familiar businesses. But even the ones still operating from my childhood days there's no way of knowing if it's still owned by the same family. So 74 years is pretty remarkable.
    What a neat deal to have your dad's work shirt. A great tribute to wear that on Father's Day.