The Best Advice in Business and Life
The Brown Paper Bag
Each year, this very week in time on the calendar, my mind travels back to another decade with my dad, Freddie Aron, at Rogers Men’s Clothing store in Portsmouth, Virginia – and the all important lessons in business and in life that I learned there.
It is after a hectic, but wonderful Christmas season, and is time now to clear away last year’s merchandise to make room as new fresh spring items flood in our back door.
I am standing behind the large, U-shaped, mahogony counter that houses the cash register, gift wrapping area, and the shelves filled with paper bags. There were two kinds of bags stored there. A handsome, embossed, black, and gold bag with the Roger’s Clothes crest logo on front and a small, light brown, plain paper bag. We only used the small brown bag when a customer ran in to pick up a pair of socks or a gentleman’s handkerchief. The real reason for the small brown bag was Freddie’s “old-school” system of placing the day’s receipts and cash inside, folding it over(always twice) and stowing it in the safe before he locked the doors and ended his day.
On top of this counter were two metal business form boxes that held the Rogers Clothes receipts. The Rogers system to keep accounting and inventory straight relied on properly filling out these receipts. Each item of clothing sold was written here and small square boxes were provided to check off the type of sale- cash, credit card, house charge account, or layaway. Always check the appropriate box!
All successful businesses ride on the accuracy of their sales systems. But when it came to Rogers longtime customer Mr. Ulysses Jerome Jackson, Freddie did not follow any of his systems at all!
You see, it wasn’t always easy living life as a minority family, even in the 1970’s in Portsmouth, Viginia. We knew this was true since our family is Jewish.
At Rogers Clothes our family knew the Jacksons well and my dad Freddie respected them enormously. Mr. Jackson, the grandson of slaves, son of sharecroppers on peanut farms in Suffolk, had not always been treated well at banks in the south and did not place much trust in them. Not able to finish his high school education while working in the fields for his family, Mr. Jackson’s strengths were not found in reading and writing. But Mr. Jackson was a master at motors of all kinds! His full-time job was at the Naval Shipyard working on large turbines. But after a long day there, his work was not done. After-hours he would work on people’s cars in his backyard into the night. Under Mr. Jackson’s strong chafed hands he could make the clunkiest of motors purr with perfection.
Mr. Jackson worked so hard because he wanted his two sons not to have the same experience he had in his teenage years. His full-time job paid his family’s essentials- rent, food, doctor bills, transportation. His after-work jobs allowed Mr. Jackson to buy the nice extras for his family that he never had, essential, he thought, for his boys to be better “accepted” in their Cradock High School classes.
Freddie provided a “special system” for Mr. Jackson to “layaway” Christmas outfits for his two sons. Wide-whale corduroy slacks and colorful ,striped, shetland -wool sweaters were all the rage back then. When the hot days of summer began to wane, cartons of new fall clothing flooded into the back storeroom of Rogers Clothes. Mr. Jackson, Freddie and I would go in the back, open the cartons and have ‘first choice’ of the beautiful russets, blues, and brown hues of warm clothes. We’d pick out three outfits each for both of Mr. Jackson’s boys and Freddie would grab one of those small brown paper bags. We all heard the crisp sound the bag made as it was opened for the first time. Mr. Jackson’s long, tapered, mahogany-hued fingers would place some bills in the bottom of the bag and hand it back to Freddie with a warm smile.
Freddie thanked Mr. Jackson and placed the brown bag underneath the front counter on a shelf- no name, no ticket, no receipt.
Twice a week for five months Mr. Jackson would come into Rogers and place more bills into that same paper bag. Some days I would hand Mr. Jackson his bag and I’d notice that the small lines in his hard-working hands began to match the many creases in the now well-worn bag.
As the end of December drew near, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson would come in together to pick up their ‘Christmas’ for their sons. Dad would hand me the boxes from the back where we stored the carefully selected outfits and I’d wrap each piece individually for them in the signature Rogers holiday paper. In the meantime, Freddie would take the now well-worn brown paper bag from under the counter and ring up Mr. Jackson’s sale. How did Freddie and Mr. Jackson know what was in the bag? How did they know the total amount of dollars would be enough?
It was all about the trust, love, and respect Freddie and Mr. Jackson had for each other. My Dad had created a “layaway” system especially for Mr. Jackson that made him feel comfortable and proud to provide ‘luxuries’ for his sons. Freddie would never want Mr. Jackson to feel uncomfortable about his many small contributions to his layaway bag each week or take up his precious time between his jobs filling out traditional receipts. Freddie’s solution reflected lives well lived, a business well run, and wonderful times spent together with his customers at Rogers Clothes.
Back to my spring cleaning at Rogers at the beginning of that year so long ago- I reached under the front counter and found Mr. Jackson’s brown paper bag that Freddie had quickly tossed there before ringing up his gifts. Mr. Jackson’s once crisp brown paper bag was as soft as cotton. It had been opened and closed so many times that the paper fibers of the bag were smooth as silk on my fingers. And the light brown bag had darkened in color to the very same rich mahogany as Mr. Jackson’s remarkable hard-working hands.