Lessons learned by a stock boy at Joe Levy's Gottschalks

Posted by George Hostetter on February 17, 2014 

Joe Levy helped me see why the Valley’s economy is such a mess.

Let me explain.

Levy, the former Gottschalks department store chief executive/chairman, died Feb. 10 at the age of 82. Bee reporters Bethany Clough and Tim Sheehan wrote an excellent Page 1 story on his worthy life: Retailer, community leader, volunteer, family man.

I once worked for Levy. To be more specific, I was a stock boy at Gottschalks’ original Fashion Fair store.

I was hired in the summer of 1983, when I was 33 years old. I’d been sports editor at The Porterville Recorder for a couple of years. My wife lived in Fresno. We decided I’d move north.

I wasn’t called a stock boy, nor did I refer to my co-workers by that term. Our official title was “associate.” But stock boy accurately summarizes my duties.

I worked in the store’s shipping/receiving department. We stayed busy.

Company trucks of varying sizes arrived each day with merchandise. The big ones backed their trailers to the indoor loading dock. Racks of clothes and boxes of housewares were unloaded and moved to the floor.

I carried packages to customers’ cars, loaded empty trucks with returns or transfers to other Gottschalks stores, cleaned the men’s bathroom on occasion (messy accidents occurred there at the oddest hours) and stocked shelves in the storeroom above the dock.

I was especially good at trash. If things were slow in shipping/receiving, I’d grab a half-dozen trash bags and make a circuit of the various departments. The Fashion Fair store did good business, and the trash bins next to the cash registers filled quickly. The department heads were happy to see me, in part because my unexpected presence made me available for a quick chore or two.

I was full-time. I started at minimum wage — $4. After three months, I got a 25 cents/hour raise. After another three months, I got another 25 cents/hour raise.

After six months on the job, I’d seen my hourly wage increase by 12.5%.

Joe Levy didn’t hire me, of course. He left such modest tasks to the store’s management. But Levy often came through the store. I can still picture him walking through the Garden Restaurant on his way to housewares and china. I’m an Army veteran. I know what it’s like when a general comes through. Levy was the company’s general. All of us, including those wearing the blue work shirt of a stock boy, were on our toes.

Levy smiled and nodded at his associates. I always got the impression that, as good as I was at taking out the trash, he knew the job better than me.

I left Gottschalks in the spring of 1984, when I was 34. I went to work for The Kingsburg Recorder, where I was society editor among other things. I learned to write a pretty good wedding story.

I later moved to The Bee and, in the mid-1990s, I became the paper’s retail reporter. Gottschalks was part of my beat. That meant I interviewed Joe Levy a lot — about once a month for four years.

A few Joe Levy quotes to me from those years:

* April 20, 1996 (publication date), referring to Gottschalks’ planned move into the former Weinstocks site at Fashion Fair: “It will be a totally new and exciting store when we’re done.”

* June 26, 1996, as the company prepared for its annual shareholders meeting: “The mood of retail has improved in California and it reflects in our mood also. I see a bright future. But one that is not easy.”

* Dec. 1, 1996, referring to tenant hopes for a turn-around in mall conditions at Manchester Center: “You wouldn’t have to bulldoze it. It’s really cosmetic. A lot of features at Manchester are good.”

* March 18, 1997, on the selection of James Famalette as Gottschalks’ new president: “We really did an intensive search for the right person and he was, by far, the best candidate we interviewed.”

* April 4, 1998, on the future of retail: “If I had to use just one word to describe the future of retail, it would be speed. Merchandise will arrive faster, it will be processed faster and it will be in the stores faster. The savings will be passed on to the customer, and that will make the customer happy.”

* June 25, 1999, when he stepped down as the company’s chief executive (but retained the board chairmanship): “Absolutely there’s emotion to it. This is the first time in (95) years that Gottschalks is not being led by a family member. (But) it’s an exciting time.”

I sometimes said to Levy after an interview: “Mr. Levy, I was the best stock boy you ever had.”

I eventually left the retail beat for the Fresno City Hall beat. In early 2003 I began work on a 16-page special section that would be called “Broke ... And Broken.” This was a review of the central San Joaquin Valley’s economy and how the Regional Jobs Initiative (pushed hard by then-Mayor Alan Autry and future-Mayor Ashley Swearengin) might put more people to work.

I’m not an economist. I’m a stock boy who became a newspaper reporter. But I worked for months on the special section and interviewed a lot of people in the public and private sectors. Everyone I talked to was an expert in some fashion on economics.

My experience as a stock boy for Joe Levy was with me during those interviews. The one thing the economic experts ignored was the one thing that came through loud and clear during my days at Gottschalks: Diligence with trash led to a 12.5% boost to my income in only six months. Might not that same concept, applied widely, lead to success throughout the Valley’s economy? Might not the Valley’s economic failures be due in large part not to policy but to culture?

My work on the special section took me to a Fresno County welfare office. I interviewed a top county welfare official. Our topics were public assistance, jobs and society’s expectations of its citizens. In theory, those were the topics of the Regional Jobs Initiative.

The state’s minimum wage at the time was $6.75 an hour. For some reason, I got the impression that the county official thought the key to a stronger Valley was one where personal responsibility, delayed gratification and ambition properly understood were the norm. That was my sentiment. And, for some reason, I thought such a game-plan would be the obvious message for government to emphasize if the goal is a dynamic and sustainable society.

I remember saying to the county official something along the lines of: “Yeah. Let’s say there’s a man and a woman, both 20 years old. They get married. They hold off awhile on having children. They both work at a minimum wage job, 40 hours a week. That’s $28,000 a year. Then, slowly but surely, they build from there. They do it together.”

The county official said to me in the voice of an adult speaking to a child: “Oh, no, that would never do. That wouldn’t be fair.”

I’ll never forget the tone of the “oh, no....” It’s message: Work isn’t valued here if it means government insistence on common standards.

Life moves on, for the culture of the central San Joaquin Valley as well as for county welfare officials and a stock boy-turned-newspaper reporter.

President Barack Obama came to the region on Friday. The message to him from every community leader was the same: We’re the poorest people in America. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. Give us money.

The president said: I will.

Jobs go unfilled.

Based on my experience, that’s not the Joe Levy way. But he is gone.

Thank you, Mr. Levy, for the job.


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