The Commercial World of Our Fathers

Working for my dad in St. Louis gave me a glimpse of independent businessmen living out their dreams and earning, if not fortunes, proud livings.

Sometime in the mid-1970s my mother told my father that he should start bringing me to the office with him. I don’t recall being consulted on the matter. Nevertheless, I spent my high school and college summers working—happily, for the most part—for the Glastris-Manning/Courtesy Checks Advertising and Public Relations Group. My two younger brothers were similarly dragooned.

Despite the complex title, Glastris-Manning/Courtesy Checks was not a big operation—just a few people working out of a 600-square-foot windowless office above a bowling alley, which Dad dubbed his “World Headquarters.” Nor was it a big moneymaker. But it afforded my father the opportunity to be his own boss, to be with his sons, whom he adored, and to do work that fit his talents and temperament.

Dad was a very creative guy—among other things, he pioneered the field of “barter advertising,” the trading of products and services for media time and space. He was also gregarious and ebullient, with a caustic wit and a generous heart, and much beloved around town. This I learned accompanying him on sales calls and to what he referred to as “executive lunches” with his various business cronies and Greek American buddies, nearly all of them, like him, small business owners. Libations were typically consumed.

One of my jobs was writing copy for radio spots for the firm’s clients—hotels, car dealers, and the like. Dad could whip one of these out in about half an hour. It would take me all day. I’d bring him a draft, he’d mark it up, I’d go back and redo it. Over and over again.

Eventually I got the hang of it. I even started taking liberties with the genre. Once, borrowing a technique from a Donald Barthelme short story, I wrote a spot all in questions: “Is Schmeezings St. Louis’s newest bar and grill? Is Schmeezings conveniently located two blocks from the Arena, home of the St. Louis Blues? If Schmeezings is located two blocks from the Arena, does it serve twenty great varieties of burgers?” My dad especially liked that one, not because of the Barthelme connection (he’d never heard of the guy), but because it repeated the name of the establishment a dozen times in thirty seconds. Commercials that were “clever” but didn’t actually sell the client’s product or service drove him nuts.

Another lesson I learned was the importance of a bold sound bite. For one client, my father came up with the tag line “One of St. Louis’s ten best restaurants.” When the client asked him, “Bill, who said we’re one of St. Louis’s ten best restaurants?,” Dad replied, “We did!” Now, it happened to be quite a good restaurant, though unfashionably located in a hotel by the airport. Still, for a couple of decades, if you asked any St. Louisan about the place, there was a 50/50 chance they’d say, “Oh yeah, isn’t that one of St. Louis’s ten best restaurants?”

Yet another lesson I learned was that local ownership was a definite selling point in a tightly knit place like St. Louis. To be able to say that such-and-such family firm had been “serving the bi-state area for three generations” implied trustworthiness and stirred the abundant civic pride that resides in every St. Louisan. That’s still the case today. Though I haven’t lived in my hometown in decades, I watch Cardinals baseball games on the MLB network and can’t help noticing the ads—“Helitech Waterproofing & Foundation Repair, healing homes for thirty years!”

Unfortunately, the old, locally owned firm is a dying breed. Ever since the Reagan administration rewrote the rules on antitrust, such companies, large and small, have been bought up by out-of-town behemoths, or edged out by national chains. This has slowed St. Louis’s economy and devastated its once-thriving advertising sector (see Brian S. Feldman, “The Real Reason Middle Americans Should Be Angry,” Washington Monthly, March/April/May 2016). It has also led to an alarming nationwide decline in new business startups (see Barry Lynn and Lina Khan, “The Slow-Motion Collapse of American Entrepreneurship,” July/August 2012).

The good news, as Dane Stangler and Colin Tomkins-Bergh report in this issue, is that St. Louis, of all places, has the fastest-growing startup scene in the country, thanks to some smart local economic development policies other cities could copy (see “St. Louis, Entrepreneurial Boomtown”). The bad news is that without changes in federal antitrust policies, those startups are likely to be acquired and moved to places like San Francisco, New York, or Beijing, leaving the Gateway City high and dry, again.

What’s needed, as we argue in this issue, is a new set of “smart populist” policies on globalization (Clyde Prestowitz, “Free Trade Is Dead”) and monopolization (Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman, “Populism with a Brain”) to empower local economies that none of the presidential candidates has yet discussed. Such policies, updates of the traditional rules that built the American Century, could create the conditions for another.

Working for my father gave me a glimpse of a slowly vanishing commercial world, of independent businessmen living out their dreams and earning, if not fortunes, proud livings. It also allowed my father an opportunity to teach his son all he knew about writing, editing, selling, and managing a small enterprise. I use what he taught me every day. And I think about him, every day.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.