About the History of Henry Plumbing
Henry was my father and like many GI's after the war he came home and went into business for himself. The year was 1946 and times were different. Things just moved a bit slower. There were no computers, no fax machines and definitely no cell phones. Whether it was the corner drug store, hardware store, or ice cream parlor, neighborhoods were tight and everyone knew everything about everybody.
My father built his business by first buying scrap pipe, unscrewing the fittings and reselling whatever he could. Times did change and over the years he gained a reputation for buying closeouts, overstock, factory seconds and just about anything else related to the plumbing business. Henry's was the place to go if you wanted a cheap toilet or cheap water heater. The heater might have been dented or the toilet might have been some obsolete color but the price was always right. Most customers were fixing up rental property or just wanting something for their basement. People would drive for miles just to see what deals my father had for them. I guess, in today's world, this would be considered a niche market and Henry's a destination location.
Overhead was not the way one would describe the original store at Compton and Chouteau. In fact, in the beginning it really wasn't a store at all, it was just a piece of ground, 50 ft wide by 150 ft deep, leased from the city for $10.00 a month. My mother and father referred to it as "the place. I can't tell you why, but over all the years that name stuck. Whenever my family spoke about Henry's we referred to it as "the Place. We never used the word "store. The Place was a family member, not some inanimate object. My father purchased a bunch of old screen doors from Aalco Wrecking co. and fenced in that piece of ground. He also purchased two wooden huts. During the war, huts like these were located at the corner of Kingshighway and Oakland and gave the GI's a cheap place to stay on their way through town. After the war, the huts were disassembled and sold as Army surplus.
The building was perfect for the newly renamed Henry Plumbing Supply Co. It was unforgettable too. There was no air conditioning at the Place. In fact there was no air movement at all. In the summer time I would have to walk outside and stand in the sun just to cool off. The only other relief was a handkerchief tied around my neck that I kept soaked with cold water. We did have a drinking fountain. The water was not only ice cold but it would shoot out of the bubbler ten feet into the air. There was just no way of not getting a face full of water when all you wanted was a sip. At least I knew what was coming. Customers would get soaked but no one ever complained. No one ever asked to "see the manager. No one ever threatened to sue because they got a little wet; how times have changed. The Place sure held the heat but it held the cold even more… "How cold was it? "It was so cold that…"
There was a pot-bellied stove sitting in the middle of the floor. That stove supplied most of the warmth. During the winter I would stand in front of it and turn in slow circles to keep all parts of my body warm. It was a real art to remove one's gloves, write up a customer order and get those gloves back on quick. God help you, if you had to use the rest room. Speed was essential. Shrinkage took on a whole new meaning.
My father would warm up our lunch by balancing our sandwiches on that stove. Lunch was always the same, leftovers from the night before and Campbell's soup from a thermos. Once in awhile, my mother would surprise us, and give us Lipton's instead. During the move to Kingshighway, that stove was lost. I've tried to find an old stove just like it. Henry's atmosphere was so unique and recreating it is important to me but I'll get back to the atmosphere thing a little later.
I truly envy people with passion. They sometimes have priorities that one wouldn't notice at first glance. On the other hand, sometimes those priorities take the form of a piano sitting in the middle of a plumbing supply showroom. My father's passion was music and it was difficult not to notice. He was a professional musician and during the war, while stationed at Jefferson Barracks, Glenn Miller came through town looking for talent. "Let's see, fight at the front or play my sax, hum! My father became part of the Air Force Band and was always proud of the fact that he was there, playing at the final send off for the crew of the Enola Gay. Even today most musicians need day jobs to make ends meet and it was no different back then. After the war, my father had to quit the weekend gigs but he never lost his passion for music. In the beginning, when business was slow, Dad would pull out his sax and play the afternoon away.
My Dad had a problem. He loved buying closeouts. It was like a game to him, finding value where no one else could. He separated those closeouts into groups; that which could be sold immediately and that which might take a bit more time. It was this latter category that caused the problem; where to put it all. Throughout the years Dad acquired warehouses in the neighborhood where he could store the excess. He lived through the Depression. He wasn't about to throw anything away. The Gaye-Hudson Moving and Storage Company owned one of those buildings and in that building was a forgotten stored piano. My Dad saw that piano and just had to have it. He had never played one before but that didn't matter, he could teach himself. Dad always said he bought that piano and Gaye-Hudson threw in the building for free. Through the years, customers who sat down at that piano and played jazz were treated like visiting dignitaries. The only time my father would leave the store early was each year on opening day of Book Fair. The fair was held in the parking lot of the Famous Barr in Clayton. Old sheet music was a rare find and the good stuff went quick. My Dad and my sister always tried to be the first in line.
I look for passion in all my employees. I believe that allowing them to pursue their passion usually results in a long term, happy and productive relationship. The best employees at Henry Plumbing have passion. I also believe they look for it in me. Sometimes it's just a piano, or sometimes it's how they see you treat a couple of fat little dogs named Ellie and Beck.
My Dad was born in1915. Our family had always celebrated his birthday on the 15th of May but it wasn't until after he died that we found his actual birthday to be on the 12th. His parents didn't speak English and I believe some things were lost in translations. For instance, his real name was Andrew but his mother wasn't able to pronounce this English version so she called him Henry instead.
When my Dad was 12 his father died of appendicitis. My Dad died in 1996; he was 81. I've always felt lucky that I was old enough to understand and appreciate what I had while he was still around. I do remember once being mad at my 11-year-old son and trying to make him feel guilty. Isn't that one of my jobs as a parent? I don't remember the details but I do remember telling him that he was going to send me to an early grave if he continued to act the way he was acting. I told him to think about what it would be like not to have a father around. Tyler yelled back at me, "when did Grandpa's father die? I yelled back at him, "1927! Tyler yelled back, "well, if he would have waited one more year, Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928 and then he would have lived a lot longer. That's what I call "redirecting the argument. I know because my employees do it to me all the time. It did make me wonder though, what would it be like to have my own grandfather around?
Uncle Jake Cohen, my grandmother's brother, owned St. Louis Iron & Supply, located at 17th and Chouteau. Jake became the closest thing my Dad had to a father and also taught him the scrap business. My grandmother purchased a lot on the south side of the 2800 block of Chouteau, and during the early 1930's started a small scrap yard of her own.
The birth of Henrys began with this next period of time I call, "Two Funerals and a Wedding. In July 1943 four months after Dad enlisted, his mother became ill and died of an intestinal blockage. He returned home on emergency leave, and stayed with his Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose. Judaism, like other religions, has many laws and customs regarding the loss of a loved one. One such custom is a period of mourning called Shiva, where family members and friends come to visit and comfort the mourners. While sitting Shiva, my father was introduced to the family of Max and Ida Pepper and their daughter, Jeanette Pepper. Leave it to the ladies, a few days later a conversation took place between Aunt Rose and my Grandma Ida. At his aunt's urging my Dad invited my mother out on a date. Things went well. He was home for a few more weeks and during that time they continued to see each other. In addition, Uncle Jake talked Dad into selling the lot at 2800 Chouteau to Uncle Morris, who "wasn't doing so well and neede something of his own. Uncle Jake promised to help my father start something of his own when he returned from the service.
My father returned to his unit in Lake Charles, Louisiana and continued to correspond through the mail with my mother. In January 1945 Jake was killed in an automobile accident and Dad again came back to St. Louis for another funeral. This is significant because while on this emergency leave his unit in Louisiana was sent to Germany and later fought in the "Battle of the Bulge. Dad was reassigned to an infantry unit at Wendover Air Base in Utah. It is in one of his letters to my mother that he speaks of being "real tired; the band was up early to provide a musical send off for a wing commander named Col. Paul W. Tibbets. The atomic bomb ends the war and my mother and father are married in February of 1946.
At this point you might ask why I would bring up my parent's meeting and subsequent marriage and what does it really have to do with Henrys. Jake was gone and with him so was the promise to help. My Mom and Dad started with nothing, but they worked side-by-side, everyday for the next fifty years. They built Henry's together. She is known by the employees and older cliental as "Miss J, "Mrs. Henry or just "J. They made a great team. They were together morning, noon and night. Can you imagine the divorce rate in this country if one of the requirements of marriage would be to work along side your spouse for the rest of your life? It just doesn't happen that often, yet while growing up my brother, sisters, and I thought nothing of it.
I love one-liners. One of my favorites is, "do what you do best and hire the rest. Another one is, "a man has got to know his limitations. Ego can stand in the way of so much good. I believe a strong leader knows his strengths and weaknesses and knows how to create a team to complement those strengths and weaknesses. If asked what I thought the most difficult aspect of being the owner of a medium-size business in today's world is? I would have to respond with, finding and keeping a good team together. Maintaining such a team with great chemistry is hard to achieve.
I believe time in the trenches is the only way one can really determine how well a team functions. What a team looks like on paper can be terribly deceiving. I've interviewed quite a few job applicants over the years. The only thing I've discovered about myself and everyone else in my company is that we don't do a very good job of it. Oh, we've received plenty of interviewing advice from professionals, checked references, and paid for all of those fancy personality tests. None of them seem to work. Somebody, please find me a test for great chemistry.
A second-generation business must have a life all to it's own. The birth of a business is obviously a difficult time but I believe the second generation has it's own unique roadblocks. First of all, the founders are always a tough act to follow. I also believe that there is a time when one must let go of the reins. A business must change with the times. Henry's of the past would never have made it in today's world. I know that, just like I know that Henry's of today won't exist in tomorrow's world. Now, to all of those employees that I'm sure I will make read this, it doesn't mean there won't be a Henry's. It just won't be the same Henry's. Times change. So must we.
There were certain sayings that I know my siblings and I will always remember about my Dad. Whenever we would buy or receive something new and show it to him for the first time, his response would always be the same. "Use it in good health, and then he would give us a kiss on our forehead or cheek. This was a sacred ritual. It was the Fishman seal of approval and my father's way of wishing us good luck. He was also wonderfully humble. Receiving a gift from my father would also include cautious wisdom, "now remember, don't expect this every year. Isn't that great?
The purchase of a new automobile garnered special treatment. No car was truly christened until my father was given a test drive. I purchased my first new car in 1981. It was a black Toyota Corola SR-5 hatchback and the first thing I did after picking it up from the dealership was drive straight down to the Place. Now, there's just no way one could describe my Dad without including a cigar in the description. For all you sports fans, think of Red Arubauh of the Boston Celtics. Older cliental reminiscing about my father will invariably mention something about him chewing on those old cigars The truth is, my Dad did smoke cigars but more often than not, he usually just chewed them; which in itself is a pretty disgusting habit.
There I was, proud as can be of that new car. It was so shinny and clean and had that wonderful new car smell! Get in Dad, you've got to check this out. My Dad climbed in and I noticed he still had that cigar stub hanging out the side of his mouth. "Come on Dad, that thing is going to smell up my nice new car. Please get rid of it. He proceeded to turn and spit that hunk of chewed up tobacco out. I just wish he would have opened the window first.