Beth Macy’s ‘Factory Man’ Puts a Human Face on the Costs of Globalization

It’s a topic that could be as dry as dust — the story of one furniture maker, the Bassett Furniture Company, in one town, Bassett, Virginia, and how it’s dealt with the slings and arrows of the globalization, with factory closings and competition from Asia. But in the able hands of writer Beth Macy, Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — And Helped Save an American Town, the story of Bassett furniture is an epic that gives a human face to the consequences of globalization, the kind that could be the fuel for a terrific prestige TV show.

What makes Factory Man quite the feat of reporting is Macy’s thorough coverage of the town of Bassett, from the displaced, unemployed workers, to the swells at the top. And she has a fascinating protagonist in the character of John Bassett III, a third generation “factory man” who has to battle China and federal law in order to figure out a way to keep Bassett Furniture going bust in the face of cheaper imports.

There are a lot of business books out there that can tell you about the history of the world through the history of theoretical business ideas. Macy starts from the bottom up. By reporting about the laid-off furniture workers in Virginia, she embarks on a worldwide odyssey, tracing the human costs of Bassett Furniture’s rise to prominence as the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer, a company that pulled in over $500 million a year in sales at its height. The story of the Bassett family — running alongside their own business — is southern to the core, with internecine squabbling over lineage, wealth, and family. It’s soapy and twisty in all the best ways.

There is a point where the upstairs and the downstairs meet, and as we learn about John Bassett III’s efforts to keep his business alive and stem the tide of the cheap Chinese imports that are cutting off his industry at the knees, this brash, loud, colorful man becomes an American hero of sorts. At the same time, the perspective is broader than just one man and one business — we learn about how furniture was the engine of Bassett the town, and how the loss of jobs has put residents in dire economic situations.

There’s a big generous heart at the center of this book, and it’s hard not to compare Factory Man to the seminal nonfiction work of Tracy Kidder or even the storytelling that made David Simon’s The Wire one of the best TV shows ever. By putting a human face and real, imperfect people to concepts like globalization, Macy has an eloquent rebuttal to the cheerleading from books like Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat — globalization has consequences, and in the dead-end, emptied out, rotting factory towns of America, we see that it’s a heavy cost. Factory Man is a valuable American story, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.