The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie by Jane Barrie


Ever wonder what it’s like to own your own business? Don’t, unless you’re prepared to do a lot more billing and personnel management than dealing with the projects of your dreams. Perhaps you’ve thought how much overlap there is between men’s and women’s spheres? More than many men would like to admit, even prior to the surge in Women’s Lib in the 1970s.

The Lumberyard and Mrs. Barrie is a more or less autobiographical work, published in 1952, about one woman’s stepping into the financial shoes of her husband’s assistant when he reveals that the lumberyard/building supplies business he owns and runs isn’t doing as well as he’s made out over the previous six years. In fact, it was foundering completely and on the verge of going out of business…a fact the husband was doing his best to keep from his wife despite her having invested $15,000 of her own money, almost all she had, in his business to keep it afloat.

It is not until the husband allows as how he’d better not take her to Paris on their second honeymoon because the business is a trifle shaky that she suspects there’s something seriously amiss. Her husband’s one of those charming but more than slightly happy-go-lucky people who can charm the socks of anyone he sets his sights on, but without a scrap of business sense, much less the heart of granite required to dun people who’ve fallen behind in their payments to him. It is perhaps a measure of his own charm that he has managed to cajole his own creditors into extending as much as they have…but even this much credit is coming to a rapid end. The wife comes in the next day to find two haphazard women in the office, one who does billing and one who does receipts, neither of whom have any idea what is owed in the other’s purview, and none of the clerks and suppliers who work the sales floor arrived, despite it being half an hour after the business is supposed to have opened.

Horrified, she takes the business in hand quite firmly. The two other women begin working together to sort out all the piles of paperwork into something a modern office would recognize as “organized”. The sales staff begin arriving on or before the store’s opening time. Trucks go out fully loaded each morning as soon as they’ve been filled with the previous day’s orders…and if they arrive back at the main store before the end of the day, they’re loaded with orders that have been received that day since the trucks’ departure for the next morning’s deliveries. Hardest, but perhaps most important of all, Mrs. Barrie then begins work on collecting the monies owed the business while negotiating terms of payment for the creditors on what they owe others.

When she started at the lumberyard, the scuttlebutt was that it had no more than a few weeks left to stay in business, and her threat of filing bankruptcy (and therefore allowing creditors only pennies on the dollar and not many pennies at that) if those selfsame creditors refused to accept her payment plans was all too believable. While the company had good cash flow, the overhead was too close to income for comfort and staffing was inefficient. However, she managed to collect something like 80% of the $110,000 worth of debts owed the company while paying down well over $200,000 in credit lines to them…all within two years. Indeed, she’d negotiated payment plans (and honored them!) well enough that within a year the wholesalers supplying them had gone from insisting on C.O.D. deliveries to accepting sixty-day payments on deliveries shipped on a regular schedule without having been ordered….and the bank had quit sending nastygrams within six months.

This is one of the books I picked up on the course of stocking an on-line bookstore; I’m not sure how widely it’s held these days so (with apologies) this may be something of a teaser entry for readers without access to a decent Interlibrary Loan system. (If you haven’t got a library card at all, much less any idea what this “interlibrary loan” is, shame on you. You know what to do!) For more avid readers, ‘Jane Barrie’ was a pseudonym for Mildred Savage, and I’m sure that the name of their home town, as well as of their chief competitor and their main clients, wase equally fictitious. I suspect that she had a bit more innate talent, not to mention training in business technique, than she let on; I think the book’s intended to be more a screwball comedy memoir than the account of a woman proud to be a strong-minded businesswoman.

What to read next? That depends on whether you liked the period piece aspects of the book or the descriptions of the wife’s perspective on working in what is, after all, even today largely a man’s world, that of home renovation and related fields, such as carpentry, plumbing, and bricklaying. If it’s the former, I’d suggest Betty MacDonald’s autobiographies, her sister’s books, or perhaps Jean Kerr’s collections of magazine articles. If it’s the latter, perhaps something along the lines of Helter Shelter or Dreaming in the Dust. All of these books have the same sort of light-hearted take on their various subjects, to varying degrees, though the writing styles have changed considerably in the thirty years between the two clusters’ publication.

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