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Wholesale Observations: Lessons learned in the hardware business
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

I was a city boy, born and reared in Savannah, a product of local schools and churches. Going to work in that wholesale hardware business as a 16-year old kid was a real culture shock for me. Half our staff came from Savannah, the other half were from Effingham County, and they had different traditions altogether. One big surprise was the difference in language.

I was always taught “the King’s English,” wherein using or writing “ain’t” in a sentence would not only earn a rebuke from the teacher, but also cost a letter grade on a school paper, if not an actual “F.” Definitely to be avoided at all costs!

But heard frequently in that warehouse, and absorbed quite naturally, without even realizing it. Those first two summers, I worked in the warehouse, first as a stock clerk and then an order clerk, and naturally tried to “blend in” with my co-workers. I did not realize the success of those efforts until I got back to high school in September, and found that it took me nearly two months, both times, to get back to speaking “proper English” again!

That was unexpected.

Another surprise was the vast reservoir of good humor among folks from both counties, and both races, whites and blacks, despite our surface differences. We all got along well enough, even though that was still in the waning days of segregation. My brother and I were able to make some changes, several years later, to eradicate some of the last vestiges of that, which I was proud to have a hand in.

Another unexpected lesson was that I learned a great deal about geography, from working customer orders, and later as a truck driver’s helper.

Growing up, I learned basics about Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida in school, but nothing in real detail. I learned even more (Zip codes and Area codes in particular) when I was tasked with running the credit dept. several years later, which I retained for many years after that. A great blessing, which has served me well in three different businesses.

For one thing, I discovered that it made a great deal of difference, when working orders, if one labeled the shipment as going to Western Auto in Bamberg, SC, or the one in Barnwell – they were close enough geographically, and even in the same territory, but if the orders got mixed up – not good! Another thing that was amusing to learn was the number of small towns with unusual names. The “Scandinavian towns” of Norway, Denmark and Sweden in South Carolina (and also Switzerland, just up the road from Ridgeland) were not named after early immigrant settlers, as I’d originally supposed.

They were actually named, I found out years later, by the early railroad that connected them, with no relation to the countries they were named after.

We had customers in Norway and Denmark, but not Sweden or Switzerland; the latter were really just small communities. Denmark, however, to this day has a stop for the northsouth Amtrak trains, which also run through Savannah and Ludowici, south of Hinesville.

I also enjoyed towns with old Indian names, like Yemassee and Pocataligo, SC. (We had a good customer in Yemassee, but none in Pocataligo, it was too small to support a store.) Then there was Green Pond, SC, a small crossroads on the way to Charleston, where Wood Brothers Grocery & Hardware stood atop the crest of a hill on US 17, and was a popular stop for locals, for gas, groceries, hardware and hunting goods.

I later discovered towns in Florida named “Yankeetown” and “Frostproof,” named for obvious reasons, but they were too far south for us to have any customers there. Georgia had Dacula, southeast of Atlanta (outside our sales area), as well as Enigma, Montezuma, and Climax. Enigma Hardware was a small account, as was a customer in Montezuma, but we had no customer in Climax, GA. (I always said it was an Enigma to me how a town came to be named Climax!) Good folks in all those towns, however, and I was pleased to get to know as many as I did. I wish now I had made a trip through the territories to meet all of them. I never did. Hindsight, as they say, tends to be 20-20, while foresight tends more towards 50-50.

(Or worse.)

More lessons learned, in the next installment. Stay tuned.

Rafe Semmes is a native of Savannah.

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