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Wholesale Observations: Travels across America with Rafe: Part 2
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

I grew up in mid-town Savannah, as described in my earlier column, but later, after college, I lived downtown for 10 years. That was an entirely different experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

When I got out of graduate school (UGA – “Go Dawgs!”) in the mid-1970’s, the economy was still in a recession, caused by the Arab oil embargo of 1973, and jobs were hard to come by. I moved back home for a year until I could find something that paid enough I could afford an apartment of my own.

Meanwhile, I took what I thought would be a temporary position with my family’s wholesale business, verifying that the items in our huge catalog were still carried in stock, and later setting up and overseeing our annual inventory count. That was no small feat, since we carried over 12,000 items in a 50,000 square-foot warehouse. But by then, I knew that place like the back of my hand. It was tedious work, but it was a job. And I was grateful to have income. Then one day, the General Manager called me into his office, sat me down, and told me he had a permanent job he wanted me to consider: taking over my late father’s place as Treasurer and Credit Manager.

I was floored, and told him I didn’t know anything about either one of those positions. He was not deterred; he said I knew the customers, the salesmen, and the inventory; that I was smart, and would learn the rest. I thought about it for a couple of days, then told him I would try it. I had no idea then what a huge learning experience that would turn out to be. I took evening classes in accounting and economics for a year at Armstrong State College, and jumped in and swam. And managed to keep my head above water.

And eventually learned how to set up processes and procedures that we didn’t have before.

It also lifted me into a slightly better income bracket; and enabled me to get a small apartment in downtown Savannah, where I lived for the next ten years. This was before the Savannah College of Arts and Sciences exploded onto the local scene, taking over all the old school buildings downtown that the local school board could no longer use. That school’s growth also had two other major impacts on downtown Savannah: it led to the eventual rehabilitation of a large number of older housing units that needed it (good), but also to ever-increasing rents (not so good).

The tiny apartment I had on Abercorn and Gaston Street was at the time a great place to be. I was a block from Savannah’s crown jewel, Forsyth Park, where I often walked on the weekends. It was also within walking distance of Broughton Street and River Street, and a wonderful Chinese restaurant (Canton) just a few blocks north. They had wonderful food (including amazing egg rolls), and I often would go there for dinner on weekends.

Living downtown as I did back then, I got an amazing up-front opportunity to see and enjoy many of the architectural details on buildings, that were only really noticeable ‘up-close’. I also enjoyed walking to the riverfront on the weekends, grabbing a bite to eat at the Exchange Tavern for lunch, watching the ships go by, and especially the First Saturday weekend festivals.

It was also easy to drive out to the beach from downtown, during the summers. I would park in the large North Beach lot by the Tybee Lighthouse, avoiding the 16th street crowds by the Tybrisia pavilion, swim and sun for a couple of hours, get a milkshake and burger at The Sugar Shack on the corner of Highway 80, then head home, only 15-20 minutes away.

It was a completely different view of Savannah from my growing-up years, and I will always be grateful to have had those ten years there. It also gave me a measure to compare other places by, which I would later have the chance to see.

That will lead me into the next series of columns, on places I have been across the country.

Rafe and his wife live with seven cats in eastern Liberty County, two miles north of Midway.

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