Starting business was worth it

By AL UNDERWOOD,

Soon I turn 65. That age that many associate with retirement, but I’m not retiring. My work is my hobby, a hobby I’ve had that I started full time when I was denied the opportunity to re-enroll at the University of Southern Mississippi because of some silly grade point average. That’s right, I never had a “real job”, or worked for someone else since college. There is significant joy in reaching this age milestone, as this “hobby,” my chosen profession, has done me well all these years. There’s great satisfaction in getting to a point in life where one can look back at all those that said, “You can’t make a living doing that,” and smile. I took the road less traveled  and what a difference it made.

While in college, I became close to Henry Basford who had a wholesale business on Delta Drive. I would buy stuff there to resell to stores. Soon he was calling me his protege’. Upon his retirement, his assistant Mae Rene Pitman came to work with me for many years and on occasion still helps me today, not to mention being a good friend to share stories with.

I met Kurt Strauss at that business, a sunglasses importer from just outside of Manhattan, who when I said “I bet I can get Tote-Sum’s business” set me up with a sample set and soon after making a deal with Stewart Barry, the boss at Tote-Sum (and my future best man), Kurt sent 20 racks and the sunglasses needed for them. Kurt would later give me tours of Manhattan, telling stories of goings on in Little Italy, and later, when attending a trade show in Vegas, teach me his skills at blackjack. I never coach anyone on blackjack, I tell them “what the old Jewish guy taught me.”

 

I met Lee Goldman, a New York sunglass importer who’s line of fashion sunglasses attracted me like a kid in a candy store. Two years after seeing him at this trade show every six months, I got the nerve to ask, “So a 21-year-old kid from Mississippi walks in your booth and starts asking a bunch of questions, didn’t you want to throw him out?” His reply was “yes, but you were picking my best numbers.” Lee educated me about a gold charm that hung from a chain around his neck. A Chai. As in L’chaim, a Hebrew symbol meaning “to life.” When I bought one and wore it on my gold chain and went in Olde Tyme Deli, Irv Feldman said with a smile, “I didn’t realize you’re one of us, I’ll give you bigger portions.” Thanks, Irv.

Also on the list of important people is Steve Lin, originally from Taipei, Taiwan but living in the San Francisco area. Since Steve was my major supplier and friend (now retired) I fractured political correctness and called him my “Head Chinaman” and he called me “Hippie Consultant.” I went on six buying trips to the far east with Steve, including stops in Taipei, Tainan and Kaohsiung Taiwan, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Wenzhou China and the fabulous Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong in 1993, we took a day tour into China. While on the tour I met Bill and Catherine Houlton from just outside of London. Same age as me and could mostly get my jokes. Our friendship was sealed at a last night in Hong Kong dinner. In the years to come there were trips to see them, including the Prince’s Trust Concert in Hyde Park and them coming here, enjoying southern style fish ‘n chips at Cock of the Walk and a trip to New Orleans to see the Rolling Stones in the Superdome. Cathe-rine told me they had tickets to see them the next spring at Wembley, and upon entering the dome her comment was, “You could put all of Wembley Stadium in here.”

 

Soon after leaving USM, while living at home, I had some merchandise scattered out over the living room floor, and Dad comes walking through. “I wish you’d quit this damn stuff and get you a job.” Twenty years later I reminded him of that when we were nearing the Grand Canyon, a side trip related to a show I was attending in Vegas…  “Gee, Dad, just think, if I’d done what you said and gotten a real job, we wouldn’t be here now.” That was fun.

Among other things, traveling the lesser worn path has blessed me with a multitude of other folks in my life. More trips to New York and Las Vegas than I can count, enough trips to L.A. and San Francisco that I can find my way around pretty well. And people I call friends in all those places.

Creating brands such as Deja Vue, Sun Scene were in the early days, and needing to come up with a better name for my sunglasses having Shady Deal® pop in my head which worked real well. Later selling that to concentrate on my Franklin Eyewear® brand. Sun and reading glasses primarily marketed to independent pharmacies nationwide. In the early ’90s having attached the name “Mississippi Bluesman” to basic “blues brothers” style sunglasses resulted in a front page story in the Clarion Ledger. Henry Larose commented to me, “Damn, Al, I’d have to murder somebody important to get my picture on the front page of the paper.”

Having started from nothing, against Dad’s wishes, and to have accomplished this is a gift from God for the ability to persevere one day at a time through good times and bad. Grateful that USM sent me on my way instead of letting me attempt to graduate. Who knows? I could have gotten some high profile job with a degree. I could be an insurance executive like my cousin who’ll tell you about his European adventure in 1977 or his trips to Destin, or maybe even the L.A to Vegas trip that I took him on. Grateful also to have Laura in my life, who said yes when I asked her to share this adventure with me over a Royale with cheese on the Champs Elysees in 2004. We have more adventures planned, with this hobby of mine.

Who knows? It may work out.       

Al Underwood is a lifelong Northsider.

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