February was warm, but everyone was tired of winter and waiting for spring; even business slowed down. At the beginning of the month a fax from “Luxchem” arrived in the morning:
“Dear Partners! We would like to inform you that our company has started production of the sanitary drain product ‘Brush’.”
I was cool with the news, but my father wasn’t; he was eating breakfast in the kitchen, and when I brought him the facsimile, his eyes widened in surprise, he almost stopped chewing, crossed his legs, and started kicking one of them. I looked at the foot with the slipper dangling from the toes, jumped up from the chair, and paced the kitchen. My father’s emotion was transferred to me.
With the next car we received twenty packages of the new product, and all of them were ordered by “Arbalest” on approval. I spent a few seconds digesting the result of the phone call, suddenly realized it, found my father in his room on the couch, and in a fit of euphoria gave the news. My father was looking at me with a neutral face. I waited for his reaction. It seemed clear, after all, we got another strong item, which bodes well for us in terms of increased sales, and therefore profits, and therefore opportunities, prospects, and therefore… That was the reason for my euphoria. But there was no reaction.
“Did you hear what I said!?” I stared at my father in disbelief.
“Yeah,” he said.
“What, yeah!?” I began to get irritated.
“Well, I heard!” my father said with a slight emotion. “And!?”
I felt down. Immediately. All gone.
“Why is he so stolid!? Or is it his way of expressing emotion? Or is he used to keeping them in check? How can he be stone-faced all the time? I don’t understand,” the thoughts rumbled through me like heavy boulders. I studied my father’s face, trying to understand why he was like this, what was wrong with him? “Why is he so stingy with his emotions? Or am I so over-emotional that I rejoice at every success, no matter how small, in our common cause? Doesn’t it make him happy? Or it does, but my father is stingy with his emotions simply because of his character? It is incomprehensible.” It became clear that my father could take away all the desire to fly, born of positive emotions, with one sentence, one dull look on his face. It was as if he was fighting them, extinguishing them as soon as he saw them in me. My chest felt heavy.
“Never mind,” I turned and left the kitchen to get dressed.
The mood was ruined for the rest of the day.
Winter was over. March had gotten off to a nasty start – the sky was covered with clouds full of moisture, the temperature was creeping toward zero, the snow was melting into a mush of ice, and the humid air, rushing in rough gusts of wind, stung my face and blew the heat out of my body.
The “barn” from Krasnodar came crawling back to us with a trailer on Thursday, March 5th, bringing thirteen tons. It took a long time to unload the truck – we started at noon, around one o’clock, and finished when the sun went down at seven in the evening. Two-thirds of the load was the blue, so the work quickly became monotonous – a steady stream of identical packages turned into identical pallets of them. We rolled them one by one into the warehouse until the last one barely fit.
“That’s it? Are you finally done?” the tenant neighbor said encouragingly, peering into our part of the warehouse once again.
“Yeah, that’s it, we’re done here,” my father said tiredly. “Now we’re going to sell it.”
A gust of wind blew through the locked gate from the inside and shook it. The lights in the warehouse were on. The room, crammed with goods, felt cozy. My father and I sat on the packages with our backs to the posts of the same packages, slowly coming to our senses from the hard unloading. My muscles burned with exhaustion. I buttoned my down jacket tightly. The heat from my muscles quickly warmed my clothes on the inside.
“We’re about to start the season, too,” said the neighbor.
“What made you decide to get into the motorcycle parts business in the first place?” I said, sinking into a light doze. My body was recovering from the exertion and needed rest, preferably sleep.
And the neighbor shared his story.
He had an “Izh” motorcycle, it broke down, and it turned out that there was nowhere to buy spare parts in the city. It was 1995, hard times. So he decided to go directly to the factory in Izhevsk. His friends heard about it and ordered spare parts for themselves. The guy brought a backpack full of them by train, sold them in one day and even made some money. His friends said, “Bring more!” And a week later he took the train back to the factory and came back with two sacks. He went to the market and sold them in two days.
“And again you…?” I tried to guess what would happen.
“Again indeed!” the neighbor nodded, pleased with the story and its effect. “Anyway, I spent the whole summer like this! I would go there, stock up, bring it back here, stand at the market for two or three days, sell it, and go again.”
The markups were good, ten times or more.
“How long have you been cruising around with that sack?” my father’s voice came from my right.
I shuddered and glanced over my shoulder in that direction. My father took a cigarette out of the pack, put it in his mouth, clenched it dashingly between his teeth and smiled.
“Dad, you’re not supposed to smoke in the warehouse, are you!?” I said. It just came out. And it came out rather harshly, in a peremptory way, and unexpectedly to me. There was a time when we had just moved into the warehouse, and I smoked in it once. My father told me not to smoke inside. I put the cigarette out and, without knowing it, I learned my lesson. After all, our life is a constant learning and development. And the father is the first teacher and authority for his son. As we develop, we digest the lessons of our parents. I absorbed my father’s moral arguments. To me, he was always the unquestionable standard for the right set of human qualities. There were so many of them in my father that at one point there was even a sense of overabundance. My father’s perfection seemed astonishing. I never saw him drunk; my father hardly ever drank, except for token grams on holidays. He did not swear. Which surprised me because I could hear foul language all around me and from every other person. My father was pedantic in his work, reliable, honest, and very diligent. If I had wanted to pick on him and find a fault in him, I would not have found one. Of course, I did not look for any negative qualities in my father, nor did I try to challenge his authority. What could be more comfortable and important for a son’s developing consciousness than the real authority of his father? Nothing. But the laws of life are firm and guide us in the implicit ways of wisdom. What does not kill you makes you stronger. This is true. Paradoxically, the opposite is also true – what makes you stronger is what destroys you. It was what made my father an authority over me that began to work against him. His punctuality, accuracy, pedantry, which were worthy traits of his character, over time crossed the line and began to degenerate into overscrupulousness, meticulousness, hair-splitting attitude toward those around him and especially toward those close to him – me and my mother. My father meticulously noted all my faults, pointed them out to me, and boringly lectured me on how I should have acted instead. As my father’s son, I worked hard and sincerely tried to reach the standard set by my father and correct all the mistakes and shortcomings in my actions according to his remarks and admonitions. I was okay with my father’s criticism and strictness because I knew that, however painful it was, I was learning how to live. The more I reached for the bar my father had set, the more unattainable it became. My desire to do everything right by my father’s standards degenerated into a virtual race to the horizon, and my innate diligence began to be undermined by the irritation of his reproaches and admonitions. Since my father was stingy with emotion, he didn’t feel mine either. My consciousness, having learned the futility of acting obediently, adapting to my father’s character, began to develop “antibodies”. It’s not for nothing that they say: who keeps company with the wolf will learn to howl. In the gusts of another scandal, my mother would fling in my teeth: “You’re becoming just like your father!” And it was true, imperceptibly, day by day, I was taking on my father’s traits, becoming the same rigid, demanding, pedantic, emotionally dry. The traits of my father that I had absorbed began to work against him – I began unconsciously to notice all his faults and weaknesses. I began to wait for my father’s mistakes, as he had always waited for mine. I became inexorably transformed into my father, a dry, ruthless “counter” to his failures, mistakes, shortcomings, awkward movements. Living with him, and especially working with him, gradually turned from a “teacher-father-student-son” bond into a rigid bundle of two “counters” of mutual mistakes. One was wearing out and aging, the other was growing older and stronger. The point of equality of forces was rapidly approaching. Every day I became more demanding and relentless. You reap what you sow. Did I like it? I didn’t think about it; I was developing the qualities of survival. Was it the first time I noticed my father’s failure and told him? I don’t know, but it was definitely the first time I realized it. I questioned my father’s unquestioning authority over me. It is undoubtedly better, easier, and more comfortable when the father is the authority from the beginning to the end of your life. This state of affairs removes many painful issues of personal growth. But in order to remain a leader, an authority for his son, the father must continue to develop personally. If such thoughts were born in my mind at that time, they were in their raw infancy. All I realized at that moment was that I had found a gap in my father’s “perfection” and pointed it out to him.
He froze with the cigarette between his teeth. My father’s satisfied face turned to one of surprise. Confusion flashed in his eyes. He didn’t have a leg to stand on.
“Yeah, right…” my father said confused and put his cigarette back in the pack.
All I did was pay back the debt. Demand for demand. If you demand something from someone, make sure you follow that rule yourself.
“Not for long!” our neighbor continued. “The next spring I started renting all kinds of ‘GAZelles’, ‘Ford Transits’, you know, small cars of a ton and a half, and a year later I bought my own ‘bull-calf’, you know, ‘ZIL’ truck. That was in 1997, I guess, just a year before the default! You remember the financial crisis, right?”
He made good money on the default. The dollar rate began to rise, but the prices of motorcycle parts in the factory remained the same, in rubles.
“I understand that it won’t be like this for long, that the price will go up! And I only had a hundred thousand dollars. So I took all the money I had, jumped into my ‘bull-calf’ and drove to the factory in Izhevsk, bought eight tons of spare parts with all the money I had! How am I going to transport them? According to the registration certificate, my ‘bull-calf’ can carry three and a half tons, well, five can be loaded, the axles will hold. There’s no other choice! So I load the ‘bull-calf’ with eight tons and go back!” the neighbor was excited about the story.
“And?!” I opened my mouth in surprise. “Did you get home alright?”
“Far from it!” the guy laughed with a satisfied look. “All the bolts on the hubs were cut on the road! What a weight! I had to buy and replace two hubs on the way, but the axles held up, so I made it! And a month later the factory raised the prices five times! So they started buying all my goods as a reserve – just in case the prices suddenly went up even more! In short, I sold all the goods for six months and ended up with half a million rubles! With this money I bought an apartment in Prirechny, do you know where Prirechny is?”
“It’s west on the way out of the city,” my father said.
“Cool, man!” I sincerely admired the desperation of the move. “Wow! No, I have no idea where this Prirechny is!”
My father went into boring geographical details. I wasn’t listening, I was thinking about my neighbor’s brave and desperate move – an adventurous journey, three thousand kilometers round, with goods bought with all his money, in a truck overloaded two and a half times. I was impressed.
Soon the conversation faded away on its own. There was nothing more to say. I felt cold and began to freeze. The workday was over and it was time to go home.
A few days after unloading, we received some bad news: several of the depot’s warehouses were up for sale, including ours. Whether we liked it or not, we had to find a new warehouse. The smooth work plans were diluted by anxious thoughts about the future. The issue of renting a warehouse did not look easy, rental prices in the city were rising, we had to find a cheap warehouse again. In addition, my gastritis had worsened – my stomach ached throughout March, protesting the fast food I ate wherever and however I could. I responded by pouring painkiller syrup into it.
The blue season had begun, but the increase in sales was not as strong as last year – the weather spoiled everything. The month turned out to be disgustingly gray, damp and dreary, without a single clear day. The real spring and warmth was unbearably longed for. I was fed up with winter. In the last days of March, our neighbor, who knew that the warehouse was going to be sold, moved out. Immediately it became somehow empty, boring and uncomfortable.
April began with the same snow and water slush under our feet and wheels. On Wednesday, on the second day, an acquaintance from the depot administration introduced us to two of his “friends,” as he called everyone he had seen or even glimpsed at least once in his life.
At the meeting it turned out that they own a cannery in the village of Prirechny, that there are many different warehouses at the factory, that there is a two-story office building with empty space on the factory premises, and that there is their own boiler house.
The next day, at half past nine in the morning, we were already jolting in the “GAZelle” through the huge potholes of the ring road towards Prirechny. At the T-junction after the roundabout, we turned right onto a bridge and headed west out of town. After about a kilometer and a few turns we entered the village, cut it in two along the main road, turned left behind the church and drove downhill through the residential neighborhood. After five hundred meters, we had to leave the paved road and turn onto the adjacent gravel road. The gravel ended before it even began. We barely crawled the next thirty meters to the railroad crossing. The car was bouncing around like a rodeo. A small, dull yellow house stuck out of the ground at the crossing. Behind it was a pile of old oiled and dirty ties. A shabby, dirty white mutt was snooping around at the door.
As we approached, the crossing bells rang loudly, the semaphores flashed red, the barriers came down and the dog bellowed. A woman in a yellow vest came tiredly out of the house holding up a twisted yellow flag. While the bells were hysterical, the mutt yapped. But as soon as the trill stopped, the dog shut up, circled the side of the house, and peed on some driftwood. The woman was holding the flag, staring at us, shifting from foot to foot. We stood there, the engine running.
“That looks like a long time,” I said, turning my head. “Where’s that stupid steam train!?”
My father turned off the engine, opened the window and lit a cigarette. It was warm and humid outside. I looked up, the low, wet clouds hanging like a blanket. I longed for sunshine, at least one ray for five minutes. I opened the door, dangled my feet outside, sat sideways and smoked. “A kennel, no less,” I thought, looking at the small house. The woman, as if she had read my thoughts, turned away. A whistle sounded to the left, from the town side. A shunting locomotive crawled lazily across the crossing and pulled away, whistling twice. The woman went to the house, the barriers went up. After the crossing the road turned out to be exactly the same, leading to the left along the tracks. Another hundred meters and the iron gates of the cannery appeared on the right. They hung between a one-story pale red gatehouse on the right and a two-story administration building on the left. The building looked shabby – the doors of the main entrance from the street were boarded up, the paint, both on them and on the concrete canopy above, faded and peeling. The brick walls of the building, which had never been painted, had turned a dirty color with brown and green stains from time and spring moisture.
“This way, I guess,” I said cheerlessly.
“Well, yeah,” my father sighed loudly, and we drove onto the property.
A woman immediately jumped out of the gatehouse waving her hands. We stopped.
The owners of the factory were waiting for us in an office on the second floor of the building. We left the “GAZelle” and went there. I pulled the handle of the front door, ducked into the low opening, and was the first to enter. I smelled a faint whiff of warmth and the dampness of an abandoned building. On the wall to the right hung a thick battery pipe. I touched it – slightly warm. Three steps and we were on the platform of the first floor, with the wings of the building to the left and right. We went up to the second floor and to the left wing. There was a deathly silence in the building. The sand crunched under our feet, the sound instantly spread through the wing, and in the doorway of the far room appeared the stodgy figure of one of the factory owners.
A few minutes later, the four of us stepped outside and walked through the slushy snow. “What a wreck, not a factory,” I thought as I looked around. There were six main buildings: an administration building, a boiler house, two production shops, and two storage buildings. A brick fence outlined the rectangle of the factory grounds. Between the buildings, remnants of asphalt were visible under a layer of sand and earth. The two shops and one of the warehouse buildings stood parallel to each other. They were separated from the administration building by a rectangular patch of asphalt about twenty meters wide, with a transformer box sticking out of the ground on the right and a red-brown brick building with a chimney behind it on the left. All four of us walked downhill between the two shops. A rough dirt crossing road marked their end, beyond which a shrub-lined fence ran parallel about ten meters from them. There was a one-meter-wide gap in it, right in front of us. “Like a public thoroughfare,” I thought dejectedly.
The warehouse was a hundred meters to the left, and there was almost no room next to it. “There’s no way the truck can drive up or turn around,” I realized, looking to my right. Invisible from the gatehouse, there was a sixth building – a one-story warehouse, seventy meters long, stretching along the fence to the grassy corner of the factory grounds. Another warehouse building ran down from above, parallel to the two shops. It had three sections. Between the warehouse buildings was a large flat square. I made a rough estimate of the turning radius of the truck – it was just right, the size of the platform provided double the space. We stood in the middle and my father and I looked around. It seemed like a good place. But it had one drawback: the snow melted down to the lower warehouse and dripped from the gatehouse and accumulated near the walls. The upper warehouses, which ran parallel to the shops, were not affected by the melted snow, so the outskirts of the warehouses remained dry. These warehouses were much better than the lower ones. As soon as I asked to rent one of the sections, I was told no, referring to the fact that these premises were no longer available. Our choice was down to the two warehouses in the lower building.
“It’s going to be wet all the time, and there’s probably a lot of water in there, too,” I thought, looking at my father and agreeing to check out the lower warehouses. The whole group sloshed downhill through the slush.
The one-story red brick building with a slate roof had three sections. The left and middle sections were identical, ten by ten meters square. The far right section took up the rest of the floor space. The one hundred meter sections were a pathetic sight: an earthen floor, a leaking roof, cracked walls, and a crooked gate that did not fit tightly. The floor in the left section was flatter, but the warehouse was ankle-deep in water. In the middle one, an uncomfortable mound of earth in front of the entrance proved to be a lifesaver – it blocked the path of the water, forming a puddle in front of the gate, and the floor of the section remained dry. “We can’t roll a trolley with pallets in here, we’ll have to carry everything by hand… Two sheds, not warehouses, one worse than the other, end of story,” I began to get angry that we had actually gone to such a place. I wanted to go home, I was freezing from the damp weather.
“Well!” I turned to my father. “We’ll think about it for a day or two and then we’ll call you, right?”
My father took a drag on his cigarette and nodded with restraint.
We made a deal the next day. The rent for the warehouse was half the average price in the city, it couldn’t be cheaper or worse. We transported the goods gradually, one full “GAZelle” a day, and we were done in a week. Life had finished writing another page, turned it in one fell swoop, along with the weather. On Monday and Tuesday, I squashed my shoes in a puddle near the warehouse, next to which lay muddy piles of water-soaked snow; on Wednesday night, the heavy clouds disappeared, revealing a gentle blue sky in the morning. The sun burned so hard that it melted all the snow and dried the ground in two days. On Saturday, when we had finished moving, we put a lock on the gate of the new warehouse and drove home. After dinner, I sat on the balcony watching the setting sun and smoking. The mood was in keeping with the weather. Everything was fine. Saturday. Evening. “Clear Skies” was waiting for me.
Just before the May holidays, we received a fax from “Luxchem” informing us that they were discontinuing two product lines. It wasn’t good news.
By May 2003, the business situation began to change. The market was showing signs of compression. And it manifested itself in the loss of profits on barter goods. If before it was possible to earn at least a little, now it has become more difficult. The most popular goods received in barter were sold at zero or with a slight deficit. We tried to squeeze the maximum out of every operation. While my father turned the steering wheel, I sat next to him and thought of possible combinations of bartering and selling goods. The biggest losses on returns we made were in “Mercury”. Senya had a lot of pressure on prices. But we had to put up with it. First, there was no choice. Second, Senya was constantly pumping good volumes through his depot. In “Peresvet”, anarchy continued to reign in household chemicals – a paradise for all small suppliers. They all worked primitively: they brought in low liquid goods and sold them to the city’s wholesale depots at a high markup. As a result, the warehouses of the depots were clogged with commercial trash, which only hindered sales. The solution was not long in coming – the large wholesalers of household chemicals stopped accepting the goods for sale and set the suppliers the barter condition. It was the same as we had done before. Part of the suppliers disappeared, others had to switch to barter. The load on depots such as “Mercury” and “Peresvet” increased sharply – the suppliers had to “dump” the barter goods. Price pressure began. Wholesalers of household chemicals went further – they also cut the list of goods. Small suppliers had no choice but to fight among themselves for goods from this list. And then many people’s moral compass cracked. I didn’t want to take anything away from anyone, to cross people’s bows. I understood that all the suppliers were hard workers like us, trying to make a living. I didn’t want to leave people angry. Two pathways were left. The first was semi-fictional – to find a new manufacturer from the list of wholesale depots. It had to be as close as possible to our city so that logistics would not kill the profit, the goods had to be cheap and of high quality, and the manufacturer had to work only with us. Such a set of conditions was like a miracle – I understood that. The second one was real and annoying: setting up our own retail outlets. I didn’t like it very much, but if we succeeded, it would be very reliable. The risks were in the choice of location: we could make a bad guess and lose money.
During the May holidays, smoking on the balcony under the warm rays of the sun, my father and I began to talk about business development. My father listened to my chatter, was not against implementing one or both directions at once, but showed no enthusiasm – talk remained talk. I wanted action! I settled down to the wholesale magazines again. Working only with “Luxchem” was a big risk – we could have lost the whole business at once. We needed at least one other manufacturer.
Once again Chance decided everything.
On one of the holiday days, I found myself on a nearby street between rows of commercial kiosks and pavilions. The rows of grocery stores were joined at the edge by two rows of housewares kiosks. The farthest one consisted of six containers. I took a closer look. Inside, the containers were divided into two kiosks. If the kiosks belonged to the same owner, there was no partition between them, so the result was one container kiosk. The first two were like this – united and glazed. They were used for selling kitchenware and shoes. The third and fourth containers had separate kiosks, and moreover, they were open. The first kiosk sold household chemicals, the second sold audio cassettes. The fourth kiosk sold household chemicals. The fifth glass container kiosk – household chemicals, the sixth – all kinds of household goods. A tent stretched over a single iron frame served as a roof for the containers. The next row looked more solid – all large kiosks stood on a cement base. Only one of them sold household chemicals.
I wouldn’t have noticed all the details if it weren’t for the ad. On the sliding shutters of the third container was a white sheet with a single word printed on it: “For Sale.” I walked slowly past it, came back a few minutes later, chatted with the kiosk saleswoman, learned that the owner came by every day at six to collect the proceeds, and walked home.
My father was half-lying on the sun-heated windowsill of the balcony, smoking and watching the life in the courtyard. When I flew up to the balcony, I started babbling, talking about the kiosk.
“Hm! Interesting place, I see what kiosks you’re talking about,” my father was interested, took a drag, put out his cigarette, and turned to me. “A lot of people pass by there.”
“Yeah, it’s very crowded!” The idea of buying a kiosk was stirring my brain. “I had only been there five minutes, and customers kept coming. And come to think of it, it’s just a regular retail outlet, and the prices there are darn well. If we buy it, we can lower the prices. It’s just that we have to move our volume of goods as efficiently as possible. If we continue to barter everything, the discounts will eat up all our profits!”
“I got it! Why are you hustling into deciding again?” my father was indignant.
“I think we should go and talk to the owner tonight!” I was a fountain of emotion, demanding action without question.
“Well, I said we would! Cut it out! Here, sit down!” my father pointed to the edge of the couch.
“Forget it!” I waved and flew off the balcony into the kitchen. I put the kettle on.
A minute later, my father’s footsteps could be heard in the hallway.
“Why did you run away!?” he stared at me in surprise.
“Come on!” my father added conciliatorily. “Such issues are not resolved just like that, you saw it, ran and bought it! I said we would go! We’ll go tonight.”
“Yeah, we will,” I began to calm down.
A few days later we bought the kiosk. It cost us thirty thousand, and we got it with the saleswoman – Nadezhda Petrovna – a skinny, but strong and quick old woman with innate intelligence and an agile, clear mind. The owner decided not to sell her second kiosk for now – half in the fourth container next door. Another saleswoman watched us with interest, leaning against the window with her shaggy head sticking out.
The purchase gave me a strong emotional uplift. The feeling of accomplishing something significant and important in our business stirred in me again. Our precarious position had finally found its first foothold.
Inside, the kiosk looked miserable – a square room measuring two by two meters, vertically divided by a wooden counter window. Behind it, like a screen, were shelves for the kiosk’s stock. Half of the front of the kiosk was taken up by a waist-high horizontal glass counter. In between was a chair. If the saleswoman did not sit on it, but stood next to it, then the free space in the kiosk ended there.
We were lucky with the saleswoman. She brought the kiosk back to normal sales mode in two days, and from the third day it began to make a profit. The rhythm of work and life became harder – goods had to be brought to the kiosk every other day to maintain the assortment, otherwise the income immediately dropped by half. At the end of the first week, we found a second saleswoman – an overweight, short of breath, silly and shrill woman with glasses. She squinted constantly, waved her hands emotionally while talking, flashed a pair of iron crowns on her upper teeth, and spat small amounts of saliva.
We spent all of our free time the next week repairing the warehouse. The first rain of May flooded it, reminding my father and me of the holes in the roof. We fixed the leaks by putting new slate on the roof. A local electrician repaired the wiring, and instead of one light bulb in the warehouse, all four were working. Because of the kiosk, the goods in the warehouse had grown in assortment, lying chaotically on pallets, and they were no longer enough. In three days, we sawed and hammered together three levels of shelving from what we could quickly get on the factory grounds. As soon as we put the goods on them, the warehouse became cozy and practical.
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