Dock lockout, though over, still ripples through economy

The tale of one book caught in shipping limbo symbolizes the challenges facing many small firms.

"Where do snowmen go?" If they are in a book by that name, the answer is, "To a Los Angeles port and not much farther."

"Where Do Snowmen Go?," by Lisa Funari Willever, was printed in Singapore - as are many children's picture books - and was supposed to be shipped so it could go on sale the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, Mrs. Willever was told by port authorities that the books were engulfed in the snarl that began during the September lockout of longshoremen at West Coast ports. "That Friday certainly was black for me," Willever says of Nov. 29. "I think I cried all day."

While most large manufacturers seem to have weathered the storm created by the lockout just fine, the wave of aftereffects has crashed on some small businesses just in time to potentially wipe out Christmas sales.

Like "Where Do Snowman Go?," Brew Organics coffee-roasting sets may also be in shipping limbo. A website selling the roasters warns of delays. And according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., Small World Toys of Culver City, Calif., was due to lose more than $100,000 because of extra shipping fees, customs delays, and lost orders.

"There are many, many little dramas being played out all over the country today in small business, because these delays are ongoing," says Mr. Kyser.

Indeed, shipping is still getting back to normal. Kyser notes that the Port of Long Beach, Calif., loaded and unloaded about 1.3 million containers in August, prior to the lockout. In October, the number had dipped down to about 770,000, and it isn't expected to be much higher for November (an exact reading isn't available yet).

"They worked off the backlog of ships waiting," says Kyser, "but now there's a huge backlog of inbound ships."

And in that backlog is "Where Do Snowmen Go?" - an item whose plight is emblematic of the challenges facing some small businesses due to the longshoremen lockout.

With the days until Christmas melting away, the book's publisher, Trenton's Franklin Mason Press, has already lost more than 800 orders from shops across the country. Schools on Long Island are calling for the books that children ordered during Willever's recent speaking engagements there.

Beyond the lost sales, the delay carries another worry: that the charity receiving a part of the sale proceeds will be hurt. Each sale of "Where Do Snowmen Go?" will give 25 cents to the Sunshine Foundation of Pennsylvania, which grants wishes to children with serious illnesses.

"It's so horrible on so many levels," says Willever, a former teacher in Trenton who's now the publisher of Franklin Mason Press. "I had school appearances set and had to show up empty-handed."

Last Wednesday, Willever was told by Long Beach port authorities that the ship had just arrived. But despite finally being in Los Angeles, the books could still not be moved because the ship's container was randomly selected for a Vakas exam, an antiterrorist measure involving container X-rays. At first, US Customs indicated the test would not be done until after Christmas, but the shipment has been expedited - and it could be ready to continue its journey in the US as soon as today.

"Mrs. Willever is a small business. It's Christmas, and we understand the urgency," says Michael Fleming, a Customs spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. He adds, "Our people worked literally around the clock to clear" the backlog.

The irony of it all, says Willever, is that "my husband, my father, and I are all big union people from way back, and we are on the longshoremen's side." She adds, "I watched this lockout on the news in October, cheering for the union, and never dreamed it would affect me so directly."

One of the hardest moments came with the Franklin Mason Press Young Authors and Illustrators Contest. Each of Willever's books has several back pages filled with short stories and illustrations done by the winners of her contest.

Shortly before the book's release, Willever throws a large party for the winner and first two runners-up in both the writing and illustrating categories. The children sign the books, as do the author and illustrator of the book. (In the case of "Where Do Snowmen Go?," the illustrator is Chris Gash.)

The party, set for Dec. 8 with several hundred children, was canceled. "You try explaining about strikes to a 6-year-old," she quips.

But through it all, Willever says she still supports the longshoremen's decisions, and is trying to keep her sense of humor.

"At this point," she says, "the question shouldn't be, 'Where do snowmen go?,' but, 'Where do disgruntled, broke author-publishers go?' "

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