One town's tale of sneaker economics

The last Converse

The late grunge singer Kurt Cobain wore them like a habit.

The military refers to them as "MIL-S-43961" - they were standard Army issue for years.

Former college basketball star Lou Pucillo wore them, as did the entire North Carolina State University Wolfpack during their three-year NCAA championship reign from 1952-1954.

"Them" means Converse "Chuck Taylor" All-star sneakers, an American icon in canvas and rubber.

But now the original version of the shoes are about to achieve a more dubious distinction: extinction from American closets.

Two weeks ago, the last American plant making the footwear shut its doors here in Lumberton, N.C. While the sneakers will still be manufactured overseas, none of them will again carry the little patch on the heel that says "Made in U.S.A."

What's happened to this once-proud mill amid the undulating hills of North Carolina tells a tale of sneaker economics and one town's attempt to survive the onslaught of globalization.

Lumberton residents have seen some 6,500 factory jobs disappear since 1996. International Jensen, a speakers maker, just closed its plant, putting 500 people out of work. Croft Metals, which makes storm doors, let go 580. Gerber Children's Wear left another 500 jobless.

So far, residents are staying. But their town is becoming little more than an amalgamation of flea markets as people struggle to find anything paying. "We're all going to be fixing each other's lawnmowers here, is the problem," says Jock Nash, Washington counsel for Milliken & Co., a textile firm.

For many, watching a factory like the Chuck Taylor plant move its jobs overseas is the first time the implications of a global economy hit home. "It's a powerful example of how free trade can actually affect American culture," says Sanjay Mongia, an analyst with the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington.

A plant closing doesn't just mean the loss of jobs in a town like Lumberton. It means the loss of good jobs. A report released this month by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that an average factory wage of $442 per week is largely being supplanted by new retail jobs that pay $276 - often without benefits. But people in towns hit by layoffs aren't moving to find even those jobs. According to a recent North Carolina State study, they're trying to survive in place.

That's what Linda Lowry is doing.One of the original workers hired in 1972 to build Converse shoes at an old Goodyear rubber plant, Ms. Lowry is awaiting a small severance check.She's enrolled in Robeson Community College in May, but has no idea how she'll pay her bills until then.

"Americans don't care much about 'Made in the USA' anymore," Lowry says with resignation.

Certainly, the factory's closing has as much to do with the changing tastes of fickle consumers as with Converse's desire to save money. After more than 70 years of representing everything from the baby boomers' athleticism to Gen-Xers' rebelliousness, the Chuck's appeal has waned in the face of today's more sophisticated - and hyper-marketed - athletic shoes.

"Free trade didn't kill Converse," says Peter Morici, a senior fellow at ESI. "The American consumer killed Converse."

Still, it's semi-rural towns like Lumberton that are taking most of the hits from an economy that has lifted many Americans' wealth - and sent them buying shoes that resemble something designed for NASA. Instead of uprooting, residents here are trying to fashion a new economy that revolves around street-style bazaars, which are popping up on every corner.

In this sleepy brown-brick town just 30 miles south of Fort Bragg, music stores now double as car washes, and churches make extra money running yard sales. In many towns, this domestic dealing is cropping up unregulated.In other places, communities are encouraging the trend - even at the danger of affecting property values as rickety clothes racks are pulled into driveways.

One recent Saturday, near a lazy curve of the Lumber River, some 60 people crammed between rows of storage sheds to bid on left-behind items.A Skil saw went for $3, while a dog cage slipped away for $15. "Something like that would have cost at least $30 in the store," a customer exclaims.

Farther down on Route 72, a barbershop looking for business advertises: "Three master barbers, one master barbecuer." Jonathan Locklear chars pork chops to bring in hungry customers looking for a trim.

Indeed, with less money to spend, competition has become stiffer, as ex-factory workers turn to their own free-market strengths: barbering or bartering. "People are living from income to income," says barber Kenston Breeden. "It's harder to get customers."

At a church flea market, James Dial sells Timberlands, Nikes, and Adidas. "Working shoes, mostly," Mr. Dial says. Ironically, there are no Chucks to be found.Air Jordans and Timberland boots are the rage. Never mind that Chuck Taylors still sell for under $30 - a basement bargain for a new shoe today.

Jimmy Baldwin, the cobbler at the downtown Star Shoe Shop, says there's no doubt American shoes are better-made. Not that anyone would know anymore, though, he says: "If you don't have American shoes to compare with, it's hard to tell that they're better."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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