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Central Hardware, St. Louis history

St. Louis-based Central Hardware was one of the first big-box home improvement chains. It peaked in 1993 at 39 stores in six states in the midwest, employing 3,700 people. It was once the 19th largest hardware retailer in the United States.

Central Hardware’s motto was “everything from scoop to nuts,” a play on the English idiom “soup to nuts,” which means beginning to end. Their inventory was over 40,000 SKUs, comparable to today’s home improvement stores. Its stores regularly exceeded 50,000 square feet. That’s about half the size of a typical home improvement store today, but it was large for the 1970s and 1980s. Traditional hardware stores ranged in size from 2,000 to 10,000 square feet. Its employees wore orange vests so customers knew who to ask for help.

Read More »Central Hardware, St. Louis history

The limit to how far you can go should be how hard you try, not where you came from

We took the boys to Springfield, Ill., this past weekend, mostly to go to children’s museums, but we also wanted to take them to Abraham Lincoln’s home. Lincoln’s home, and most of the homes on the block, are preserved and look today much like they looked in 1860, when Lincoln moved out.

We toured the home, and the tour guide left us with some important words that I hope will sink in with the boys. But one person on the tour asked more questions than anyone else. That person would be my oldest son.Read More »The limit to how far you can go should be how hard you try, not where you came from

We don’t need more H1-Bs, we need more immigrants

H1-Bs are a popular topic in Washington. Tech companies want them, since it lets them get the benefits of offshoring without actually offshoring, and politicians want them because companies want them, and they talk about luring the best minds to the United States as a side benefit. It’s such a great deal, they say, they want to bring in five times as many of them as they used to.

The problem is, they don’t stay. H1Bs aren’t about immigration–3% of H1B workers stay in the United States.

Read More »We don’t need more H1-Bs, we need more immigrants

The American Dream vs. the American Greed

Last week at church, our newly-installed vicar preached about greed vs. generosity, and he ripped a little on the American Dream, which he defined as each generation having better stuff and living more comfortably than their parents did.

I think he’s right, letting that consume you definitely leads to problems. But I was taught that the American Dream was more about opportunity than it was about materialism. And maybe that’s where we’ve gone wrong.

I’m probably 10 years older than the vicar is, and I attended schools that didn’t exactly value new history books. So what I was taught probably dates back two generations, not just one.

And when I was in school, for the most part they taught us that the American Dream was about opportunity, and about parents giving their kids better opportunities than they had.

Today, I hear marketers on the radio saying, "That’s the American Dream, isn’t it? Owning a home?" Or tying the American Dream to any other materialistic thing.

Note the shift. It shifted from the kids to self.

I don’t know exactly why my direct ancestor, Adam Farquhar, came to the Americas in the 1700s (perhaps 1729). Presumably it was because he couldn’t get land in Scotland. But you see the American Dream working from generation to generation. Adam’s son Benajah owned land. Benajah’s son Edward became a doctor. At least five of Edward’s sons, including my ancestor Isaac, became doctors. Isaac’s son Ralph didn’t become a doctor, but he became a successful businessman who hobnobbed with some very powerful people. Ralph Jr. revived the family tradition of being doctors, and he was wealthy enough to give my dad every opportunity in the world.

My dad never did become as wealthy or as successful as his dad was. But by Dad’s own admission, he was a slacker. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity. Look at things strictly in material terms, and Dad set the Farquhar line back a couple of generations.

But Dad gave me opportunities. Wherever we lived, he got me into a good school. When circumstances found us living in a town that didn’t have a good high school, Dad moved us out before I turned 14, so that my sister and I could go to good high schools. And Dad saw to it that we would be able to go to college.

My sons aren’t old enough to go to school yet, but they live in a good school district. And I did what I had to do in order to ensure they would have a choice between several good preschools, to get them a good foundation. I don’t know if either of them will be reading at age 3 like I was, but I’m going to make sure they have that chance.

I may have to make some personal sacrifices in order for them to have what they need. But for what Dad spent getting me a good high school education, he could have been driving Lincolns instead of those Dodge pickup trucks he drove. (And this was before pickup trucks became status symbols. Dad didn’t want his patients thinking they were paying for him to have an extravagant lifestyle.)

So I don’t have any problem brown-bagging my lunch, driving an older car, or using an older computer so my sons can go to good preschools. And given the choice between a smaller house in a great school district and a bigger house in a bad district, I’ll keep what I already have, so they can go to good schools.

What they make of it is up to them. But never let it be said that I didn’t get them the opportunity.

So what now?

The Republican Revolution is over. What went wrong?

Before I try to answer that question, a few words by Dr. Donald Prahlow, my high school history instructor, seem pertinent. In 1992 when Bill Clinton took the White House, Dr. Prahlow stood in front of a classroom full of young, mostly right-leaning students and tried to make sense of what happened. "As a historian, I have to say the best thing that can happen, when one political party has been in power for a long time, is to hand power over to the other one." He went on to give some examples. The most important thing I took from his brief aside before getting onto the day’s regularly scheduled lecture was that no president in history has ever been able to wreck the country irreparably in four or even eight years.

Not Richard Nixon. Not Warren G. Harding. Not Lyndon B. Johnson. Despite my strong feelings on that day in 1992, not William Jefferson Clinton. And regardless of your feelings on the two men, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama will be the first.

And I believe that what went wrong with the Republican Revolution, which started with the stunning 1994 comeback in both houses of Congress, is largely the neoconservative movement and George W. Bush.

What’s sad is that the end all started with so much potential. I vividly remember Bill Clinton, interviewed on the evening news on either ABC, NBC or CBS around 2002 or 2003 talking about Bush. He said he thought Bush would be very successful early on, because of two words that are largely forgotten today: compassionate conservatism. I’m paraphrasing, but basically Clinton said that if Bush could deliver Democratic-like social programs while delivering lower taxes, it would be almost impossible for the Democratic party to compete with that.

Unfortunately, nothing ever came of that. Rather than being remembered as the president who popularized compassionate conservatism, we’ll remember the image of Bush flying over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, looking out of touch and perhaps a bit over his head. Or we’ll remember the bothced recovery effort, which was long on excuses but painfully short on results.

The other Bush promise that never turned into anything was his bipartisanship. As governor of Texas, he had the reputation for reaching out to Democrats and working with them. Unfortunately, as president, we saw a man with little tolerance for anyone who disagreed with him, even if they were members of his own party.

In all fairness, it’s difficult to know how much of what we saw was Bush, and how much of it really was Dick Cheney. And that’s another failing of the Bush presidency: He failed to stand up to Cheney when necessary and put him in his place. The ticket read Bush-Cheney, but
often it seemed the reality was Cheney-Bush.

I don’t think I need to even bring up the wars.

Ultimately, all that came back to bite John McCain. The John McCain who stood up to Bush in 2000 was largely absent in 2008. It’s entirely possible that voters would have punished McCain for the sins of Bush no matter what, but ultimately, McCain didn’t do enough to distance himself from his predecessor. Certainly he risked alienating the 28% of the population who approved of Bush in doing so, but he fell into the same trap the Democrats fell into repeatedly in the 1990s when trying to appease the far left fringes of its party. As long as McCain managed to stay to the right of the Democrats, the minority of the population who favored Bush wasn’t going to abandon him and vote for Obama. McCain needed to concentrate on getting 23% from the center of the spectrum.

Meanwhile, while McCain was failing to distance himself enough from Bush (and was showing he was perfectly capable of being out of touch), Obama was showing up on the Sunday morning political shows, demonstrating that he read things, including newspapers, including the op-ed pages, including the parts written by people he didn’t always agree with. After 8 years of an administration whose idea of keeping informed was listening to Rush Limbaugh and watching Fox News, he probably seemed refreshing.

So what’s next?

The comeback doesn’t have to take as long this time. Remember, the only thing less popular than Bush right now is the Democrat-controlled Congress. They get a pass right now because they’re mostly unpopular for not standing up to Bush. But if the new, bigger Democratic majority fails to get desired results, there’s no reason to believe the electorate will be so sympathetic in two years.

So the Republican party needs to be ready. It has until the 2010 primaries to find its soul, to figure out what it stands for.

For their sake and everyone else’s, I hope it involves smaller and more efficient government and taking the Constitution in its entirety seriously.

And in the meantime, we have a man in the White House who embodies the American Dream and who personifies the result of decades of struggle. Whatever you think of his politics, he will inspire a generation or more, and a lot of good can come from that.

R.I.P.? The American Dream

Nearly 20 years ago, as I sat in a high school English class, the teacher told us all about the American Dream. And then she said there was one generation that wasn’t going to experience that dream, and she pointed at us.

As grim as things look right now, I can look around myself and see people proving Mrs. Susan Collins wrong, and that makes me happy.I guess she read somewhere that the U.S. economy had basically peaked. I vaguely remember reading something like that sometime in the late 1980s. It would have been just like my Dad to find an article like that in a magazine, rip it out, tell me to read it, and tell me not to let it happen to me.

The current prevailing theory is that as the rest of the world develops, our economy will grow as well because they’ll be better able to afford to buy our stuff. Hopefully by the time that happens, we’ll still know how to make something here.

The real threat to the American Dream right now is the sense of entitlement. When I look at the American Dream, I look at how my Dad lived when he was my age, and I have him beat hands-down. I have a house in the suburbs, and I own it outright. When Dad was 33, he lived in a slum. Well, not quite a slum. It was the former Toledo Motor Lodge, converted (badly) into apartments. The way Mom tells it, it was even worse than it sounds.

The problem is that we’ve been brainwashed not to compare our lives with where our parents were at our age. We’re supposed to have a better life than them right now. And if you’re under the age of 40 and your parents are white collar workers, that’s not a realistic expectation at all.

If my Dad were alive today, he would probably make 2-3 times what I make. Osteopathic radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than systems administrators with 10 years of experience. What if I’d followed his footsteps and become an osteopathic radiologist like he was? He’d still make more than me, because radiologists with 30 years of experience make more money than radiologists with five years of experience. Who wouldn’t rather have the guy with 30 years’ experience reading their x-rays?

But that’s something my family has been dealing with for generations. Dr. Edward Andrew Farquhar started practicing medicine before the Civil War, and when you trace him to me, I’m one of only two generations who didn’t follow his footsteps. When it comes to the American Dream, it’s hard to compete with your father when your father was the town doctor. It isn’t all just handed to you.

But that’s a blessing in two regards. That means anyone who’s deserving of the title can be the next town doctor. That’s good for everyone, because unspeakable things happen when I have to look at something that’s bleeding a lot. If I were the town doctor, lots of people would probably bleed to death.

And any time someone says the American Dream is dead, I look at my neighborhood. It’s overrun with Bosnians. More than 50,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in St. Louis in the early 1990s.

I wish every city in the United States had 50,000 Bosnians move in, because they’re the best thing that’s happened to St. Louis in a very long time. They found jobs, worked hard, saved money, and bought run-down houses in declining neighborhoods. I can remember (barely) some of those neighborhoods, and they’re a better place now because of it. The neighborhoods not only look better now, but they’re safer.

Some of the children of those refugees are grown now, with jobs and families of their own, and increasingly they’re moving into the suburbs. In other cases, first-generation Bosnian immigrants are upgrading to houses in the suburbs.

It’s clear how they do it. Besides having a regular job, they always have something going on the side. Maybe more than one. They shop at thrift stores and garage sales, and they negotiate hard. They treat every dollar like it’s their last. And they’re always looking for an opportunity, or trying to make one.

They’ve tried to maintain their distinct culture, but what they may or may not realize is that they’re more American than their neighbors down the street who’ve been here for four generations.

I hope they’re still going at it when my son is old enough to pay attention. Because I intend take him out and find some Bosnians in action. And when I do, I’m going to point at them and tell my son to watch everything they do. Because for anyone who’s willing to do what the Bosnians do, the American Dream will always be alive.

How does the live-within-your-means movement apply to the current recession?

Joseph brought up some good points in the comments for the previous entry, and I don’t think a short response does them justice. He wants to know what the personal finance experts have to say about the current economic crisis.

Suze Orman actually went on TV a few weeks ago and called it an opportunity of a lifetime. I’ll explain.Joseph says this feels different from other recessions. I think it’s because it is. It’s more like 1929. The major difference is what people were investing in.

The biggest problem in 1929 (besides the crash) was that Herbert Hoover didn’t realize until it was too late that we had a big problem on our hands. That’s not the case this time. Although Bush and McCain were denying it for a long time, both readily admit now that we have a problem.

The cause of our problems today is twofold. One, we should have had a recession in 2000-2001 and we didn’t have much of one. The Fed lowered interest rates to stave off recession, and the result was something of a boom. Both political parties blame the other for this, but basically, under their encouragement, everyone and his uncle was willing to loan people way more money than they could realistically pay back. (Republicans liked this because it was deregulation; Democrats liked it because minorities who previously couldn’t get loans suddenly could get them in spades.) Then, when too many people failed to pay those loans, the banks ran out of money, so now we have banks failing.

I remember seeing Suze Orman come on TV on Sunday morning years ago and warn this was coming. The reason was simple: Too many people were in over their heads in debt, and eventually it was going to catch up with us. She even had the timeframe about right.

It didn’t take a prophet to see it. We started having problems when large numbers of adjustable rate mortgages started resetting. One month, people could make their payments on everything. The next month, their mortgage skyrocketed and there wasn’t enough money left to buy a day’s supply of Ramen noodles, let alone make car and credit card payments.

Soaring gas and food prices didn’t help either, of course. Then again, that’s all interconnected too. Back in 2001, Ford and GM started offering 0% financing, and their primary products were big gas guzzlers. Increased consumption raised fuel prices, which in turn raised the price of everything.

But for those who are able to pay their bills and keep their jobs, the opportunity of a lifetime is nigh.

Stock prices are down. Nobody knows if they’ve hit bottom yet or not. But they came back after 1929, and they’ll come back after this crisis too.

My grandfather was a wealthy man. He started his medical practice sometime during the Depression. He died in 1980, long before I could have a meaningful conversation with him about money. I can only speculate how he made his money, because the living relative who might have firsthand knowledge isn’t especially honest or reliable. I believe he bought stock in the 1930s at depressed prices sometime after he graduated from medical school. While those investments certainly didn’t pay off immediately, by the time the ’50s and ’60s rolled around, he still owned that stock, which he’d bought at Depression prices. At those prices, he might as well have stolen the stock.

I believe the same opportunity exists today. This isn’t the time to cash out your 401(k) accounts–it’s time to max out your yearly contributions, if you can afford to.

A similar situation is beginning to exist in real estate. If William Nickerson (the original make-a-fortune-in-real-estate guy) was still alive, he’d be having a field day. Nickerson made at least $5 million in his lifetime by buying distressed properties and turning them around. Before this crisis is over, there’s going to be a lot of distressed property that needs fixing up.

The bottom line is that the people who have no debt, or who have a reasonable amount of debt under control don’t have anything to be afraid of right now as long as they’re able to stay employed. They have numerous opportunities, in fact.

For one, they’re in an ideal position to convert pre-tax retirement plans into Roth IRAs, which are tax exempt on the back end. You take a tax hit when doing that, but this is the time to take that hit–prices are down.

Two, they can buy stocks and/or real estate at depressed prices, hold on to those assets, and in 20 years they’ll be rich. Once again, let’s go back to 1929. The Dow Jones Industrial Average peaked that year at around 380. If you take the worst case scenario, buying at the peak and then crashing, it took 25 years (1954) for the DJIA to get back above 380. But once it did, it stayed above that level for good.

But aside from that extreme scenario, it’s very difficult to find any 10-year period where stocks didn’t make money.

About a year ago, the DJIA was near 14,000. Today it’s below 9,000 and threatening the low 8,000s. There’s no historical precedent for it to drop lower and stay lower, and there’s no historical precedent for it to stay stuck at any level either. There’s every historical precedent for it to reach 14,000 again, and it’s much more likely for it to do it in less than 7 years than for it to take 25 years like 1929. Between now and then, individual companies will go under, but that’s why you don’t invest solely in one company. Buying an index fund that tracks the S&P 500, for example, spreads your risk over 500 large companies. If General Motors evaporates, you lose a little. But if GM gets its act together and the stock soars, you share in the gain.

Finally, when it comes to real estate, all those people who had bad mortgages have to live somewhere. It’s a terrible market to sell, but if you’re inclined to buy properties and rent them out, the environment is ideal for that and will be for a very long time. People who have enough saved up to pay cash can pretty much monopolize this game for a while, since loans are hard to come by.

There’s a positive for the country as a whole too. Did you get sick of the rest of the world buying up our companies because their economies were booming while ours stagnated? Now everyone’s in the same boat as us, so we’ve probably seen the end (at least for a while) of ruthless international conglomerates buying U.S. companies and then slashing everything that moves.

Overall, I do think this bust is a net positive for society, and not just for the reason I just mentioned. I read not long ago that many people under 40 consider the American Dream a birthright, not something that takes work and ambition. Society as a whole has been using borrowed money to artificially raise lifestyles up into the next-higher income tax bracket. Today’s crisis may put an end to that, and ultimately, that’s good for everyone, although it will be painful in the short term.

The argument for paying your mortgage off early

I’ve had a number of people tell me I’m making a mistake paying my mortgage off early. If all goes well, my wife and I will be rid of that debt sometime this year.

I can understand the logic behind keeping that "good debt." But that’s idealistic. I have lots of reasons for getting rid of that as soon as possible.First, there’s my personal experience. Right out of college, I invested everything I could, and for a time I looked like a genius because the market was doing gangbusters in 1998 and 1999. Then the double whammy of the dotcom bust and 9/11 happened, and I literally lost half of it. Now that those investments have mostly recovered, the market is in the toilet again. How much will I lose this time?

Of course, when the losses are piling up it’s a great time to buy at low prices and hold. If that were the only factor, I might do it.

But in the meantime, I know exactly what the return will be if I pay off the mortgage early. And it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the economy does.

The second factor is job security. Let’s look at my recent history. In 2005 I lost my job. About six weeks later I found another one. It wasn’t ideal, because the company was having financial problems and I knew going in that it might not last. I took it because I was on the hook for pair of $400 car payments and an $1,100 mortgage. By my math, the money I had in the bank would last about four more months. I took the job because I didn’t like my odds of finding anything better.

The job lasted four months.

When that ended, I interviewed with another company for a temporary job. It was anything but ideal: About an hour away, and it was only for two months. But it was late October, not a good time for job-hunting, and this would get me through the holidays. The interview was a home run.

I didn’t get the job though. Later that very day, the company did a round of massive layoffs, and the job I interviewed for ceased to exist. I lost the job before I even had it.

For two months I looked and didn’t find anything. I couldn’t even find a desktop support job.

Finally at the end of December I got another job. It wasn’t ideal either. The biggest problem was that it was 45 minutes from home. For seven years I’d worked 10-20 minutes from home. Did I want the job? No. Did I have a choice? Given my recent history, not really. My car was paid off but my wife’s wasn’t yet, so we were still on the hook for $1,500 every month. This job was secure for at least a couple of years, which was a lot better than the last two opportunities. So I took it.

I’ve looked for something closer since then. The problem is that there are so many other people who want any job that comes up. I’ve had a few phone calls, but never an interview.

My job is reasonably secure until September or October. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. If the house is paid off before then, it doesn’t matter nearly as much.

In decades past, if you got a job with a good company, there was a reasonable expectation on both sides that you would work for that company until you retired. That world doesn’t really exist anymore. A lot of companies want turnover, because it keeps wages down. It almost seems like some companies try to make sure you won’t be around more than five years so they don’t have to give you a third week of vacation.

Other companies run themselves into the ground before you can stick around five years.

In that kind of environment, being on the hook for $2,000 a month for 30 years just doesn’t look very appealing. There will be periods of time in your career that you won’t have that money coming in. The only question is when it will be, and for how long.

Changing careers becomes much easier without a mountain of debt. A lot of us end up in jobs that don’t really suit us, for whatever reason. We go to college and study four or five years, hoping to figure out what we want to do with our lives. It’s really not enough time, and most of us don’t actually find ourselves until we’re somewhere north of age 30. By then it may be too late. We’ve built up our debts and our lifestyles to the point that we can’t afford to change careers and start over at the bottom of the pay scale again. And if you have to go back to school on top of that? Ouch.

What if you want to chase the American Dream the classic way and go into business for yourself? The problem with that is that most businesses can’t make enough to support the owner until they’re two or three years old. This is why most businesses don’t survive more than 18-24 months.

If you’re not on the hook for $2,000 a month, you can much better afford to weather a few lean months or even a couple of years until you can either climb the pay scale in a new career, or your business matures to the point where it can support you. Getting rid of debt puts you back in control of your own destiny.

Finally, I’ve seen what it’s like to not have debt. Some friends of my mother in law and father in law convinced them that it would be a good idea to pay off all of their debt, and they gave them a plan to do it in seven years. They did it. And even though the two of them had modest salaries–she was a schoolteacher and he was a disabled veteran with no college education, which limited him to jobs that didn’t pay a lot–without that debt, they were able to live very comfortably and retire while they were in their 50s.

Imagine what it would be like to have the freedom to change to a career that suits you, reach the point where you’re able to retire in your 50s, but not really want to retire yet because you enjoy what you’re doing.

Not having an anchor of debt hanging around your neck opens a lot of possibilities, doesn’t it? I think it’s worth sacrificing a couple of years of investing to get to that point.

Before they were Cardinals…

I just finished reading Before They Were Cardinals, a history of the American Association St. Louis Browns, by Jon David Cash.

I have mixed feelings about the book.Most people know the Cardinals are one of the oldest baseball franchises. What most don’t know is that the Cardinals didn’t start out in the National League, were formerly known as the Browns (not to be confused with the later St. Louis Browns of the American League that moved to Baltimore in 1954), and that the tradition of the World Series originated here in St. Louis,

This book gives a nice overview of the early history of the St. Louis franchise and the American Association, the league in which the team had its first early successes.

The upside of the book is that it is very academic. It cites everything and the old maps and photographs prove the author spent hours at the Missouri Historical Society unearthing treasures.

The downside is that the book is academic. While I certainly understand the desire to rise above the sensationalist, opinionated late 19th-century journalism that serves as most of the book’s primary sources, a lot of the color that makes the early history of this team interesting isn’t in the book. The colorful and eccentric owner, Christian Frederick Wilhem von der Ahe, is presented as a German immigrant who bought a bar, noticed one day that his patrons all left in a rush for a few hours on Sunday, then returned to spend a leisurely rest of the day. After asking where everyone went and hearing about baseball, he invested in the team and made (and later lost) a fortune doing so.

That’s all fine and good, but it’s a one-dimensional picture of Chris Von der Ahe. Yes, he was an astute and successful self-made immigrant businessman–the embodiment of the American Dream if there ever was one. While some mention of his nouveau riche excesses is in the book, much of what made him so despised outside of St. Louis isn’t mentioned.

My personal favorite Von der Ahe story, the larger-than-life statue of himself erected outside of Sportsman’s Park to celebrate the successful 1885 season, gets no mention in the book. There is mention that Von der Ahe is buried underneath a large statue of himself, but no mention of where the statue came from.

I did find it very interesting that Von der Ahe, convinced there was no money left to be made in St. Louis, plotted to win the 1887 World Series and then move his world championship team to New York where he could draw bigger crowds, more beer sales, and bigger profits. The team never won another World Series under his ownership, however, so Von der Ahe never put that plan into motion.

Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly with the American Association’s merger with the National League, with only a brief epilogue at the end talking about the slow fall of Von der Ahe and his loss of the franchise.

In the book’s defense, Von der Ahe gets more treatment elsewhere while the American Association is little more than a footnote today, so I can see why the author chose to focus on the more neglected subject. It makes for better scholarship. Since this book is published by the University of Missouri Press and not Random House, I can see why the book was written the way it was.

If you want good history, particularly of what it was that made the American Association what it was–and this is fair, because the St. Louis club was the dominant team of that league and era–then this is a great book. If you’re looking for colorful stories about a guy who was like Ted Turner and George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley and Bill Veeck all wrapped up into one with a dash of Jay Gatsby thrown in, look elsewhere.

The best business book I\’ve ever read

I just finished reading Start Small, Finish Big by Fred DeLuca.

What I like most about it is that it doesn’t expect you to quit your job, it doesn’t assume you’ve already started a million businesses before (why would you need the book if you had?), and it doesn’t get bogged down in frustrating details.

What’s he mean by start small? Initial investments of no more than $5,000 and often much, much less, that’s what. What’s he mean by finish big? Read on.Fred DeLuca was a poor kid, living in public housing, who wanted to go to college. His dad happened to have a friend named Pete who had some money, so he asked Pete what the best way would be to pay for college, since he couldn’t think of anyone else to ask. Pete loaned him $1,000 and told him to start a sandwich shop. You’ve probably eaten there. It was called Subway.

LeDuca spends the book walking through 15 things he learned over the course of running Subway. He pulls in his own experience, as well as the experience of 14 other business owners.

One of those other owners is Paul Orfalea, a guy who barely made it through college and the only skill he had was making copies. Since he couldn’t think of anything better to do with his life, he borrowed some money and bought a photocopier. His nickname was Kinko. You’ve probably used one of his photocopiers too.

If you don’t have any ideas, this book can help you find one. If you don’t have any money, this book can help you find some. Really–there are 13 pages in the back listing organizations in every state that help small businesses get off the ground with small low-interest loans and coaching.

The book is down to earth and, at times, funny. At least I found it funny when one would-be entrepreneur pitched her idea for a consignment shop to her mother, only to be rebuked with, “That sounds like Sanford and Son. I don’t want to sell used furniture.”

OK, maybe you’ll at least agree with me that it’s down to earth?

A lot of books tell you to get a lawyer and/or draw up a business plan as a first step. DeLuca would rather see you grab a plastic bag and go hunting for aluminum cans to recycle–the only way to learn to make a lot of money is to start by making a little money, and there’s no risk involved in collecting aluminum cans. (I think it does some other positive things to you as well.)

Before I read this book, I pretty much thought the American Dream was dead. So for me, this book was 15 strong arguments why I was wrong. According to DeLuca, you don’t have to be the first guy with an idea–it helps to be early, but that’s not even strictly necessary–and you don’t necessarily have to be the best, and you don’t even have to be the cheapest.

If running your own business has the least bit of appeal to you, this is a good book for you to read.