Nature Didn’t Make Nutrasweet: Shimmer, Towery and the Dot-Com Days
April 19th, 2009
From 1995 to 2002, I worked at a company called Towery Publishing Inc. that, in largely vague and indirect ways, influenced this novel I’ve written, Shimmer, which comes out in June. Shimmer isn’t about Towery. And it isn’t about the people who worked there. But in thinking about the relationship between Shimmer and Towery, I keep coming back to the old tag line for the artificial sweetener Nutrasweet: “Nature didn’t make Nutrasweet, but Nutrasweet couldn’t be made without it.” I started at Towery as Managing Editor of the Internet Division, a strikingly dated job title that is now somehow reminiscent of professions like Typist, Steelworker or Cowboy, and which reminds me that, once upon a time in a decade not long ago, there wasn’t an Internet. At its peak, Towery employed over 200 people around the country, publishing city guides, business directories, maps, books and − eventually − Web sites. We were a dot-com in our way, with lots of crazy perfect plans for remaking our and your world via the Web. But we were also grounded in a long-time print publishing business and tied to the Towery family’s long history of publishing in Memphis and elsewhere. Towery as I knew it is gone now, but even these days, if you work in or around publishing or advertising or Web development in Memphis, you’re rarely more than a few degrees of separation from Towery. Ultimately, I was COO of Towery, up until its end. Recently, one of the graphic designers who worked there asked a simple question of Bob Towery, the former owner and a friend of mine still: When did he start the Internet Division? I think Terry, who asked the question, was just looking for a date. But the question got a number of people talking, via email, about our time at Towery. Here are some of my memories, edited, expanded and reorganized from the original email exchange. I also amended or left off the names of the people who I think might be offended. Or who might have the wherewithal to hire a lawyer. Here’s what I remember: I moved to Memphis in fall 1995, having left my own personal insanity of an extremely stressful life in New York City in search of a quieter, simpler, even pastoral existence involving writing and enough periodic freelance assignments to keep milk and beer in the fridge. Punchline: And then I met Bob. In early 1996, a Towery salesman named Robert Phillips, in the process of selling some sort of advertising to my then-father-in-law, somehow got a hold of my resume and forwarded it to William, Towery’s CFO, who then forwarded the resume to Bob Towery. Bob and I met in his office at the company headquarters in Memphis, an office overlooking the Midtown fire station and the frighteningly chaotic intersection of Union and McLean. To the backdrop of fire engine sirens and an almost mystical number of near-fatal car crashes, Bob and I spent an hour or more talking through approximately 118 ideas for what could be done on the Internet. We also allowed ourselves a number of digressions into race cars, failing educational standards and Texas. I can’t remember what we said about Texas, but I remember talking about it. Following the interview, Bob walked me down to the dark, subterranean designers’ area on the bottom floor of the building, where I was introduced to a couple of Towery people, including Paul Ringger, who became a friend of mine and who was officially the head of IT but who was really what would now be called something much more lofty − Senior Evangelical Technologist or Chief Visionary Aficionado. About five minutes into the light but awkward chit chat that one engages in during the obligatory post-interview tour, Paul said, “Oh, wait, I thought you were the insurance agent. That tie and everything. Sorry. I was totally confused.” It was, I believe, one of the last times I − or anyone else associated with the Internet Division − wore a tie in that building. I started doing freelance work for the company a few weeks later, and was soon introduced to a cast of characters that included Paul, Dave Cooley, Charlie M., and David Dawson. Cooley was probably 65 and from South Carolina and I doubt he could have turned on a computer if he wanted to. (He didn’t.) But Cooley knew Everyone and had a charming, smooth and leathered way about him. He was a consultant to Towery, retired mostly, and a few times a month he’d come into my office to sit and talk. He always had that air of a man who could spend hours in your office, just talkin’. Meanwhile, I would sit there thinking that every minute I spend just talking is another minute late into the night that I will be here in this building. Which is unfortunate. Because I liked talking to Cooley and probably would have benefited from doing more of it. Charlie, who was also much older than me and sported gray hair and a full gray beard, was in charge of sales, and he and I spent a tremendous amount of time presenting ideas for city and community sites on the Web to anyone who would listen. Our schtick was that I was the young, long-haired, computer geek and he was the wizened, trustworthy business man. Neither end of that joint persona was particularly true, but it eased the opening of many a meeting. In truth, one of our unspoken secrets was that for about six months, neither of us really understood exactly what we were selling. Maybe because of this, I learned a lot about sales from Charlie. There was more than a little of the snake oil salesman in Charlie, who’d spent one era of his life as a political operative for a number of deep Mississippi elections. Weaknesses aside, Charlie was actually the type of salesman who, when you’d bought the precious snake oil elixir from him only to realize it was just a bottle of whiskey, he’d sit down and have a drink of it with you. Hell, he’d probably refund you the price plus interest. I liked Charlie. And David Dawson was Towery’s senior writer, editor and resident cynic. He’d worked with Bob since, the word was, childhood. Bob and David’s was one of those deeply pre-existing work relationships that had been formed in some moment to which you simply were not privy, some vague and rumored watershed event that had to have involved a rundown orphanage, the day-after afternoon of a wild casino binge, or the late night confines of an office overwhelmed by the frantic compromises of a print publication on deadline. (There is no work environment so torturous as a print publication on deadline.) For my part, I’d visit with David just to have my inflated sense of self brought down slightly. Indirectly. But always good naturedly. I’d talk to David and, as he went on about the evils and failures of all things, people and ideas within our sight, I’d find myself giggling. He just did that to me. The more desperately desperate he became about the state of things − Cooley’s long-winded sit-downs, Charlies failures at sales, my inability to launch a community Web site on time − the more I giggled, sometimes to the point of hysteria. David also had a very delicate way of eating Cheetos. For me, a person who has always found it hard to watch people eat, who sees other people’s eating as a quietly personal and open window on their soul, watching David eat Cheetos was humbling, sweet and peaceful. In later, much shorter acts there would be other characters. The “marketing expert” Brian M., who was prone to the sudden insertion of words like “vagina” and “penis” into otherwise stoic and sensible business meetings, the “sales expert” Marc B., who was extremely bright, nice and respectful to me and to Bob yet was so dictorially degrading to virtually ever other person he encountered in the building that only his immediate, forced departure prevented a full-scale employee riot from occuring, and the “training expert” Jennifer Something, a trainer from the East Coast who showed up a few days before a long-planned, high-profile, three-day “Business & The Internet” training session with absolutely no materials and no preparation. Mind-boggling. Jenny McDowell, the former Towery executive publisher, remembers that one of Jennifer Something’s hastily arranged practice sessions before the real event included “a good five or more minutes on emoticons.” (I believe it was after that failed practice sesssion that Bob turned to David and me and said, in effect, “Boys, can you write me up a three-day business and the Internet training session by Wednesday?” I’m sure David sighed and despaired, and I’m sure I started to giggle even as I calculated how late into the night I would be at the office, but Bob was and is one of those real entrepreneurs, the people who put everything they have behind an idea because of their certain, total belief in the idea itself, the kind of people who look at you and ask the impossible and you find yourself suddenly possessed by an ethereal spirit as you watch yourself, from the side, from below or above, saying, “Yes, Bob. Sure. Of course I can.”) It was 1996. These things really happened. And then there was Mr. K., an older, facially pock-marked, heavy-set Weeble of a man who had no job description other than to use his inexplicably deep and far-reaching personal connections to get people like John Elway and Warren Buffett on the phone. To what end, it was never clear. But it was endlessly impressive nonetheless. Mr. K. once told me about the leather pants his girlfriend liked him to wear on the weekends and, upon first meeting me and Paul, separately, said the exact same thing to both of us: “Oh my. You look just like a young friend of mine. He’s a model. Have you modeled?” There are many parts to that joke, but the one that’s safest to elaborate upon is that people often confused Paul and me for one another, because, apparently, we look somewhat alike. Back at Towery, Paul and I inadvertantly made this situation even more confusing by owning a number of the same shirts. Sometimes we’d email each other in the morning: “Don’t wear the green striped one today, because I’m already dressed and about to get in the car so it’s my turn today.” Towery had a long history of Halloween parties at the office and so, for Halloween one year, I decided to come to work dressed as Paul. I thought it was hysterical. But, given that by dressing up as Paul I, by definition, simply looked like myself, not many other people got the joke. The perils of subtley. Back to the time line. I was hired full time soon after that first interview in Bob’s office near the fire station. My resume says that was April 1996, but we all know how that goes. Let’s call it the spring of 1996. I do remember that for a month or so after I was hired, I had no job title. I didn’t particularly care except for the fact that, for the first month, I was constantly introduced simply as “Eric…he’ll be working on the Internet.” To say the least, this left people unsure of what exactly I was there to do. Was I coding pages? Was I magically speeding up the Internet connection? Was I maybe the guy to talk to when your Mac crashed? (And, back then, your Mac crashed often, a sort of intra-office heartbeat by which you found yourself scheduling coffee breaks, lunch time and the end of the work day.) Bob had a habit of keeping tight control of job titles at Towery, doling them out only intermittently, with great reluctance, like an artist holed away with his canvas, working, creating, finding perfection only after much pain and turmoil. Eventually, Bob did emerge from his office and decree that, henceforth, I would be Managing Editor of the Internet Division. In hindsight, this was a somewhat disappointing title, as Bob was known for crafting titles that, in their combination of length, ambiguity and syntactic range, rose to a level of actual profundity. I think that Executive Publisher for Periodical Development & Hardcover Books was one. Senior Manager for Ancillary Products, Marketing & Prepress Services was probably another. If your title didn’t include an ampersand and didn’t wrap across three lines of your business card, you were left feeling somewhat lesser in your significance and stature. (At some point, when we’d become friends, I suddenly thought to ask Bob what his title was. “Me?” he responded. “President.”) My first six months at Towery were filled with the creation of Web site prototypes for city and community sites. Home page designs, placeholder subsections, links that went nowhere, beautifully Photoshopped graphics that caused even the newest “high speed” 28.8 baud modems to instaneously self-desctruct. It was the era of prototypes, graphic overload, and constant redesigns. Every few months, we’d do a redesign. One of the first truly independent decisions I ever made as a manager was during redesign number 12 of prototype community site number 4. A designer, Michaelf Forsythe, looked over his shoulder and told me casually but conclusively, “Oh, we can’t do blue. Bob hates blue.” I stared at him. “What?” Michael nodded. “Everyone knows that. We can’t do blue.” I looked around. I contemplated. I made a decision. “Well, the client wants blue. So today, you’re doing blue.” Things like that took on their own lore back then. A redesign is the key to prosperity. A title makes you who you are. No matter what, don’t use blue. Michael, incidentally, was a great designer, especially in his use of type. My only problem was that he loved tiny type. Not small type. Tiny, as in six point tiny. His work was beautiful, always. But entirely unreadable. We argued back and forth about this for years. When Michael eventually left Towery, he handed me a resignation letter − an oddly unecessary act in the informal Towery environment. The entire letter − an announcement of his departure, an expression of appreciation of his time at Towery, and a request for future references − took up just one line. It must have been condensed, san-serif, 3 point type. And, yet again, it was beautiful. Originally, all our sites were hosted at a local Internet provider called Southern Communications, the sort of place where, if you needed a user name created or an email set up, you had to call a guy with a name like Art, reaching him on his cellular telephone after midnight, which was the only time he worked and even then he’d lecture you about how busy he was and how your request hadn’t gone through proper channels and how he’d noticed that none of the pages you’d been putting on “his” servers were at all compliant with the newest HTML standards agreed upon by the Swiss-Indonesia-Estonia Working Group for Internet Standards (SIEWGIS). “Um. Really? Huh. Let me look into that. In the meantime, is that email set up yet?” Southern Communications, which later became part of the somewhat notoriously failed public company iXL Enterprises, is notable to me now also because my first email address at Towery was firstname.lastname@example.org. It was my first work-related email address. I’d been in the work world for many years before that time, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember how I got anything done before email. Later, we bought our own servers, three beautifuly designed, brilliantly blue, seemingly hand-crafted Silicon Graphics servers that cost the 2009 equivalent of three trillion dollars (and had the equivalent 2009 computing power of a free cellphone I got last week as part of some promotion at Burger King). Paul taught me a few Unix commands and, if I goaded him properly, he’d let me log into the servers and type commands. I remember typing /var/ a lot and I remember I graduated to rebooting the servers under his watch and I seem to remember, although this could be my inflated ego talking, that I once had cause to reboot the servers while Paul was out of the office. I like to think it’s true. There were so many other people at Towery about whom I could and should write. In truth, most of what I’ve written here is from the first three or four years at Towery, before the bubble − the dot-com bubble, the stock market bubble and our own internal bubble − burst. If I were being honest and complete in this, I’d include all kinds of memories of my last three years there, including writing about the four people who I worked with every day and who stayed working for me − at a not inconsiderable financial and personal cost to themselves − till the very end, namely Laura, Melissa, Ernest and Andy. But I can’t think of anything lightly witty to say about them quite yet. The pain of telling those people that it − Towery − was over when it finally did all come apart in 2002, it is even still just a little too raw for me. Another time. One last Towery memory is that some time in 1996 or 1997, Paul hired Dave D. Dave is a big, sweet, bear of a man, who will probably hate that description, but what can I say? He is. Now a writer and father and student, he’s a friend I don’t see nearly enough. When he started at Towery, it wasn’t entirely clear what Dave had been hired to do. But it was so much fun to go down to the server room and see how he was occupying himself. He wore Bermuda shorts and Converse sneakers and had an endless array of t-shirts bearing cryptic and ironic cultural references. In those days, when you found Dave in the server room, you’d see that Paul had him moving back up tapes from one shelf to another, or labeling and sorting cables according to a complicated system involving their length and color, or carting the largest, heaviest computer monitors known to man from the first to the second floor. After about a year of this, Dave told me he now had a title: Technical Liaison. I love that title. It was Bob’s masterpiece, I think. And it is, still, what I strive to be. Technical Liaison. In around 2000, when we were deep into a series of ultimately failed discussions to sell Towery to Cendant − the Fortune 500 corporation that owned Century 21, Avis and Welcome Wagon (it made synergistic sense to them and us at the time but, as noted, this was 2000), Dave came into my office, closed the door, and for the first time in all those years I’d known him, wore a very serious look on his face. He spoke with a very serious tone. “Eric, with this new company, I’d like to know: What kind of drug testing might they be planning?” You couldn’t help but realize that an era had ended.