Chapter 1: “Go Start This” CHAPTER 1 “GO START THIS”
Richard John Stack: where to begin, explaining my father? He was a born salesman with the gift of blarney, a guy who could chat up pretty much anyone. He was a good, if conservative, businessman. He was an athlete in his youth and remained passionate about sports throughout his life. When I played baseball and football as a kid, he never missed a game. He defined customer service broadly: he believed that a business owed a debt to its community, and he made good on that debt in a number of ways. He did right by his hometown.
But he was a complicated man. He stood five-eight and never topped 150 pounds, but he was a brawler, unafraid to use his fists to make a point. He wasn’t a particularly happy guy—he was driven more by a fear of failure than a desire to succeed, and he could be a humorless tyrant at work and home. He drank too much, smoked too much, didn’t eat well or exercise, and his habits turned him old before his time. He could be great company. Just as often, he wasn’t.
So, to be straight with you, right from the start: there’s plenty of Horatio Alger to the story you’re about to read, several episodes of rags-to-riches heroism, but the first protagonist of this tale was no saint. He was a child of the Depression with his share of demons, and his days were not always easy or pleasant, for him or anyone close by.
All that said, Dick Stack left imprints on me, his oldest son, and on the company he founded. Many were indelible and continue to color the way we do business today, more than seventy years after he opened his first store. Much of the culture we’ve built at the company that bears his name can be traced back through the years to the examples set by my mercurial, hard-living, often exasperating father.
The good examples, that is.
We’ll set out on this journey where he did, and where I did twenty-six years later: in Binghamton, New York, a town that occupies a narrow valley in the state’s “Southern Tier,” the long stretch of rolling countryside that runs along the Pennsylvania border, north and west of New York City. Binghamton is nestled on bottomland at the confluence of two rivers—the Susquehanna, which crosses the town from west to east and is already fat with the outflow of upstream tributaries, and the smaller Chenango, which joins the Susquehanna from the north.
Downtown is tucked into the northeast crook of this confluence and is linked to neighborhoods to the west and south by a half-dozen bridges. The principal east-west street through town, US 11, is called Main Street west of the Chenango, and Court Street in downtown and the middle-class neighborhood of small shops and modest homes to the east. And it is in those rivers and on Court Street, in Binghamton’s East Side neighborhood, that the Dick’s story begins.
Or, to take the story back even further, it begins at 11 McNamara Avenue, across the Susquehanna on Binghamton’s South Side, where my father was born on July 17, 1928.
The Stacks were Irish Catholic, and the South Side was a blue-collar section of town populated with other Irish, along with Italians and Eastern Europeans. Binghamton was half again as big as it is today, swollen with immigrants. They’d started arriving by the thousands shortly after the Civil War, first to make cigars. By the 1880s, Binghamton was the second-biggest cigar town in America, strange as it is to think of New York as tobacco country.
When the cigar boom passed, they made shoes. The Endicott Johnson Corporation ran huge plants in town, and in Johnson City, just west of Binghamton, and Endicott, a few miles farther west. “E-J,” as the company was known, was the biggest employer around for decades, employing twenty thousand people in the twenties and even more during World War II, when it made virtually all of the shoes used by the US military. In the mid-forties, it was turning out fifty-two million pairs of shoes a year.
Newly landed immigrants showed up in droves, most knowing only enough English to ask, on arriving in town: “Which way E-J?” It became an unofficial Binghamton motto. In 1984, years into the company’s decline, Ronald Reagan visited on the stump, and he opened his speech with those words. He was way behind the times and was met with complete silence. Still, it underlined just how big a deal the company once was. Endicott and Johnson City, which with Binghamton form the Southern Tier’s “Triple Cities,” were named for the company’s two owners.
More quietly at first, another company was growing in the Triple Cities that would soon change the face of the region. It dated to 1901, when two smallish companies that made time clocks and time-card readers were bundled into a new enterprise that incorporated in Binghamton. A decade later, through a series of mergers with outfits that made adding machines and commercial scales, the company became the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or CTR, based in Endicott. In 1924, CTR changed its name to International Business Machines.
So the town into which my father was born was a mix of heavy industry and high tech, with a workforce that reflected its shifting fortunes. During his youth, E-J was the biggest employer. By the time I came along, IBM dwarfed all. I can remember my dad saying, long before I understood what it meant, “If IBM leaves Binghamton, turn out the lights.”
He did not have an easy childhood. Dick was the last of six kids born to Edward W. and Mae Stack, his dad the owner of a beer distribution business—which, during Prohibition, was a polite way of saying my grandfather was a bootlegger. That must have been an uncertain and dangerous way to put food on the table, though his grandchildren have come to view it as a swashbuckling, even romantic, chapter of Stack history.
Tragedy struck the family before Dick was born. When his twin siblings, Billy and Betty, were nine months old, they caught whooping cough. My grandmother took them to the doctor. Betty was frailer; the doctor said he wanted to keep an eye on her, that she had the worse of it. Billy was a chubby, big-cheeked baby, a robust little boy, with a head of thick, curly black hair. The doctor judged him to be almost back to health.
Once home, my grandmother took Betty inside and got her settled. When she came back to the stroller for Billy, she found he’d choked to death on his own phlegm. I’m not sure that anyone in the family got over that, especially my grandmother. My sister Kim was talking with her fifty-some years later, when my grandmother was in her eighties, and asked her about that day. “Some people say, ‘You have these other kids. Be thankful,’?” Mae, whom we called Nana, said with tears in her eyes. “I think about that baby every day.”
Billy’s death was a prelude to even greater pain. On August 1, 1935, when Dick was seven, his father was killed in a horrific car accident east of town. Family lore has long held that the crash was no accident—that Ed Stack Sr. was bumped off by mobsters looking to muscle in on his beer business, which by then was legal. The available record doesn’t dispute that legend outright, but it does raise questions about it: in a front-page story, the local paper reported that my grandfather had taken a downhill curve at high speed, drifted into the oncoming lane, and smashed his sedan into a truck loaded with live chickens. He was crushed behind the steering wheel and died on his way to the hospital.
His female passenger, who was not my grandmother, was ejected from the car and “picked up unconscious in the center of the highway,” but recovered. I don’t know what became of her. Not long after, Nana lost the beer business. The reasons are murky, but it seems that Granddad may have been involved in some gambling, as well as booze, and she gave up control of the distributorship.
From that point on, my dad’s childhood was one of deprivation. Ed Sr. hadn’t carried a life insurance policy. The beer income was gone. Nana had to take in boarders to make the mortgage. Dick’s upbringing fell largely to his father’s parents.
When I think back to the time I spent with Nana as a kid, I’m always impressed by her toughness. She was kind and had a charming, warm way about her, and she was a tiny woman, no more than ninety pounds. But she had steel inside, a no-nonsense core beneath her softness. I guess that’s inevitable, given everything she went through. She’d had her first five children in quick succession—my uncle Ed first; then, two and a half years later, twins, my aunt Rosemary and uncle Joe; and fourteen months after that, the second set of twins, Billy and Betty.
So at one point the oldest of her five kids was barely four years old, in an age without baby formula or disposable diapers. That’d toughen up anyone. Then she lost Billy. She had my dad five years after that, and almost lost him to rheumatic fever, a close call that left him with a mitral valve defect in his heart. She hadn’t even put him in school when her husband died; her oldest, my uncle Ed, wasn’t yet sixteen.
Faith and family saw her through those trials. She went to Mass every day, no matter the weather, no matter how tired she felt. And she held her children close. When I was growing up we’d go to her house a lot—the same house at 11 McNamara Avenue, where she lived into her nineties—or she’d come over to ours for Sunday dinner. I remember many cold nights when we’d build a fire after the meal and she’d call us around the fireplace to watch it. We sat there for what seemed like hours, watching the flames. It drove me crazy at twelve years old. Are you kidding me? Why are we wasting time staring at a bunch of burning logs? Now that I’m older, I can imagine that those nights reminded her of easier times, before all the heartache, when she and my grandfather would sit with their kids in the parlor of that little house.
Dick grew up adoring his oldest brother, my uncle Ed, who was nine years older. Ed was a dashing character—handsome, charismatic, athletic, fun loving. He was more of a father to my dad than their father had been. But the real influence on young Dick was his paternal grandfather, who introduced him to fishing for trout in the Susquehanna and Chenango, and for bass in some of the lakes outside of town. They did a lot of talking, and I understand they caught a lot of fish, but I think my dad enjoyed being outside on the water, the solitude and beauty of their setting, as much as anything. It was enormously calming.
Which did him good, because my dad was a high-strung kid with a lot on his mind. When he was in junior high, my uncle Ed joined the Army Air Corps and was away for years. My dad felt that loss. Even before then, he wasn’t doing well in school—he had trouble studying, and my siblings and I have long suspected that he had a reading disorder; he remained a poor reader throughout his life. He was deeply interested in sports, passionate about them. He landed a spot on Binghamton Central High’s junior varsity football squad in his sophomore year and played intramural basketball for a couple of years.
His greatest passion, then and throughout his life, was baseball. He was a catcher, and a good one, with a strong arm and a quick glove, and for several years played for the team at St. John the Evangelist, our parish church. The squad played other parishes, and the competition was surprisingly fierce. But while good, my dad wasn’t great. If he harbored any dreams of taking his game higher, like most kids he didn’t see them pan out.
So Dick Stack had a chip on his shoulder. He was barely getting by in his classes. He felt as if he was falling behind, that he was struggling at tasks his classmates found easy. He found just one respite: he immersed himself ever deeper into fishing.
And he worked. Dad had a paper route for a while, worked in an ice-cream parlor, then got a job with a guy named Irv Burglass, who ran an army-navy surplus shop in Binghamton. As the war ended, the surplus market was flooded with useful stuff the government no longer needed, everything from coats and boots to cook sets, sleeping bags, tents. Sportsmen loved browsing the store.
In January 1948, my dad graduated from Binghamton Central. He’d forever after say that it was “by the skin of my teeth,” which is no doubt true. He said he wouldn’t have made it without a passing grade—a flat-out gift—from an English teacher who told him, “I don’t know what will become of you, Dick, but somehow I know you’ll be a success.” At the store, the supply of surplus goods was beginning to slow, and Irv Burglass was mulling a transition into sporting goods. He knew my dad spent a lot of time fishing and was good at it. So he said, Listen, kid. I know you’re a big-time fisherman, and I want to get into the tackle business. Only I don’t know what we should stock, so I want you to go home and put together an inventory of what we’d need to get started.
My dad went home and put a list together. He stayed up into the early morning giving it thought, winnowing the list to the essentials, so that it all fit on two sheets of paper from a legal pad. The next morning, he took the list to Irv. The boss looked over the papers, took out a pen, and started crossing out items my dad knew any fisherman would need. Dumb kid, Irv said to him. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
Did I mention that my dad was a hothead? He snatched the papers away, stormed out of the store, and never went back. He walked across town, angry at the boss and himself—now he was out of high school, with no prospects for college, and suddenly jobless—and stopped in to see his father’s parents.
Martin and Mary “Mamie” Stack did not have a lot of money. Born in County Kerry, Ireland, they’d come to Binghamton during the cigar boom, and now they lived very modest lives, scrimping for every extra dime; they went so far as to erect a tiny cottage in their backyard, which they rented out. One challenge was my great-grandfather, who was a wonderful man liked by virtually everyone who met him—and was known around town as “Backy,” for the tobacco he chewed 24/7—but who was also an Irish cliché in terms of how much beer he consumed at the local pub. In other words, the dimes didn’t pile up.
My father showed Mamie the list he’d compiled, told her what had happened. She could see that he was torn up. After a while she quietly asked: “How much would it cost you to do this—to open this business for yourself?”
“Three hundred dollars,” he answered. He might not have been a great student, but he was always handy with numbers.
With that, she crossed the kitchen, went to a cookie jar in the back corner, reached in, and pulled out a wad of cash. God knows how many years of saving that represented. She counted out three hundred dollars, handed it to him, and said: “Go start this business yourself.”
As origin stories go, I think that’s pretty good. Some details have proved variable over the years: With each telling, my dad would have himself staying up later to put together the list; it was midnight when I was a kid, and by the time he told my kids the story, he was pulling an all-nighter. Occasionally, press accounts of my great-grandmother’s generosity have amplified the sum she handed over to $600, or even $1,200.
But my dad always insisted that it was with $300 that he started his business, and Mamie backed him up. That cookie jar of hers has become a lasting bit of iconography at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Today, when an associate reaches twenty-five years of service with the company, we present him or her with a cookie jar, tucked inside of which is $300.
My dad stretched that cash. He found a tiny storefront for rent at 453½ Court Street. The family used to kid him that it was so small it didn’t deserve a full number for its address. There, just months after his high school graduation, he opened Dick’s Bait and Tackle. He was nineteen.
That original store remains an important piece of the company. Walk into any Dick’s today, and you’ll find a framed picture of the place. My dad is standing to the right, just inside a front window lined with fishing rods. Uncle Ed, natty in a bow tie and dress shirt, is to the left, with an elbow propped on homemade shelves piled high with small boxes of gear. The wall behind the shelves is cinder block. They hold rods that cross between them, and at their feet is a stack of wicker fishing creels. A display of hooks and lures occupies a table in the left foreground. More than one customer on the sales floor—the little bit of open space in front of the camera—would have crowded it. You hear people talk all the time about humble beginnings. This was a humble beginning.
My dad stocked the shelves with as much fishing gear as he could afford, and hoped to do enough business to buy more. On the days he did, he’d close up shop; drive sixty miles to the Eynon Drug Store in Scranton, Pennsylvania; spend the day’s receipts on fishing gear; then drive back and stock the shelves.
Bear in mind, he was paying more than wholesale for this stuff. His markups had to be razor-thin, or he’d have priced himself out of business. And on many days, he made too little to put gas in the car. Decades later, my sister Kim came across some old register receipts from those days, and she cried when she saw how little business he did. Five dollars, some days. Six or seven on others.
On some of those lean days, his situation must have seemed almost cripplingly bleak. But like I said, he had a chip on his shoulder. He had something to prove. He wasn’t going to give in willingly. And ever so slowly, his little shop started drawing some regulars who recognized that this skinny kid knew fishing, knew gear, offered good advice. The word spread around town.
I wish I knew more about those days. He didn’t speak of them often, and I didn’t press. This much is clear: pretty soon, he no longer had to drive to Scranton for his inventory—he was doing enough business to place orders with wholesalers or buy directly from the brands he carried. He broadened his offerings: by 1952, he’d renamed the place Dick’s Army-Navy & Sporting Goods, and was stocking work clothes, a little sportswear, camping gear, and picnic supplies, along with an expanded array of fishing tackle. He was generating enough traffic to buy newspaper advertisements. He sponsored a monthly fishing contest that awarded forty bucks for the biggest fish. “Buy your equipment from an experienced angler,” he wrote in an ad in April of that year, “who will demonstrate the proper use of each item sold.”
My dad wrote all of the ads himself, and at times he got creative. One of my favorites was an ad that appeared in the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin in February 1953 and resembled a boxed news story. “Warning! Fishing Pox,” its heading blared. “Very Contagious to Adult Males. Symptoms—continual Complaint as to the need for fresh air, sunshine and relaxation. Patient has blank expression, sometimes deaf to wife and kids. Has no taste for work of any kind. Frequent checking of Fishing equipment. Hangs out in DICK’S Army-Navy store longer than usual. Secret night phone calls to fishing pals. Mumbles to self. Can’t sit still, wants to buy the best Fishing Tackle at the lowest possible prices.” The “treatment” was to “go Fishing as often as possible with tackle from Dick’s.”
In time he was doing well enough that he expanded into the other half of his store’s half-address. It remained an unpretentious operation in the same low-slung cinder-block building, but now he had three big display windows looking onto Court Street. And while he’d so far done the bulk of his business during warm weather, when fishing in the Southern Tier didn’t require hacking a hole through a foot of ice, he made a change that transformed Dick’s into a year-round destination: he started carrying rifles, shotguns, and ammunition.
My father was an occasional hunter—very occasional—but he knew enough about firearms to get by, and hunting seemed a natural extension of his existing business. This is a point that will be important later in this story: Dick’s has been in the gun business for at least sixty-seven years.
Successful as the operation seemed to be, Dick’s Army-Navy was vexed by a problem all too common to businesses in Binghamton. An explosion of car ownership was transforming America, especially its cities, and Binghamton was no exception; the shortage of parking just in front of Dick’s Army-Navy was soon frustrating customers.
So in December 1953, Dad decided to move the operation to larger quarters with off-street parking, about seven hundred yards to the west. A story in the paper—which read suspiciously like his own advertising copy—announced that the new place, at 389 Court Street, was “5 times larger than the present one and there is parking facilities for at least 300 or more cars. Just think how easy it will be to shop at Dick’s, drive up anytime, park and shop.”
The new store, while another single-story, concrete-block structure, was vastly larger, and set back behind a large parking lot. Business, it seems, was good—enough so that eleven months later, when a new shopping center opened a ten-minute drive north of town, Dad signed a lease on a second location.
Success seemed a safe bet. The Hillcrest Shopping Center was unassuming, by today’s standards—a small, stone-clad strip mall anchored by an A&P supermarket and a big furniture showroom—but busy State Route 7 passed out front. The new Dick’s Sporting Goods occupied the storefront next door to the grocery. Prime real estate.
My dad’s business philosophy was as simple as it gets: “If I take in more than I spend, I’m okay.” By such reasoning, it seemed the Hillcrest store couldn’t lose. It opened in late November 1954, selling toys in addition to sporting goods.
That was a busy time for my dad. Earlier that year he had married my mother, and he was soon to become a father.
My mom, Mary Ann Boyle, grew up on McNamara Avenue, just four houses away from my dad’s childhood home; the two families knew each other, so how my parents met is no mystery. To this day, though, I can’t figure out what brought them together. This was not a case of opposites attracting. They were alike in all the wrong ways—both high-strung and quick-tempered. Neither was demonstrably loving. Words of reassurance, or tenderness, or comfort, were not in their vocabularies.
Like my dad, my mom went to Binghamton Central High School, graduating five years behind him. She was a kid. Still, they married in January 1954 and bought a modest little one-and-a-half-story bungalow on Binghamton’s South Side. She’d worked as an operator for the local telephone company before they got together and kept working for a few months after the wedding. But just a few, because eleven months into their marriage, on December 27, 1954, I was born—Edward William Stack, named for my father’s father and my uncle Ed.
It was an inauspicious time for a baby to arrive, because things weren’t going as planned in my dad’s business. The Hillcrest Shopping Center had been developed by Mart Development Corporation, which the local paper described as “largely the creation of William M. Viglione, the tax accountant.” Viglione, a former IRS numbers cruncher, had little commercial real estate experience; he’d built a motel out west of Binghamton two years before, but nothing quite like a strip mall.
It showed. For all the traffic the highway out front seemed to promise, no great population surrounded the shopping center, and there wasn’t much prospect that one would develop. The situation wasn’t helped by Hillcrest’s weird mix of tenants: a furnace company, an insurance agent, and the Minneapolis-Honeywell Regulator Company, which made thermostats. Not exactly the sort of neighbors that attracted armies of shoppers. Being next door to the A&P—usually a good strategy—didn’t count for much, because the A&P was having trouble attracting customers, too.
Just four months into the two-store experiment, my dad decided to shut down his Court Street location. It was almost certainly doing better than Hillcrest; I can only guess that his lease at the strip center was tougher to break, so he chose to consolidate his merchandise there, rather than in town. My dad wrote a big advertisement that appeared in the paper in late March. “We have moved our Court Street store to the HILLCREST SHOPPING CENTER,” it read. “In combining the 2 stores, we will automatically cut our overhead. This means that we can offer you LOWER PRICES! Drive out, ‘Always a place to park.’?”
One feature of the ad conveyed the nervousness he must have been feeling. Down at the bottom, it listed the Hillcrest store’s hours. Since opening his first store, he’d always operated from nine a.m. to nine p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and nine a.m. to six p.m. on Saturday. Now the store was open on Sundays until three p.m., and he kept it open until midnight on Thursday and Friday “for Your Last-Minute Tackle Needs and YOUR LICENSE.”
The desperation that emanated from that ad was even more pronounced in those that followed. By the time I approached my first birthday, Dick’s was advertising a “$50,000 stock reduction,” with deep discounts on just about everything under the roof. Rifles priced at pennies on the dollar. Double-barreled shotguns, 48 percent off. A huge range of stuff, from fishing vests to sweaters to model airplanes, to work shoes, house paint, and tennis balls, all for half off or more.
This wasn’t the behavior of your typical retailer nearly three weeks before Christmas. Struggling to survive, Dad had made a loss leader of virtually everything in the store.