It is May, that sweet season when the children of privilege step forward to take their degrees and begin their careers, and so it seems fitting--for she, too, is today being honored by a university--to consider the story of 90-year-old businesswoman Rose Blumkin and that long-ago day in Russia when her career commenced.
She is 13, a native of the town of Shidreen, near Minsk. Her father is a rabbi, her mother runs a grocery. She has a new pair of shoes, that day she sets out for the big town to find a job, but she doesn't want to wear them out too fast, so she carries them 18 miles to the train. Once she gets to town, she goes to 25 places, but even though she tells everybody she has experience in business from her mother's grocery, they tell her she's too young and to go away. Finally she hears of someone in a dry-goods store whose girl--most fortunate of creatures--is leaving for America.
"You're a kid," the store owner says.
"I'm not a beggar," says Rose. "I got 4 cents in mine pocket. Let me sleep in the house, tomorrow I go to work."
The next day, before anybody else is awake, she gets up. She cleans the store, she rolls out the merchandise, she does figures in her head. Before anybody works them on paper, she does them like that. She stays on at the shop until she gets married, then she comes to America. In America, in Omaha, she opens a furniture store, which grows into the largest furniture store in the country.
This morning, standing beside a senator, a priest, a lawyer, a biologist and a poet, she receives an Honorary Doctoral Degree in Commercial Science from New York University.
Oh, Omaha! Oh, America!
Soon, like the dinosaurs, they will be extinct, the Rose Blumkins--the ones who lost families in the pogroms, the ones who dug potatoes for 10 cents a day and remember the day Rasputin died, the ones who consider it a joy to have a business to go to every day, the ones whose voices are built in layers, first the mother tongue, Yiddish, then Russian, then English. Not always a perfectly comfortable fit, the English, but a vigorous, forceful tongue, in which the purpose shines through just the same.
"I never took nothing from nobody," says Rose Blumkin, just under five feet tall, with the compact, bright-eyed and intense look of a Jewish Yoda.
And also, in a suite of a New York hotel, where she is awaiting her honors, "When I made up my mind, I didn't want to wait for nothing. That's mine habit."
This is also her habit: to go into the store she founded, the Nebraska Furniture Mart, seven days a week, 12 hours a day on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and, though she is chairman of the board, zip around the floor on her motorized golf cart--the store is three blocks long--and personally wait on customers in the carpeting department. Call the Nebraska Furniture Mart to try to find Rose Blumkin and you will be connected with carpeting, Rose's particular baby. Try to find Rose when she's connecting with a customer and you will have to wait. How she loves carpeting. She can move anything, Rose, but carpeting, she says, "That's mine game."
A legendary tale: It's 1950, during the Korean war. Nothing is moving. None of the big shots--"all crooks"--will sell to her. "Nobody won't sell to me nothing." That's how it is when business is bad, nobody wants to have anything to do with the little guy.
"I went to Marshall Field in Chicago," says Rose Blumkin. "I tell them I need 3,000 yards of carpet for an apartment building--I got, actually, an apartment building. I buy it from Marshall Field for $3 a yard, I sell it for $3.95 a yard. Three lawyers from Mohawk take me into court, suing me for unfair trade--they're selling for $7.95. Three lawyers and me with my English. I go to the judge and say, 'Judge, I sell everything 10 percent above cost, what's wrong? I don't rob my customers?' He throws out the case. The next day, he comes in and buys $1,400 worth. I take out an ad with the whole case and put it in the Omaha World-Herald: 'Here's proof how I sell my customers.' "
A few memories from the mind of the dinosaur for others to remember when the dinosaurs no longer walk the earth: The two Russians who came into the dry-goods store in Shidreen and killed seven Jewish people, one of whom was Rose Blumkin's cousin, chopping off their heads so that the blood was on the ceiling. The way Rose Blumkin got up in the middle of the night when she was 6 years old to find her mother--"mine diamond mother"--baking bread to sell the next day in her grocery. The way Rose Blumkin lived with three brothers and four sisters in a one-room apartment and waited for summer, when you could go into the yard for air. The way Rose, after she and Isadore Blumkin married and World War I broke out, gave her husband all their money for passage to America so he could be safe from the war. The way, when she finally left Russia three years later, her family cried that they would starve and she said, "Don't worry, I'm going to America, I'll make lots of money, I'll send for you all."
The way, though she paid for a first-class ticket, a "crook" pulled a fast one on her and she arrived in America after a six-week journey in a peanut boat. The way she joined her husband, sent west by the immigrant society, in the peculiar-sounding town of "Fort Dodgke--who knows Fort Dodgke?" The way he opened a clothing store, then a second-hand clothing store, then a jewelry store, and they had four children and then moved to the big town of Omaha, where there were people who spoke Russian and Yiddish, so that Rose--a good head for figures but a bad head for languages--could communicate.
The way she started the furniture business--"a happy business"--in a basement. The way, when she didn't have money for stock, and the creditors were pounding on the door, and she had a customer for a dining room set, she took the customer to her own house and sold her own dining room set. The way, when a tornado tore the roof off one store, she kept going. The way, when there was a fire, she opened a day later and gave each of the firemen a television set for saving her store and doing "such beautiful work."
The way she brought all of her family over from Russia. The way she never played cards, never went to socials. "I go shop the windows and I plan an attack on the shopkeepers, thinking, 'How much hell can I give them?' I never went with anybody in an organization, to sit with them and be their friends. I'm not their friend. All these manufacturers, they're all crooks, there's not one decent bone in their body."
The way, as she told it when Omaha's Channel 7 did a documentary on her life, she expanded the store from the basement on 1311 Douglas, to 1313 Farnam, to 1918 Farnam to 2205 Farnam--a store one block long. The way, in 1970, she saw a store on West Street and said to her son Louie, "Boy, I would like to buy that building, that looks a good-looking building."
They bought it. It is--but let Rose rattle off the statistics: "Three blocks long, 300,000 square feet display, 500,000 square feet warehouse, 25 acres parking." The country's largest single furniture store. Started for $500, the business sold for $60 million cash last year. Rose stayed on as chairman of the board. The fellow who bought the business, Warren Buffett, of Berkshire, Hathaway, took it without an audit. He said Rose Blumkin was as good as her word.
It being May, the sweet season of commencement, some advice from a self-made millionaire.
"First, honesty. Second, hard work. Next, if you don't get the job you want right away, tell them you'll take anything. If you're good, they'll keep you. If you're rotten, the first thing you go for coffee, you talk on the phone, the next day, even with a college education, they'll throw you out . . ."
And for those looking forward, the words of one looking back.
"You struggle, you work hard, you hope, sometimes your wishes come true, sometimes not . . .
"My wish came true. I used to say, 'I'm not going to stay in the basement forever. Someday I'm gonna have a good-looking store . . .' "