Counter Culture


Counter Culture Season 3 Ep. 8

This week Grover talks with Paul Downs, NYTimes Blog and Cabinetmaker; Ed Eisen, Journalist, and Lynn Landes, Founder of Philadelphia Society of Small Street.

AIRED: March 17, 2020 | 0:28:00


-Welcome to "Counter Culture," a talk show in a diner.


Tonight, I welcome a man who crafts his sentences

with the care he crafts his cabinets --

cabinet maker and author Paul Downs.

-I am extremely motivated to provide

a good working environment for my people

and to try to preserve craftsmanship.


-And a man who had a front-row seat

to some of the world's movers and shakers --

journalist Ed Eisen.

-In print journalism, you can really get into a story.

You can dig deep.

-And the founder of

Philadelphia's Society of Small Streets, Lynn Landes.

-A small street would be a street that's

around 6 1/2 feet wide.

It's enough for even a trash truck to come down,

but it's not enough for parking or any other traffic.

-All right here on "Counter Culture."


Hello, folks.

Grover Silcox here coming to you from Daddypops Diner

in beautiful downtown Hatboro.

My first guest is a craftsman in so many ways,

as a cabinet maker, as a small-business man,

and as a writer.

He wrote a blog for "The New York Times" called

"You're the Boss" giving advice to small-business owners.

He also wrote a book,

"Boss Life -- Surviving My Own Small Business,"

describing the realities

of starting and running a small business.

It's a pleasure to welcome Paul Downs to the counter.

Paul, welcome.

-Grover, thank you so much. Pleasure to be here.

-I'm glad you could put your tools down for a second

and join me at the counter.

-Yeah, it's beautiful woodwork in this place.

-Well, I'm sure that struck you immediately

being the craftsman that you are.

How is your business, Paul Downs Cabinetmakers --

how's it doing?

-Right, now we're doing very well.

-I got to tell you, I read your book, "Boss Life,"

and I had just read a book on Vicksburg,

the big Civil War battle,

and I was exhausted after Vicksburg.

But after reading your book

about starting and running a small business,

I also equally empathized with the ups and downs,

the triumphs and tragedies of running a small company.

-Well, if others are like me,

then running the business is like a war that never ends,

that sometimes you're winning, sometimes you're losing,

and you always have to be working against forces

that want to shut you down.

The book was written in 2015 about

a very difficult year I had -- 2012.

I was fortunate at that time that I was writing

for "The New York Times," and so in the back of my mind,

I was sort of keeping the narrative story

of how we started off well

and got into trouble and got out of it.

I was approached a year later

and asked whether I would write a book.

And I thought I would really like to write the book

that I've never read about being a small-business boss,

which tries to communicate the terror involved. [ Laughs ]

-Right -- the realities as opposed to the theories.

-The realities -- right.

Like, you don't know what's gonna happen,

and on any given day,

something bad is likely to drop in your lap.

And aside from just doing your business,

you may have an employee who's stealing from you

or a client who cancels an order.

There's just endless trouble.

And I think that there's something I call

the boss's fantasy,

which is that you can hire someone and on day one,

explain to them, "Oh, your job is to do this or that."

And then they just do it,

and you never have to talk to them again. [ Laughs ]

And the stuff appears, and... -Right.

-...that's just not how it works,

that people need updated information all the time

about what the work will be, how we're gonna do it.

And then even beyond that, there's huge value

in trying to build a culture within a company

and make it a place where people understand what the rules are

and how they can succeed within the company.

One of the interesting things in the years

since I published a book was having heard, then,

from hundreds of business owners who read it and said,

"Oh, my God, that's my life."

And they're in entirely different businesses.

Like, it could be something

that I didn't even know was a business.

But it's like... -The principles are the same.'s the same problem... -Yeah, same kinds of problems.

-...that kind of stress.

-I'm gonna leave it there for the moment

and go back to the beginning.

You were a student

at the University of Pennsylvania, right?

-I was. I was in the engineering school.

And a couple of years in, I realized

that I wasn't smart enough to get all the math right.

So I switched to studying architecture.

I decided to work construction for a summer,

and I was assigned to help a carpenter there.

And this gentleman was always going on about

how great it would be to be a furniture maker.

And he made it sound so good,

I was like, "Dang, I'm doing that."

So I decided to open up a shop without benefit of ever

having built furniture, having no clients,

no connections, never worked for anybody,

didn't know the first thing about what I was doing.

I was thinking everybody needs furniture.

So if I want to set out my shingle

as a custom-cabinet maker,

you know, there's gonna be somebody who wants to buy.

And then the other thing about furniture is that

there are absolutely no licensing requirements.

All you need to do is talk somebody into paying you

for what you plan to do.

And as it turned out, that's something I'm pretty good at,

which is -- I was able to find a few clients,

mostly through my network of old professors,

and somehow spin a picture of what I was gonna do

and walk away with a check.

-And what year did you start working

for yourself after school?

-1986. -Mm-hmm.

-January 1, 1986.

-And what kind of things were you making?

-Back then? Anything.

But eventually, I realized that there were certain products

that were a better fit for a small shop

and that people wanted to buy.

And so we ended up specializing in dining-room furniture.

So I was doing custom dining tables and chairs

for people in the Philadelphia area

all through the '90s, and one of my clients

in the late '90s was a local architect

who, after I completed working for him,

asked me if I could build a boardroom table

for one of his customers.

And I said, "Sure, it's just a huge dining table."

So we built the table and put a picture of it up

on my first website, and this is in 1999.

And the website is all about dining-room furniture

and, "Oh, here's some other weird stuff we did,"

including this conference table.

In 2003, Google just chose that picture

to be the top search result for "boardroom table"

and started returning it to everybody in the world.

It was surprising.

I remember very clearly the first guy who called me

about that called me from South Dakota.

"Hey, can you make me a boardroom table?"

I'm like, "Who are you?"

-[ Laughs ] "How did you find me?"

"Oh, there's this thing called Google."

And I really didn't know what it was.

Later that week, I was on the phone

with someone in Kyrgyzstan

who was putting up an oil-company headquarters

and wanted me to do a boardroom table.

And so it became apparent -- because these calls started

and have never stopped.

We get anywhere from three to a dozen every day.

And so took us a couple of years

to sort of get our head around it --

my partner at that time and myself.

But we decided to go all-in on boardroom tables,

and that's what we've been doing ever since.

-Is there any one type of wood that is most popular?

-At the moment, I would say walnut.

That's an American tree, grows around here.

There's probably one within sight of this diner,

and it's a beautiful, dark-brown wood.

But we end up using probably 60 or 70 different species

in the course of a year

and trees from all over the world.

-And what is the range of price in a boardroom table?

I mean, it's pretty wide.

-Well, the total range, probably,

is from 100 bucks to a million bucks.

We tend to start at about $5,000 for a simple project,

and the most expensive table I've made was about $250,000.

-So there's a big difference between your conference tables

and something you'd buy off the shelf, say?


Well, people come to us because they can't find

what they're looking for through the ordinary channels.

So we end up doing very large tables, very unusual shapes.

We do a lot of logos and branding.

When people need to put power and data in a table

in some complex way, we do that.

So we've got tables in Point Barrow, Alaska.

We've got them in Panama City, Panama, in Korea,

and mostly in the United States and Canada.

I mean, I've made thousands of tables, so that's cool,

but it's not quite the same thrill as the first one.

But I am extremely motivated to provide a good

working environment for my people

and to try to preserve craftsmanship,

because there's a lot of ways that the idea of craftsmanship

is gonna be under assault, let's say,

from technology and robotic production

and just mass production.

And the idea that one person

is gonna put their hands on raw materials

and transform it into something fantastic.

We're trying to keep the craftsmanship alive

and make enough money

so that my workers can have a decent life, as well.

The Internet changed everything for small businesses

because what it did is it made it possible for any business

to be in touch with any customer anywhere in the world.

And so that opened up huge opportunities for us,

but also put us in competition with everybody else

in the world who does our thing.

So if I'd known that was coming,

I don't know what I would have thought of it,

but it's been, actually, a great ride.

And I'm so glad that I'm here to tell about it

and that I've been able to make a successful company

for my people to work at.

-Well, Paul, I want to thank you for sharing that ride...

-You're welcome. -...with me and my viewers.

-A pleasure talking to you. -Same here.

Paul Downs -- a cabinet maker, a businessman, and a wordsmith,

and in every sense, a craftsman.


My next guest wrote a memoir,

"Front Row Seat -- Tales of the Famous and Infamous,"

featuring Mother Teresa, a pope, popular entertainers,

celebrities, personalities,

and others who gained international notoriety.

He was an award-winning reporter for "The Philadelphia Inquirer"

and "Evening Bulletin,"

taught journalism at Temple University

and is a member of the Broadcast Pioneers.

All told, his amazing and whirlwind career spans 52 years,

and I'm thrilled to have him as my guest

right here at the counter.

Ed Eisen, how are you?

-It's a pleasure. Good to be here with you.

-I'm surprised you're not walking the beat

as a gumshoe reporter

'cause that's what you did for years, right?

-Well, I'm retired now, but not quite.

-[ Laughs ] I don't think anything's gonna stop you, Ed.

You're gonna keep going till the last story is told.

-If you rest, you rust. That's what I believe.

-[ Laughs ] I know that's your motto 'cause I read your book,

"Front Row Seat."

It's a great memoir.

You've done everything. You were a reporter,

print journalism, broadcast, radio, public relations.

-I've been a TV producer. It's been a circuitous career.

-Right. But you always loved print journalism.

That's what you said in your book.

-It was my passion because unlike broadcasting,

in print journalism, you can really get into a story.

You can, unlike broadcast journalism,

dig deep and do the kind of investigative reporting

that I did at "The Inquirer" and "The Bulletin"

and the "Fort Lauderdale News."

Broadcasting is an entirely different beast, as you know.


You were born in New York, right?


-Brooklyn, but came -- your family moved,

when you were young, down to the Camden area, I think it was.

-Camden, New Jersey.

-Uh-huh. So you didn't come from a family of journalists?

-I did not.

The interesting thing is I came from a family of immigrants.

My father was a Polish immigrant.

My mother was from Latvia.

-And your mom and dad escaped the Holocaust

and everything else.

-Yes. My father was a janitor.

And I learned at a young age

to swish a mop and to buff a floor.

And I'll never forget the day I was about 17,

and he said, "Son, I've got a great proposition for you.

My boss, Mr. Cohen, wants to retire.

He's willing to sell us the business.

Now, son, you're not gonna have to swish a mop.

All you have to do is go around Philadelphia,

knock on doors, and get the business.

You don't speak like I do. Your English is pretty good."

-Right. Right.

-I remember it as if it were yesterday.

I crushed him.

And I said, "Pop, you don't understand.

I want to be a writer. I want to be a journalist."

He couldn't fathom how I could earn a living as a journalist.


-I got involved with Superman at the time,

and that's what brought me to journalism.

Clark Kent -- he was Superman's alter ego.

-Right -- the reporter. -So...

-Clark Kent the reporter. Right. -Exactly.

-So you went from -- graduated from high school

and went to Temple... -Yes.

-...and studied journalism. -Studied journalism

-...and then got a job in the biz.

-Which I loved. -Right.

You were a reporter for "The Inquirer,"

which was the first part of your career.


-You had some very interesting experiences --

for instance, the asylum -- Pennhurst.

-Pennhurst State School and Hospital.

I got a call from a man one Friday night

when I was at "The Inquirer" working the night desk.

He said, "My daughter has been at Pennhurst

since she was 3 years old.

She's now 19."

He said, "You should go there.

The stench is so terrible, it'll turn your stomach."


-They give these poor little children hypodermic needles

just to keep them quiet.

Go and see this place."

And so I brought a photographer, and I saw it.

And a week later, the story came out.

It was a year-long series in "The Philadelphia Inquirer,"

and that's what real journalism is all about --

digging down and finding the bad guys.

The sad part about it is it took not that story,

but it took 19 years for a governor in Pennsylvania

by the name of Broderick to close

Pennhurst State School and Hospital.

-And you met Martin Luther King Jr.

-I met him two years before that famous march in Alabama.

-Yes, over the Pettus Bridge. -Yes, over the Pettus Bridge.

He came to Philadelphia to talk at this news conference

about the unfairness

of African-American men going to fight in Vietnam

and yet coming home, being second-class citizens,

have lunchroom counters like this place

at which we're sitting at. -Right.

-It was a sad thing because when I brought --

when I brought the story back to the paper,

it was not regarded with -- you know,

it was not like bringing back the Pennhurst story.

-Right. -It wasn't given the urgency --

-To be a front-page story. -Right.

And then -- and went into public relations.

-Were you working for the famous PR firm --

or advertising at Gray and Rogers at the time?

-Yes. I became the first person of the Jewish tradition...

-Right. represent not one but two popes.

-Wow! You were like the spokesperson for the popes.

-Exactly. The year was 1975.

One day, the boss, Dave Ferrell, came in, and he said,

"We've got a new client, and I want to tell you about it.

We've just signed a contract with the Vatican

and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

We want you to be spokesperson for the Pope."

And I said, "Wait a minute, Dave. I'm Jewish."

He said, "That's okay. You'll learn."

I went to my dad.

He said, "Biztu mshuge?" -[ Laughs ]

-Which is Jewish for, "Are you crazy?"

He said, "Son, what do you know about the Catholic Church?"

And then I quoted Dave Ferrell, my boss.

I said, "But, Pop, I can learn." And so I went ahead and did it.

The 41st International Eucharistic Congress

took place in Philadelphia August 1 to August 8, 1976.

And it was actually the most significant assignment

I ever had in this world that I abhorred.

The world called public relations.

I met Mother Teresa in 1975.

I call it in my book

"Chicken Soup with Mother Teresa."

-[ Laughs ]

-And one of the first things she said to me is,

"We of the Catholic tradition owe so much to you,

our brothers and sisters of the Jewish tradition."

-Of the Jewish faith, yes.

-But she looked at me, and she saw something else.

And she said, "You know,

you don't have to be a nun to have a purpose."

-Right. -"Do you have a purpose?"

I said, "I had a purpose, but I lost it."

-When you went from being a reporter...

-From being a reporter... working in public relations.

-And I said, "I've knocked and I've knocked and I've knocked

and I've tried to get back into print journalism,

and the doors are closed.

Papers in Philadelphia wouldn't talk to me."


-And she said, "I'll pray for you."

And a short time after that,

a door opened at a place called "The Philadelphia Bulletin."

-Yes, "The Evening Bulletin."

-And I went to work as a business writer

at "The Philadelphia Bulletin."

I consider it a kind of a miracle.

So I was back in the love of my life.

But the important thing is the trajectory of my life changed

sometime after that meeting. -Wow.

-And I found my purpose again, and that's pretty important.

-Now part of history and part of your personal history.

Ed, I want to thank you for joining us

and sharing some of the stories --

just a few of the stories in your book,

which is a must-read, I must say.

-Thank you. Thank you so much.

It was great being here. -You're welcome.

Ed Eisen, a journalist who had a front-row seat

to some of the biggest events and most famous

and influential people in history.


Ben Franklin once said,

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

You know, he probably said that

while ambling down a cobblestone alleyway in Society Hill.

There aren't many of those cobblestone streets left

in Philadelphia anymore, but one Philly resident

has taken Ben's advice by leading the effort to preserve

the city's oldest streets

through her nonprofit organization,

Philadelphia Society of Small Streets.

Please welcome Lynn Landes to the counter.


You didn't amble your way here to the diner, did you,

on some of those little cobblestone streets?

-Tripped my way here. [ Both laugh ]

-I was so delighted when I saw your organization's name

as I was browsing through the Internet.

I thought, "That is so cool."

So, tell me about the society,

the Philadelphia Society of Small Streets.

-Well, my husband and I moved into Philadelphia in 2001,

and we moved onto a historically certified street, so --

-Where were you coming from?

-Bucks County. -Okay.

-We'd been in the Yardley-lower-Mayfield area.

-Right. -So that's what we did.

And we moved onto a street that needed work.

-Where is your little neighborhood

with the old street?

-Well, we're in what they call Washington West.

So we're right next to Jefferson University,

you know, not too far away from Independence Hall,

but we're not Society Hill, we're not Old City.

It was built in 1813. -Wow!

-So yeah. [ Laughs ]

-In addition to all the -- like, what are there,

like four or five streets within your little pocket?

-Yes, there are several streets within each block.

So although William Penn may have set up Philadelphia

to have these big blocks in, I think his original purpose

was to have open area within each of these blocks,

But instead, residents had another idea,

and they started putting in little streets

and houses and things like that.

So eventually it all got built up.

And in our neighborhood, it's the street

right next door to us, and that's Quince street.

It's a very popular street for film companies to come on.

Sam Katz did some videos, and he did one of Octavius Catto.

-Oh, yes. -Yeah, not that long ago.

-Yeah, great civil-rights leader, African-American.

-Right, and his statue is now at City Hall.

Another kind of notorious one called "Bikini Bandits."

[ Laughs ]

-And a small, historical street was in that?

-Yes! -[ Laughs ]

So if you want a little taste of history, you have to watch that?

-Yeah, we all went to the Ritz Theater to watch it.

Yes, it was a very -- -Just for that part, right?

-Not terribly historic, but, you know, humorous.

-How do you define a small street?

-A small street would be a street that's

around 6 1/2 feet wide.


-So that it's enough for even a trash truck to come down,

but it's not enough for parking or any other traffic.

So it's interesting because when you have a small street

like that and it snows, you have to understand

the street is, in fact, your sidewalk.

So, you know, the city will say, "Shovel your sidewalks,

and don't throw it out into the street."

What you do is you clear the street

and then shovel a pathway to your door.

And that way, you know,

if you had an emergency or anything like that,

people can walk in the center of the street.

-As the owner of an historical home in Philadelphia

on a small, cobblestone street...

-It's a brick street. -Brick street.

-It's brick. -Okay.

So you've got your brick, and you've got your Belgian block.

People need to understand, though,

that those bricks are like two-times a sidewalk brick.

So they're two-times the depth. So they're really heavy.

And then on our street, we have granite gutters.

They're about a foot wide, and they're about,

I'd say, 6 inches deep.

They're really, really big and heavy.

And then we have the curbs, and the curbs look like,

you know, "That's a nice little curb."

No, they go down like 3 feet.

-Not something you could just pull up on your own.

-Right. Right.

And then you've got your granite stone.

That's like a loaf of bread.

Then you have your wood. -Right.

-And then you have your actual cobblestone.

-They're, like, from riverbeds, and that's why they're smooth.

-Yes, I suppose.

But I can't hardly walk on any of those.

There are actually 300 of these small streets.

When we finally got them to repair our street,

the city, the streets department,

repaired three others nearby.

So that was really the first time they came into center city

and repaired streets where people actually live.

So it's interesting how they decided to select,

which to fix next, and they used an algorithm.

-[ Laughs ] -Oh, my word.

-I can't even spell it.

-When they decided to, you know --

agreed to restore our street,

my husband went to our five neighbors,

and we got 100-year-old sidewalk brick

to replace the broken concrete and the chipped

and the kind of inexpensive brick sidewalks.

So now the whole street looks really authentic, very historic.

-Where do you even find brick like that?

-People buy it.

There are businesses like Provenance

who do that kind of historic, architectural, you know --

-Is it expensive? -It's a little expensive.

-I mean, compared to other materials?

-Yes, but it's worth it.

I mean, we live in that neighborhood and in those homes

not because they're comfortable or the latest gadgets,

but because it's history.

The wonderful thing about these bricks and stones

and all that is, you know, a street is a living thing,

and it gets its depressions or subsidence.

And when that happens and you have a paver street,

you can see it 'cause the pavers start going down.

And so it's an early-warning system

about bigger problems ahead

as compared to asphalt or concrete.

So I'm just a big believer in them

because all across Philadelphia,

we have such huge issues with potholes --

I mean, man-eating, car-eating potholes.

And these pavers, it was just --

it's an old idea whose time has come again.

I just really think that that would be really good.

-When you say pavers, you're talking about

-the cobblestones... -Yes. Right.

-...the Belgium block, etcetera, etcetera.

-Right. It can be new material.

But it makes sense not to keep using materials

that when you try to repair them,

you just have a patchwork mess.

-The interesting thing is that these, like Belgium bricks

or cobblestones, have a natural way of runoff,

having the water run off onto the sides.


So if it's done correctly,

it permeates, it has a permeability to it.

Unfortunately, that's not how they're doing

the historic streets -- the streets department.

We've been trying to convince them

to not put concrete under these bricks.

They still want to do that.

You get puddles, then you get mosquitoes,

or you get ice in the cold weather.

But in the Netherlands, they don't put concrete under them.

They allow them to percolate down -- the water --

down into the ground.

There's a company called Tiger Stone,

and they have these machines that lay bricks like carpet.

They don't use concrete under their roads.

They use this modified aggregate,

which allows the water to, you know,

seep down into the ground.

-Right. Well, as long as you and your organization are out there,

we know that there are people who are championing

the restoration and the maintenance of these beautiful,

one-of-a-kind, historic small streets.

So please keep it going, and I hope this helped.

-Thank you very much. -Oh, you're welcome, Lynn.

Lynn Landes -- a zealous protector of Philly's

historic stepping stones and the small streets they pave.


Well, that's all for this episode.

I'd like to thank my guests,

author and cabinet maker Paul Downs...

-One person that's gonna put their hands on raw materials

and transform it into something fantastic.

-...award-winning journalist Ed Eisen...

-And that's what real journalism is all about --

digging down and finding the bad guys.

-...and the president of Philly's

Society of Small Streets, Lynn Landes.

-It makes sense not to keep using materials

that when you try to repair them,

you just have a patchwork mess.

-Thanks so much for tuning in,

and don't forget to stop by next Tuesday

because you never know who you'll meet at the counter.



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