The Business of Family In a Family Business

By Leslie Camhi

Published November 28, 2003, issue of November 28, 2003.
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In 1999, the photographer Mitch Epstein was 48 years old and living in New York when his mother phoned him with bad news. Two teenage pranksters had burned down a boarded-up apartment building in Holyoke, Mass., owned by Epstein’s father. The flames, fanned by the windy night, had swallowed an entire block of the city’s depressed downtown, including a 19th-century Catholic Church next door. When the church sued the elder Epstein for $15 million, the 82-year-old Jewish man’s life of diligence and solvency threatened to unravel.

The Epstein family empire also included Epstein Furniture, a store in downtown Holyoke founded by Mitch Epstein’s grandfather in 1911 and run by his father, Bill, for six decades. It was once the largest furniture and appliance shop in Western New England, but its heyday had long ended, and it had been operating at a loss for years. In the wake of the fire, Mitch Epstein’s younger brother, Rick, then managing the store, made the decision to close it. In January, 2000, a national liquidation firm organized a going-out-of-business sale; they trucked in new merchandise and jacked up the prices. The store was painted with gaudy signs, like a corpse made up before burial.

Epstein, who had left Holyoke at 18, went back to help, but (true to his profession) soon found himself mesmerized by the spectacle. His book, “Family Business” (Steidl, distributed by D.A.P.), an epic color photo essay produced over the course of three years, charts the demise of Epstein Furniture, and with it, an entire way of life. Incorporating archival documents, video stills and text, the book’s four chapters — “Store,” “Property,” “Town” and “Home” — proceed with the stately pace of a funeral march, or like acts in a tragedy.

Long before that windy night in 1999, Holyoke’s fortunes had begun to decline; the once prosperous industrial town’s spiral into drug-and-violence-ridden capital seemed to resist the efforts and nullify the achievements of even its most solid suburbanites.

“The business of family can never be separated from a family business,” Epstein writes in his volume’s introduction. He has published photography books before, the fruit of his travels to far-flung destinations such as India or Vietnam; but turning his lens on the home front proved fraught with complication. “I had been gone for 30 years,” he recalled in a telephone interview from Paris, where he was visiting recently. “My brother had worked for my father for 20 years, and put a lot into the family business. For me to arrive when things were frayed, and then falling apart, wasn’t easy.”

Feeling like an intruder amidst the fray of commerce, he rambled about the store’s emptying warehouses, photographing the odd bits of merchandise that remained — an army of table lamps or a forlorn herd of over-stuffed lounge chairs — and endowing them with an air of weary anticipation. In these pictures, the accoutrements of a comfortable, middle-class life are divested of all coziness, as if the idea of home itself were being disbanded, along with the company.

A photograph of a worn briefcase atop a naked mattress in a turquoise showroom seems to encapsulate the dilemma facing men of Bill Epstein’s generation — husbands and fathers whose sense of themselves as providers was so central to their identity that they quietly retreated from other aspects of family life, men whose silences weighed heavily around the dinner table. Bill Epstein, Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year for 1970, had lived for and through his work — if all that dissolved, what would be left him?

Intertwined with his story was the fate of Holyoke, where suburban malls and a host of social problems had sucked the life out of the commercial center in the 1970s. “Family Business” includes shots of the town’s numerous abandoned buildings, too costly for their owners to tear down. And it documents the culture clash between Epstein’s Jewish-American father, his mostly Puerto Rican tenants and the city officials descended from earlier waves of Irish and Italian immigrants.

A portrait of a marriage, with its deep loyalties, public faces and private disappointments, the book also records a visit Epstein and his father pay to Danny, the youngest Epstein son, who is mentally retarded and institutionalized. The encounter between this man on the brink of losing his powers and his childlike adult son (like that between Lear and his fool) is filled with poignancy.

My father (born the same year as Bill Epstein) was a salesman and successful small businessman, until things fell apart, and he faced bankruptcy. I remember entering his office in a musty suburban town a short time after his death; the lists of clients, adding machines and faded documents seemed almost more imbued with his person than the few personal effects I had managed to salvage — a bathrobe, a wristwatch, a photograph of a small boy in knickers standing on a rock beside a lake in summertime. He had worked since the age of 7, selling ice cream to the bathers at Coney Island; he died one month before retiring. How thin is the air of leisure for such men — how fragile these once-titanic figures can suddenly appear to us. Epstein captures this perfectly, in a touching photograph of his father’s aged body caught in a rare moment of relaxation, as it disappears into the dark water of a pond on a summer’s day.

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