After seeing the U.S. economy start to dive during the summer of 2008, Teresa Pershall decided it was time to downsize her business and prepare for the long, tough economic road ahead. She had, after all, seen this type of thing before. In Vietnam. Decades earlier.
In 1980, Teresa — then known by her Vietnamese name, Thi Nguyen — found herself standing in a rice field holding two little babies and asking herself, “What do I do now?” Her only answer at the time was to work. And work hard. Twenty hours a day was not uncommon.
Only a few years earlier, the Viet Cong had taken over South Vietnam and seized her family’s property. Teresa’s husband and many of her family members were able to flee the country, but she remained behind to take care of her two elderly parents and her two babies by herself. Many others she had known simply disappeared after being taken away by armed men from the new regime. She did not want the same to happen to her children and her parents.
Asked to describe what it was like to live under communism, she said, “It’s a really wonderful life for people who work for the government and a really horrible life for those who work outside the government.”
Comparing government officials to “sticks” who are willing to cover up for each other and accept mediocrity as long as it allows them to enrich themselves, she went on to highlight corruption as one of the biggest problems she saw in Vietnam.
“One stick, you can break it,” she said. “One chopstick, you can break it. But one-hundred chopsticks, you cannot break.”
In other words, it’s hard to get rid of crooked politicians once corruption becomes the norm.
In 1990, Teresa managed to arrange for her daughter Kim, then 11, to flee Vietnam on a boat bound for Indonesia and, eventually, to the United States. Kim spent the next two years in Indonesia, under the care of a woman her mother barely knew, before finally making it to the U.S.
During the decade of the ‘90s, Teresa and her first husband divorced, she gave birth to another child by her second husband — a marriage that didn’t work out — and both of her parents died. Despite the tumult in her life, she continued to work hard and kept her focus on escaping communist rule.
The following year, she made the extremely difficult decision to leave the country of her birth. At the same time, she left her second son Don, then 4, in the care of a close family friend as she set out for the United States.
Though separated by thousands of miles, Teresa did not forget about Don. As often as possible, she sent money to the family caring for Don, doing all she could to help them survive. And she taught herself English.
Four years later, Teresa’s life began to take a turn for the better.
In late summer 2003, she and Kim opened B Nails, a high-end nail salon in O’Fallon, Mo., just west of St. Louis. A few months later, she met Craig Pershall, then a sign salesman. A whirlwind three-month relationship followed, and they were married in January 2004.
In 2006, Teresa earned her U.S. citizenship and, with money saved for several years to pay for the trip, she returned to Vietnam in 2008 to get her son, Don, then 13.
At that point, one might think Teresa’s troubles were over. She was, in her own words, “In Heaven” knowing she had freed all of her children from the bondage of communism and brought them together in a land of boundless opportunities. Little did she know, however, that new struggles awaited her.
In the summer of 2008, the U.S. economy began to show signs of trouble. Having seen similar circumstances following the communist takeover in Vietnam more than 30 years earlier, Teresa knew she should downsize. After all, a future with high unemployment and inflation would render her current business model untenable.
After Teresa heard candidate Barack Obama talk about hot-button issues such as unemployment, health care reform, same-sex marriage and abortion, she said she knew he was going to win: “100 percent. He wins!” She also sensed a sea change in the country’s immediate future.
Despite the ominous feeling that tough times awaited them, Craig helped his wife relocate her nail salon in September 2008, moving it from its location near the intersection of Highway K and Mexico Road in O’Fallon, Mo., to Dollar Tree Plaza, a small strip shopping center in nearby St. Peters.
Located at the intersection of Mexico Road and Grand Teton Drive, the new location boasts fewer stations — three instead of 11 — than her previous shop but enabled her to reduce her overhead costs while still providing employment for as many as five people.
Many of her customers were willing to follow her to St. Peters, she said, because they appreciated the extra attention to detail they could find in her shop that wasn’t available in many others. Plus, they knew she wouldn’t cut corners and often took up to two hours or more per customer to achieve the top-notch results they loved so much. Soon after the relocation, however, something unexpected — and not directly related to the economy — took place at the shopping center.
Members of the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity began stationing themselves at all three entrances to the shopping center’s parking lot. Why? Because they were miffed that the national discount retailer, Dollar Tree — the anchor tenant at the shopping center — used out-of-state labor to perform labor tasks at some of their stores in the St. Louis area.
Though union members refer to the matter a “labor dispute,” it appears to be an effort to drive the national retail chain out of business or, at a minimum, out of town. Regardless of how one describes it, the result is a situation in which carpenters and nails find themselves at odds.
During a visit to B Nails early this month during what should have been a busy weekday afternoon, Teresa and Craig told me they had experienced a 75 percent decline in walk-in traffic (mostly female customers) compared to the previous year. Though they did not share their financial records with me, the fact that our two-hour conversation went uninterrupted — that is, not a single customer entered the store while I was there — had me convinced they were telling the truth.
During a second afternoon visit this week, I spent another hour inside the store sans customers. Hmmm?
Many of her customers, according to Teresa, are afraid to cross what appears to be a union picket line because many of them come from union households. Others are simply intimidated by the presence of men at the entrances. Without enough customers, Teresa has been forced to lay off three employees — people with absolutely no ties to Dollar Tree.
Hesitant to paint this as a battle between a labor union and a small business, Teresa and Craig only wish the Carpenters’ District Council would consider using different, less-confrontational tactics, ones that cause less collateral damage to other businesses, in their campaign against Dollar Tree.
“I love everybody,” Teresa said. “Even if you hurt me, I still love you.”
I, for one, believe it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Teresa and Craig changed their minds about maintaining their anonymity after I published my first post, Carpenters’ District Council Campaign Against Dollar Tree Killing Another Small Business, about their situation. They decided they had too much at stake — both as business owners and as citizens of this great country — for them to remain in the shadows. Also, in case you’re wondering about Teresa’s children, they turned out well: Kim, 31, works as a dental hygienist in Houston and is studying to be a dentist; Sion Son, 29, graduated from the University of Missouri-Rolla two years ago and is working as an engineer supervisor for a major agricultural company; and Don, 15, is an honor student at a local high school.
UPDATE 8/20/10 at 9:35 a.m. Central: Tune in to The Dana Show on St. Louis’ 97.1 FM News Talk at 2:35 p.m. Central today for a discussion of this story. It should be lively. To call in, dial 314-969-9797. To listen, click the “LISTEN LIVE” button on the station’s home page.
UPDATE 8/20/10 at 3:16 p.m. Central: Cross-posted at BigGovernment.com.
UDPATE 9/8/10 at 10:55 p.m. Central: See Talk Show Host Brings Friends to Nail Salon.