The Barney Kaplan Grow House Story
A true Story rewritten 07/17/2015 unedited
At this writing in February 2014, my good friend Barney Kaplan is now 96 years old.
I first met Barney Kaplan, back in 1975 in Detroit, his company was called “Barney Kaplan Surplus” later he shortened it to “BKS”. His business was extremely unusual, as Barney, who all his life was a specialist in rebuilding automotive electrical parts, bought and sold all kinds of spare parts that the big automotive electrical manufacturers were throwing away. Barney’s warehouses were absolutely loaded with all kinds of wonderful things that parts rebuilding companies like mine needed for doing our business.
Once I met Barney, from 1975 on, he became one of our major suppliers, and then besides from being one of our suppliers, he also became our good friend as well as a mentor.
As one of our major suppliers, for 35 years Barney kept us supplied with tons of new, as well as used and surplus automotive electrical parts, they were automotive parts that helped to make our company highly successful.
Being one of our major suppliers, Barney searched the entire Midwest market place for us, to find the types of items we needed. When he found something, he would always call to advise us of what he was buying, then he loaded everything up in trailer loads at his warehouse in Detroit and shipped it to us in Miami.
As we became friends, Barney would call me several times a week, usually in the evening, he would call to talk about our mutual friends, what was happening in the rebuilding industry, as well as tell me lots of funny stories, all about things that happened to him in the past. And then there were the jokes, some of which over the years, I had heard over and over from him.
Every month or so there would be a UPS package coming to us with several small kosher salami’s in it, they were dry kosher salami’s that Barney always picked up when he was in Chicago. He said they were the best in the whole world and I think he was right. We hung the salami’s from our office ceiling to dry out, as per Barney’s exacting instructions. The first time when the salami’s turned white with mold and I was going to throw them away, Barney yelled at me, he said just rinse them off with water, and he was right. Everyone visiting us that was in the rebuilding industry, and who saw the salami’s hanging in our office said, “So you know Barney Kaplan too”. It seems Barney never went anywhere without carrying a few of his gift salami’s. Once when I was fishing with him in the wilds of Canada, nothing was biting, so Barney put a chunk of that kosher salami on his fish hook, for the fun of it, but it didn’t help.
Becoming our mentor, Barney never stopped advising me as to how to improve our business to make it grow and be profitable. His advice was absolutely nonstop for over 35 years, Barney seemed to have an idea for solving just about every problem. He would advise me on how to set up work benches, he advised me on shop lighting as well as ventilation, and over the years I probably heard some of the same advice repeated hundreds of times.
When Barney first started mentoring me, and telling me all the things I was doing wrong, I took offense with him, but then over the years I had to call Barney up many times to tell him he was really right and I was wrong. I eventually calculated that Barney was right over 70 percent of the time and he probably was right more than that, but I was too stubborn to admit it.
With Barney always being so free with his advice, it made him many friends in the rebuilding industry, but it also made him a few enemies. I know there were people that took offense at listening to Barney’s advice, they were mostly the “Knows it all” guys that felt that they knew everything already.
Right from the beginning, when we started doing business with Barney, we knew that in the Midwest area, there were several other companies similar to his, but they were all concentrated on selling more of the common every day type of parts, but Barney’s type of business was totally different, and that’s what made him stand out in the crowd. Barney specialized in finding, buying and stocking all kinds of hard to find parts, the kinds of parts that were used in odd ball applications like industrial machines, ships generators, farm tractors, and fork lifts. In other words Barney specialized in what no one else wanted to specialize in, and consequently that’s what made Barney an icon in the rebuilding industry. Many companies just like mine, became dependent on Barney as a supplier. Over the years he became well known as a specialist in having things that no one else had, and that’s what ultimately, after many years, almost tripped him up.
When I first met Barney he had a warehouse located on Wabash Avenue in Detroit.
Barney had that Wabash building so filled up with odd ball parts that you could hardly walk in it, you even had to step on a big locomotive starter when you entered his front door. By today’s standards we would probably call Barney a hoarder, but to those of us that knew him, we knew that he was a hoarder of “Gold”, the valuable hard to find parts that we needed to keep our businesses rolling.
Barney contacted factories as well as junk yards, he looked everywhere to find anything discarded that was electrical, and that is how Barney found electrical parts from locomotives, to lawn mowers.
Finding the parts was just the beginning for Barney, then he had to buy them and store them, thus he needed lots of warehouse space.
Around 1976, Barney had absolutely filled up his Wabash Avenue warehouse to capacity, and that’s when he decided to rent additional storage space upstairs from a scrap paper baling company. When our company first discovered Barney in 1975, he had already run out of room in his Wabash building, that’s when I started going with him to his new rented space above the scrap paper company. I just loved going there with Barney as we would stand downstairs next to one of the big scrap paper baling machines, and Barney would reach in and pick out all kinds of books and interesting papers that the scrap company was baling up. He would find and show me all kinds of interesting reading material that was being thrown away as scrap, and Barney would take lots of it home, just to give it out free to his customers.
Barney knew that his looking for used and surplus electrical parts was an addiction, he just couldn’t stop doing it.
When I first met Barney in 1975, for us it was like a marriage made in heaven, Barney was buying tons of excess marine electrical parts from a manufacturer called the Prestolite Company and at the time, his only customer for it was a Michigan company called “MEC”. For one reason or another MEC, had stopped buying parts. So when we met Barney, he was overflowing with tons of the very parts we needed, and loads more of it was coming in to Barney’s warehouse weekly. So when we came along and started buying it all, it really made Barney’s day, but I don’t know who was happier, Barney or me.
In 1975, when I first started traveling to Detroit, it started out as fun, but after a couple of years, of flying back and forth from Miami, the city of Detroit had started to become a little scary to me. I could see in front of me the beginning of the deterioration of what was once a great city. There were already lots of abandoned houses everywhere.
Barney told me that the city of Detroit would sell them to anyone for only a few hundred dollars, and I saw it was happening right across the street from Barney’s Wabash Avenue warehouse.
Across the street from Barney’s, there was a two story wooden house with families living in it. Then one day, I noticed that the families seemed to be gone, and I wondered what had happened to them. On my next trip to Detroit I kept my eye on that house, and I saw that the City of Detroit, had nailed up plywood covering all the doors and windows. Now on every trip, I kept my eye on that house, and it wasn’t long before I saw that some of the pieces of plywood had been removed from the doors, Barney said it was probably done by drug addicts. A few months later, I noticed smoke and burn marks around the windows, a sign that there had been some kind of a fire inside the house.
Barney told me he had watched from his loading dock, as some guys ripped out all the plumbing and the electrical wiring out of the house. By the time I made my next trip to Detroit, the house was nothing more than an empty wooden shell that you could see through. That was when the city came in and knocked down what was left of the house, leaving nothing but an empty lot.
I joked with Barney back then, telling him that pretty soon all of Detroit would end up the same way. I think that Barney watching that house deteriorate right in front of him, was his wakeup call, he saw his neighborhood was deteriorating, and since he needed more space anyway, Barney decided to look for a larger building in a better location.
At the time Barney started looking for a new and larger warehouse, he had remarried and moved to Southfield Michigan, so sometimes when I came to Detroit I would stay with Barney and his wife Sara Lee.
Staying with Barney and his wife was an experience, as they had a large dog named “Red”. Each morning Barney and his wife, would drive to work with their dog Red sitting behind me. Barney would go out of his way to drive to several street corners where he would roll down the windows so Red could bark, saying hello to his friends who were all always sitting there waiting for him. As Red barked to all his friends he would drool on my shoulder, naturally unnoticed by anyone but me.
It wasn’t long before Barney called me in Miami to tell me he had purchased a large 28,600 square foot warehouse building on Epworth Street in Detroit and he said he was moving his entire company. The building he purchased now gave Barney the additional space to spread out and buy more merchandise, so over the next 20 years he continued to do so. This now made the company, now called BKS, one of the largest stockers and sellers of specialized odd ball electrical parts in the United States.
As I stated, over the years Barney and I had become good friends. And he was always proud to take me along and introduce me to all of his suppliers. He was anxious to show me how he was always welcomed by the factories that were selling to him, so as my mentor, Barney and I traveled to many places together, which included the attending of the conventions held by the Automotive Parts Rebuilding Association. (APRA). Wherever we traveled, Barney always introduced me to all his customers and I could see that some of them, like me enjoyed our relationship with Barney.
Eventually by the late 1990’s the market in the United States started changing. As now many more items were being imported from Taiwan Japan and China. The market for older odd ball U.S. industrial parts diminished, and Barney’s business began declining with it. The America Barney loved, was now becoming a throwaway society, and the rebuilding business was in decline.
By 2006 Barney, was now eighty eight years old, and his heart broken over the change in the market. He no longer had the items that were needed to rebuild the Asian products being imported. Reluctantly Barney decided it was time to liquidate all of his inventory. That immense job took him several years, but with the assistance of his son Jerry, Barney was eventually able to sell off and scrap most all of the inventory that he had accumulated in over seventy years.
By year 2012, with most of the inventory now gone, Barney now had his empty warehouses to contend with. With the city of Detroit also now in a tailspin, and the entire United States economy in decline, there were no customers to be found for his buildings.
Barney called me in the evenings, he was getting depressed and lamenting the cost of taxes, and the insurance expenses, and all this with no income coming in. Then the coup de grace, the graffiti artists found his Epworth warehouse, and the city of Detroit wanted to fine Barney unless he cleaned up the mess they made.
I spoke to Barney often, and my only advice to him, was to sell his building at a loss, sell them at any price, I felt Barney needed to get the building out of his name, and as soon as possible. It was the only advice I could give him. The building was now a liability for Barney, with the taxes, insurance and fines from the city.
Eventually, Barney reluctantly agreed, he realized there was no way he could ever recover his original costs, so he then put the buildings in the hands of a real estate agent.
By 2013 Barney now fully realized that just getting rid of the buildings at any price would have been a blessing, and he was calling me every evening, Barney was now 96 years old, and he fully realized that there was no hope of profiting anything from the properties.
Then at 96 years of age, with the assistance of his two sons Larry and Jerry, Barney came to visit us in Miami, we all felt would be Barney’s last trip.
When Barney returned to Detroit, I received a call from him, he said the real estate agent he employed had found a client, but the client was only offering $35,000.00 for the warehouse property. I advised Barney to take it, as fast as possible, and he agreed. Barney said that after all the commissions and taxes were paid there would be little or nothing left over, but the buildings would be gone, and they would be out of his name.
Barney called to tell me that the sales transaction went like clock work, the buildings were sold and the new buyers had even agreed to keep all the left over furniture, it was truly a blessing for Barney.
About three months passed, when I received a large brown envelope in the mail. It was a picture of Barney’s building and a story right out of the Detroit newspaper. The picture enclosed was of the open front door of Barneys building, with his big BKS sign there for everyone to see.
It appears the Detroit police had just raided Barney’s building. The new owners were using the warehouse as marijuana grow house. The BKS Epworth building was now pretty famous in Detroit. Many of my good friends in the Detroit area, knowing that I was friends with Barney sent me, all the stories and pictures out of their local newspapers.
It was ironic, because the front door of Barney’s building was wide open, and the scavengers were ripping out of the building whatever was left, like the plumbing and electrical wiring, it was just like they had done to the house across the street from Barney’s warehouse on Wabash.
My friend and mentor Barney Kaplan, died peacefully on October 1, 2014.