Sitting there stroking his Mickey Mouse tie, round-faced and fully bearded, Max Salter looked a little like everyone's favorite uncle. But he was not a happy uncle.
Everything he had built in the past 49 years seemed to be coming apart, a victim of changing tastes and economic decline. At age 75, after a lifetime of hard-won success, he was staring failure in the face.
All but a few of the 65 clothing stores he had once owned had been shut down. But even worse than that, he would say, 700 employees, people who had helped him build the business from nothing, had been laid off.
"There is a Yiddish term neshuma, meaning the heart and soul of something," he was saying in a room over his main store on the edge of downtown L.A. "All of this has taken the neshuma out of me."
It isn't as though Salter will spend the remainder of his days in a poorhouse. He has made money over the years; enough, in fact, to have put $5 million from his own pocket back into the business in an unsuccessful effort to stem its downward spiral.
He has a home in Beverly Hills that anyone would envy, filled with enough antiques to stock a store. And he is blessed with a stable and healthy family and a thousand and one friends.
But then there's that heart and soul thing, the neshuma, and a man watching a lifetime of work going down like a tree in the forest. It hurts.
You had to have been a poor kid to understand something like this, and Salter qualifies. He was one of five children raised by a widowed mother in the Brighton Beach section of New York. They had next to nothing.
He remembers selling ice cream in the summer at age 10 to help out, and once, when it began to melt, responding to imminent disaster by selling it quickly at bargain rates. It was his first entrepreneurial experience.
After marriage and a hitch in the Navy, Salter bought a surplus store in San Luis Obispo on credit and $1,000 borrowed from his father-in-law. The place was barely the size of a large room and, according to Salter, contained things about as worthless as money can buy. He had one employee.
But by working 16 hours a day and improving his inventory, Salter was busy expanding before the year was out.
He turned it into a family apparel store and opened outlets in the small towns and cities of California. They were called Beno's after the store's original owner and provided a full line of clothing.
The business flourished. Salter brought his family south, opened the downtown store and moved into Beverly Hills, where he served on the City Council for eight years, two as mayor.
Life was good, but it was not to last. Malls, large chain operations and the state's declining economy began putting the squeeze on small specialty shops. Even places like Crescent City were getting malls.
Faced with disaster, Salter was forced to shut down stores here and there, but what started as a trickle became a flood. Bargain sales weren't enough. This wasn't ice cream he was dealing with. This was his life. Out of 65 stores, only 12 are left, and seven of them will go in the next few months.
What's happening to Salter isn't limited to him. About 2,000 small businesses are in the process of shutting down across the nation, double last year's rate. Layoffs in November are up by 45%.
I know how workers feel when their world disappears. I've been there. But how, I wondered, does an owner feel, especially a proud guy like Max Salter, a poor kid who had built the business himself?
He feels lousy. "I failed you," he told his employees when he had to lay off 75% of his work force. "You have done nothing wrong. You are good, wonderful, loyal people, and for me to tell you this is heartbreaking. . . ."
"A professional manager, a guy with an MBA from Harvard, wouldn't care," Salter said as he showed me around the big L.A. store. He limped slightly from an arthritic hip, but the pain he felt seemed more emotional than physical. "I'm not one of them. All this was a part of me."
He shook his head. "You know what was odd? The people I had to let go were sympathetic to me. I guess they knew how hard we had tried. And, by God, we did try."
Salter is still trying, clinging to what remains of what he built, arriving at the downtown garment district store every morning before 7:30, looking for a way to save his business from total collapse.
At his stage in life, money isn't the concern. At stake are the people who rely on him. At stake is a man's dignity. At stake is that business of heart and soul called neshuma.