- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Jim Shaffer has rough hands blackened by nearly seven decades of broom making, but they’re as deft as the day he started.

Shaffer, 85, has cobbled together hundreds of thousands of brooms during his 68-year career. While each broom has been made to the same specifications, Shaffer said imperfections are what make his craft an art form.

“No one broom is the same,” he said.

Shaffer is the owner of Charleston Broom Company, which maintains a small workshop near Kanawha State Forest. Having worked for the company since he was 17, Shafer has seen it through good and bad times.

For decades, the 20-employee shop produced about 3,500 brooms every week in a factory located on the East End where Laidley Field now stands. After moving and years of declining sales, the company was downsized to a one-man operation when Shaffer took over in the 1980s.



Shaffer is West Virginia’s only remaining broom manufacturer.

Despite cramped quarters and no other help, Shaffer still manages to make several hundred brooms each week. He also maintains business with local hardware stores and organizations that have been loyal customers for years.

While his shop is cold in the winters and a little disorganized, Shaffer is right at home.

Each day, Shaffer makes brooms on the same equipment he has for the past 60 years. Shaffer said the machines should have broken down ages ago, but he has kept them in good working condition.

Shaffer starts the broom making process by feeding a pine handle into a tying machine he operates with a foot pedal. The machine threads wire from a spool around the handle’s base as Shaffer adds bundles of straw. While the machine spins the handle and tightens wire around the straw, Shaffer quickly shapes the broom into a recognizable shape.

Once the straw is secured, Shaffer affixes two more bundles of straw to form shoulders that give the broom more body.

Once the base has taken shape, Shaffer cleans it and trims stray bristles before he takes it to an industrial sewing machine that pushes red or blue thread through the straw to hold it together.

It’s a simple process that only takes a few minutes, but Shaffer takes great pride in the work.

“They don’t make them like this anymore,” he said, inspecting one of his brooms.

There are days when Shaffer doesn’t have many orders to fill, but he said he always finds something to do. When the shop is quiet, Shaffer keeps busy by chopping firewood, filing paperwork and finishing any other tasks.

One thing Shaffer doesn’t do during idle moments is use his brooms to sweep the floor.

“I only do that when kids or reporters come by,” he said.

While business isn’t what it once was, Shaffer still believes there is a market for hand-crafted brooms.

The industry’s decline is owed in part to international trade agreements that allowed many products, like brooms, to be cheaply produced in Mexico where labor costs are low and materials are inexpensively harvested.

Shaffer also blames the emergence of big chain retailers in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“Wal-Mart and Kmart put us all out of business,” he said.

Shaffer said chain retailers stock Mexican-made brooms because they are cheaper, an agreement he has nothing but contempt for.

“Those brooms are cheap for a reason,” Shaffer said as he combed his fingers through the bristles of one of his brooms. “They fall apart.”

While big retailers have made business for Shaffer nearly unprofitable, he admits broom making has never been about the money.

“Roosevelt takes care of me,” Shaffer said referring to President Franklin Roosevelt. “He sends me a check each month.”

For years, Shaffer, who considers himself to be semi-retired, has lived off Social Security while supplementing that income with the money he makes from selling brooms.

“This is my spending money,” he said.

While profits have dwindled, Shaffer has been able to make a few bucks over the years due to the frugality of his operations.

“I own the building, get my own firewood and catch rain for water,” he said. Broom materials are his only expense.

If not for his stubborn personality, Shaffer said the company likely would have gone under years ago. Age also has caught up with him.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m slowing down some,” Shaffer said.

Stubbornness persists though, because Shaffer has no intention of closing the shop any time soon.

“I’ll continue for as long as I have good health.”

Shaffer’s brooms can be purchased from the Lions Club, Pile Hardware in Charleston or directly from his Davis Creek workshop. Shaffer sells household brooms for $8 and charges $10 for a sturdier industrial broom. He also makes and sells mops.

When asked why he has devoted an entire lifetime to broom making, Shaffer admitted he didn’t know the reason for doing so but said it has been a relaxing and rewarding trade.

These days, broom making has become cathartic for Shaffer.

“When I get nervous and flustered, I come out here and make a few brooms,” he said. “Then, I’m in a whole new world.”

___

Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, https://www.charlestondailymail.com

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