Early afternoons during the week, despite the shifting seasons, still find the usual suspects in the men’s locker room and sauna at the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA.
Joe, from Charlestown, who just turned 88, a humble and ever amiable man, ambles in around 2 p.m. each day, and we know all is right in the world. Aaron, the investments banker, who grew up working at his father’s gas station in Watch Hill and went to Brown, where he was a lefty pitcher on the baseball team, works out faithfully in the late lunch hour. Jason, from Charlestown, also is a regular, keeping an eye on the clock because he has to pick up his younger son at St. Michael’s School.
There’s Matt, who lives in town, sells real estate in Boston and I defy anyone to tell me he’s not Robin Williams’ twin brother. We don’t see Big Caz, from Norwich, the former college hoopster, as often these days, since he installed a sauna at his home in Greeneville. But the Rev. Bruce, a retired Episcopal priest lately serving temporarily at a church in Oaxaca, Mexico, was in the sauna the other day, having come home to Groton for a brief respite and taking his familiar place on the two-tiered pews, as it were, in the relaxing heat.
Reliably, and sometimes exhaustingly, the sauna is filled with hot air over politics, sports, mutual ribbing and the angst of aging, but there are spells when solitude rules, and there is simply talk, or not. So it was the other afternoon, when Bob Quinn, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, was quietly savoring the swelter and the calm.
Sometimes it takes a little finessing by a retired but irrepressibly nosey journalist to find out who is who in there. Quinn, as it happens, was a film producer.
He was part of Picture Business, the company he and a partner established in New York focusing mostly on corporate promotional films and advertising, but justly proud of a handful of documentaries they made, notably one called “Leather Soul,” about the history of tanneries and blue-collar worker families in his native Peabody, Mass.
The documentary, which has aired on PBS and is still available on YouTube and features Quinn’s father in the opening segment, is a portrait of a gritty New England city — another “smokestack city,” as Quinn dubs them. It explores both the boom decades, when there were an estimated 100 leather factories, shops and affiliated businesses and 20,000 leather workers in Peabody, to the economic shell that remained as the factories shuttered and departed, and an anonymous suburbia settled in.
By the 1990s, it is said in the film, there were fewer than 400 leather workers drawing pay checks.
The saga is not unlike the story told about Westerly in the documentary “Carved from Stone: Legacy of a Granite Town,” but the reality for Peabody, a city today of some 53,000 on the North Shore, was closer to what befell the textile cities of Norwich and Willimantic when the companies went South.
Like the textile towns, Peabody’s factories drew from larger immigrant labor pools in the 19th century and early and middle decades of the last century — Greek, Irish, Jewish, Portuguese. The blame for what happened is spread around by former workers in the film: Government laxity in not applying tariffs on imported shoes; pollution and other environmental hazards from chemicals used by tanneries; unions driving labor costs up and, perhaps most fatally, plastics replacing leather.
As Studs Terkel, the documentary’s narrator, pronounces, “Peabody became just another exit off the American highway.”
Quinn was producer and co-director of “Leather Soul: Working for a Life in a Factory Town.” His business partner, Joe Cultera, directed the film. Quinn, who graduated from Brown, met Cultera when they both were studying film at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Cultera was raised in Salem, Mass., which he showcased, for better or worse, in the documentary “Witch City.”
They, along with several other writers and editors, also produced the documentaries “Unfinished Dreams,” the story of the St. Bonaventure University’s 1969-70 basketball season, and “Memories of the Aud,” a chronicle of life and sports in Buffalo, NY.
Quinn moved to East Greenwich in 2003 and a few years ago to Wakefield. In the sauna, he talks wistfully about his days as a producer and documentarian. What he created about the leather factories of his youth was not exactly a love song to Peabody, but it was clearly made with love.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.