Where Loafers Congregate

The RJR Building has been a landmark of the Tobacco company since 1929. A twenty-two-story miniature Empire State Building, its lighted tower at night has shown like a beacon, visible from the top of rolling hills for miles around.

Today, you can walk to the corner of Fourth and Main Streets and look up at the name “R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company” above the brass revolving door. You can enter the lobby and see the high ceiling decorated with tobacco leaves – a symbol of a proud tobacco heritage appropriately done in gold leaf. To the left, you will see Katharine’s Brasserie+Bar (named for R. J.’s wife) – the lobby bar for the current building owner, Kimpton Cardinal Hotel. To the right are the concierge and reception desk.

But when I enter the building, my memory flashes back to a very different scene. When I first worked here about 1968, to the left was a brokerage office – Thomson McKinnon. (The firm was founded in 1885. The October 1987 Crash frightened many small investors away from the market, and in poor financial shape, TM merged into Prudential-Bache.) To the right was Bobbitt’s Pharmacy. My thoughts immediately turn back to that brokerage office and the people I met there.

I frequently dropped in for a few minutes on my lunch hour to “see how the market is doing.” (It was years before I understood how useless this was – no investor needs to follow the market every day.) This office was a throwback to an earlier era. Not long before, a young lady standing at a large blackboard wrote some of the stock and commodity quotes with chalk and then erased and replaced them as she got new information.

By 1970 however, an electronic ticker tape had replaced the “chalk ladies.”  It flashed a stream of stock symbols, share volume, and prices. All part of the Wall Street “show,” but just as useless then as the CNBC tape is today for the average investor.

At this brokerage office, like many others, retired men came every day to watch the tape, chat, and generally lie about how well they had done in the market. As one of them said, “You can get as much useful information here as you can any place where loafers congregate.“ This is still true, although technology now allows such people a much larger forum with their own television shows on the business channels. Listening to these men was fascinating, but not very useful for investing.