Gregg Monsees: Putnam Rolling Ladder Co.
Crannied between Soho’s modish storefronts and trendy cafes leans a five-story warehouse stocked with nothing but wooden ladders. This real estate is worth millions but rather than being sold to the scene, it sits half-empty, rich in an industrial heritage. Its owner, The Putnam Rolling Ladder Company, is one of the last remnants of the manufacturers that once dominated lower Manhattan, and it’s alive by the sheer will of a family committed to their product and engrossed in its tradition.
Putnam makes several different types of ladders but its crowning eponymous product is what makes it unique. The rolling ladder, known for its elegance, durability, and customization, is made from the best grade of hard woods and its steps are reinforced with rods and screws, not nails. It has been impeccably designed to attach to book shelving with a variety of options: The top slide mechanism allows the rolling ladder to be pulled out for use or pushed back against shelves; The roll type top fixture permanently attaches a ladder to the track; The hook slide top fixture allows a ladder to be moved from one track to another.
Putnam’s rolling ladder has been purchased by George Bush, Al Gore, Yoko Ono, Diane von Furstenberg, Annie Leibovitz, Stephen Colbert, Lord & Taylor, Brooks Brothers, and many other prestigious clients. Anyone walking off the cobblestones of Howard Street into the endearingly cluttered first floor office, however, will find that quality is not the same as pretension. Clients pay on average $2,000 for a Putnam rolling ladder because as Gregg Monsees, the company’s president, put it: “We’re the best. We’re the oldest. We’re the most versatile.” And it’s true—it seems no other company can compete with the customized ladders that elegantly roll along bookshelves throughout the world, Funny Face-style. These ladders, which often appear in the background of photos in The New York Times’ style pages, are a fetish object that this company, so committed to its old-fashioned business processes, consistently provides.
Founded by Samuel Putnam in 1905, the company’s original motto, as stated on its first catalog, was simple: “For all kinds of shelving that is more than man high.” As the city was being built up, so was the space behind and in front of its counters. The clients listed in the back of its original catalog included hardware stores, insurance companies, architects, shoe vendors, druggists, silk and ribbon purveyors, grocers, clothiers, sellers of hosiery, gloves, and underwear; of notions, collars and cuffs; of laces and embroideries. The niche evolved while the product remained the same.
In the early 1930s, Mr. Putnam moved the company from 244 Water Street to its current location at 32 Howard Street. The new address scared off more than one temp worker, who retreated before reaching the door because the area was so bad. The neighborhood has changed but very little about the company has, and if Gregg Monsees has his way, it will stay that way.
Monsees has worked at Putnam since 1980 and became president in 2009, after the death of his father, Warren, who held the job before him. Warren Monsees’s aunt, Caroline Rehm, had bought the company in 1946 from her boss, the original Samuel Putnam, and soon convinced Warren Monsees to take over, which he did in 1950.
Given Gregg’s resonant passion for the company, it is hard to believe he didn’t always work for Putnam. In fact, as a kid, Gregg was encouraged to find his own career; he wasn’t even allowed to work there during his summers. After graduating from the Wharton School of Business and later law school, he clerked for a judge and then worked for the Central Intelligence Agency on freedom of information and espionage cases. He married and had four children. It wasn’t until 1980 that he finally joined the company. His uncle was retiring and so his father promised to sell Gregg his childhood home in Montclair, New Jersey if he agreed to come on board. Gregg has been at Putnam—and in that house—for over 31 years, most of which were spent working for his father, not with him, as he is careful to clarify. He hopes his son, a fourth-generation Monsees, who currently works with Gregg, will take over some day.
“I have to continue the company, not only because it has been my whole life but to pass it on in our family,” Gregg says, looking through the one lens of his dark tortoise shell glasses (the left rim is empty). “It is now in my blood. We are a tradition. It’s continuing over my dead body.”
Gregg Monsees is a slender, soft-spoken man with distinguished floppy hair, a popped polo collar underneath his pen-stained Oxford shirt, and old penny loafers that have holes. He is a gentleman with an absent-minded love for his job. “It’s not work for me,” he says.
Gregg is most comfortable talking about one thing: ladder specifications. He walks me through the seemingly unlimited variations of the rolling ladder: 18 different finishes for the fixtures, such as brass, chrome, satin nickel, and antique gold; 13 different woods, from oak, ash, and birch to mahogany, hickory, and walnut; various heights, widths, and additional parts and shelving. When explaining how the track is installed at the top of a bookcase, Gregg jumps out of his chair to use a ladder in the office as a demonstration, pointing out the variety of screws, nuts, brackets, rods, brakes, and wheels that make each ladder unique.
Originally, the rolling ladder only came in oak wood with silver hardware, but customer demand persuaded the Monsees to expand the options. Now, some customers can also send a wood sample so that Putnam can match the stain. “Every situation we have a solution for,” Gregg says. And by asking his customers six simple questions on the same form that has been used for decades, he has all the information he needs to put together a beautiful custom ladder.
While the stylistic options have expanded, the company has shrunk. When Gregg started working for Putnam, it had 32 employees. Now it has 16, some of whom have been there for over 25 years. At one point the company had two delivery trucks; now it has zero. Sales have dropped as well.
Aside from the wider range of product choices, an office fax machine, and a smaller staff, little has changed. Even Gregg’s desks aren’t to be interfered with. He has moved on to his fourth desk. The other three, which became unusable when the stacks of papers and paraphernalia grew too high, sit abandoned, frozen in time like artifacts in a museum.
In fact, the entire 1886 building feels like a museum. Each rickety staircase leads to a stark floor topped with high ceilings where orphaned ladders rest against the walls. The only light sources are dangling light bulbs or windows at the far ends of the rooms. On one floor, Gregg opens a door to a flicker of the company’s old charisma: a cedar closet where Mr. Putnam kept his fur coats. Wandering among the ladders and buckets of hardware, Gregg shuffles over to a tower of cardboard boxes overflowing with files. Excitedly, he pulls out some old orders, observing how beautiful his father’s handwriting was and how little things have changed. Except for prices, of course. One order from 1957 quotes a rolling ladder at $60.
“I think my son has been throwing these away,” he says as he thumbs through a few more files out of what must be thousands. “He’s got to save some of these things. This is history. We are still doing the same stuff.”
It’s amazing to see four massive floors in New York City acting merely as storage for old ladders that may never sell. Some of the ladders were bought back from the clients Putnam has outlasted such as Linens n Things and Vitamin Shops. “One of the problems is that the ladders last forever,” Gregg says. He is always on the lookout to buy back stock, sometimes spotting a lonely ladder through a store window with a “Going out of business” sign.
Gregg realizes that this is million-dollar storage, and some day, he says, they might rent the floors out, just like they rented out the building next door to Jil Sanders, a high-end fashion designer. This day might be close at hand because the ladder business has been struggling with the housing crash. Currently, Putnam gets about 2,000 orders a year, compared to an average of 3,000 before 2008. It needs two more orders per week just to break even. So what keeps Putnam afloat is a side rental business it fell into after Warren purchased two Soho locations (30 and 32 Howard Street) as well as three factory locations in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The company rents three of the five buildings, and the income is supporting the ladder business which doesn’t bother Gregg one bit. And although he gets extremely generous offers to buy their current location nearly every day—he even has a letter handy to prove it—Gregg is willing to rent, But he will never sell. When asked why he wants to hold on to the company, he just laughs.
“I love the product,” he says.” I like dealing with the customers. I like carrying on the tradition. We are manufacturing in New York. Very few people can claim that.”
Every Putnam ladder is manufactured in Bushwick. Walking into the factory is like stepping back in time. Even the numerous calendars on the walls are out of date. The barrels of hardware, stacks of wood, and array of industrial machinery hark back to a tradition of simplicity. That is what Putnam runs on. “There is a system. The system doesn’t change,” Gregg says. “It is set. It doesn’t need any tweaking.”