Get smart about business trends – read these books

Our annual list of books for you to read this summer contains recommendations that share some attributes.

Specifically, they’re about business and economic themes, trends and history to help you understand current issues and where we’re headed. And they’re readable as well as insightful. Starting with:

Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight. How did an obscure company in an obscure part of the world wind up being the dominant global athletic shoe and apparel brand? Nike founder Phil Knight’s autobiography focuses on the early years of a company that today is better known around the world for a symbol (the swoosh) than for its name.

What’s striking about the story is that, for all of its current global size, reach and power, Nike very nearly didn’t survive long enough to make it to its present state. On multiple occasions Knight’s struggling shoe importer found itself starved of sufficient cash to pay for the next shipment of shoes.

This is much more a business book than a sports story, but don’t be put off by that; “Shoe Dog” is well-written, candid and moves at the pace of a runner threatening to break four minutes in the mile.

Hop King, Dennis Larsen. We devoted a full column to this book last year, but it’s worth inclusion in this year’s list because it’s so relevant to this region, answering such questions as “who was this Ezra Meeker guy and why is his name on everything?”

The book, from WSU Press, delves into aspects of local history that modern-day residents might not be aware of, such as the fact that, for a time, the Puyallup Valley was a globally significant center for growing hops, which provide flavoring for those schooners of beer you might be enjoying this holiday weekend.

That industry has shifted to the Yakima Valley; read “Hop King” to understand why, and about the fortunes made and lost.

Where the Water Goes, David Owen. The demands on the Colorado River’s water for residential uses, agriculture, industry and recreation are greater than what even that river and its vast watershed can supply.

Owen traces the river from its source to the last trickle of drops as it reaches the sea in Mexico, and along the route reports on the competing interests and the effects of pulling so much water from the Colorado.

It’s not a heavy-handed environmental polemic, and it manages to make even arcane subjects such as water-rights law in the West interesting.

This book is worth a read here in the supposedly soggy Northwest, which already has many of the same issues and clashes; growing economies and population, and the resulting growing demand, will only intensify them.

How the Post Office Created America, Winifred Gallagher. The U.S. Postal Service gets a lot of grief and disdain these days, and its business model has been wrecked by everything from electronic bill pay (how many of you still pay the monthly utility bill by writing a check, putting it into an envelope and sticking it into a mail box?)

But its importance in American history, linking a big but primitive country together and serving as the nation’s primary purveyor of information to build an engaged and informed citizenry, has been underappreciated until this book.

It’s not just big-picture, national-scale history but personal as well; Stagecoach Mary Fields was a former slave, crack shot, cigar-smoking mail-carrier contractor in the Montana territory, and in her tale there’s a great movie just waiting to be made.

Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance. Two years after publication this book is still on bestseller lists, and for good reason. An engaging and quick read, “Hillbilly Elegy” became a quick primer for those trying to figure out what happened last November.

But this is not a political book; it’s one man’s personal story that tells a much larger tale of the economic and societal travails of Appalachia and the Midwest. The book is specifically about one regional culture, but the pathologies that have wrecked it can be found almost everywhere.

An Extraordinary Time, Marc Levinson. Your columnist must report that he’s just started on this one, but he’s including it because of the strength of the author’s previous books (“The Box,” a history of the shipping container, and “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America”) and because of the intriguing thesis of his latest.

You know those anemic growth rates everyone’s been complaining about during the recovery? Maybe what we’re clamoring for and remember fondly from the 1950s and 1960s was an abnormality, a result of unusual conditions (including the destruction of Western Europe’s industrial capacity in World War II) that dissipated by 1973.

The plodding, unexciting growth we’re experiencing (hyperactive locales such as Seattle excepted) is the new normal. We’ll read the book and see if we agree with the arguments behind the premise.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at