By Leah Burrows
To get to Carl Barron, take the Red Line to Central Square, walk down Massachusetts Avenue, through Barron Plaza and into the Barron Building. Go down the long hallway and through the conference room plastered with awards and honorary degrees. You’ll find him sitting at his large oak desk, surrounded by papers, working like always.
Just don’t call him Carl.
Mr. Barron, or Mr. B if you’ve earned his friendship, is a legend in the Cambridge business community. The founder of Putnam Furniture Leasing Co., which he sold to one of Warren Buffet’s companies several years ago, Barron is a boss, mentor, dealmaker, pioneer and a guru. And at 93, he’s not slowing down.
When this epic recession hit, the business community looked to Barron’s leadership as shop after shop closed in Central Square. Sitting around an Arthurian conference table in his office, local business owners, real estate brokers and Barron worked together to help existing stores stay in business and new shops to open in vacant spaces.
“For businesses to survive, especially in a harsh economic climate, they have to have ingenuity,” Barron said. “I told people, ‘if you can’t do it one way, do it another.’”
Barron is a fixed point in Cambridge. He lived through the Great Depression, and countless smaller recessions. He’s seen red brick factories replaced by the sleek glass prisms of technology and biotechnology companies. He’s watched family operated businesses give way to corporate-owned coffee shops and grocery stores.
He looks his age, but doesn’t act it. He still works four days a week at his real estate business, Caru Associates; teaches classes at Cambridge College; and meets with local business owners. He writes books on business and genealogy. He collects Oriental glassware, designs glass vases and takes photographs, avidly.
“Everything from here up,” said Barron, holding his hand at his neck level, “is great. It’s the rest of the body you have to worry about.”
Born in 1916, Barron is fifth generation Cambridge on his father’s side. His mother was an immigrant from Lithuania.
He was the first in his family to go to college, majoring in economics at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. After graduating in 1938, Barron returned to Cambridge, where he watched his mother, a real estate agent, rent homes. He got an idea.
“If you can rent homes,” he recalled, “why can’t you rent the furniture?”
On a hot summer day in 1939, Barron opened the country’s first furniture leasing company, Putnam Furniture. He invested all of his money— $8—and secured another $1,500 from family.
Barron and his wife, Ruth, expanded the business, opening showrooms across the state and eventually building Putnam into the nation’s largest, privately owned furniture leasing company. In 2001, shortly before his wife died, Barron sold Putnam to CORT furniture, a company owned by Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.
Barron boils his more than 60 years in business into four lessons:
Step 1: Know every aspect of your product
Step 2: Be able to explain every aspect to your customers
Step 3: Tell the truth and never lie
Step 4: Believe in what you do
Barron is full of mottos and neatly packaged lessons but his favorite, or at least the one he espouses most often is: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Decades ago, Barron tried to forge an alliance with a real estate company in Cambridge—they had apartments and he had furniture. But they rejected his overtures again and again.
Then, on one of the hottest days of the summer, Barron called Toscanini’s ice cream parlor in Central Square, ordered a bucket of ice cream on dry ice and gave it to his top saleswoman with very specific instructions: Go back to the real estate company and tell them: “You’ve been so kind to me and generous with your time, on this hot day I thought you could use some ice cream.”
Barron made the deal.
In 2007, when Dan Goldstein opened his coffee shop, The Clear Conscience Café, in Central Square, he pushed to remove graffiti and control a growing homeless population, but his aggressive style often clashed with his neighbors.
One day, Barron asked Goldstein to in his office and told him, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Over time, Goldstein softened his approach. He reached out to local businesses, worked with other members of the community, and began to make progress on revitalizing the square. He later sent Barron a present: a teddy bear holding a jar of honey.
“He had his opinion and I had mine, but we both shared a civic-mindedness,” Goldstein recalled. “He can be tough, but he always listens and he is always fair.”
Barron’s passion for civic affairs expands beyond the business community. In 2004, after surviving prostate cancer, he donated money to fund the Barron Center for Men’s Health at the Mount Auburn Hospital. The next year, he paid for all of Cambridge’s firefighters to get tested for prostate cancer.
“He is one of those people who make great things happen,” said Mary Johnson, the nurse coordinator at the Barron center.
Evidence of those great things hangs on his office walls. Mixed with family photos and honorary degrees, are letters from former president George H. W. Bush; Senator John Kerry; former Governor Michael Dukakis; and the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy thanking Barron for his contributions.
When he is not working at his real estate business, or organizing events, or being honored by one group or another, Barron is writing his autobiography. He’s completed three volumes, covering ¬1916 to 2007 and spanning about 1,000 pages, and is close to finishing the fourth.
“I’m 93 years old,” Barron said. “When I finish it, I’ll send it to the printer and get started on Volume Five.”
Leah Burrows is a Boston University journalism graduate student.