Blog: Joe Zainea

A peek at the playbills of the Majestic Theater and the Magic Stick live music venues shows that every day is a different act. How does Joe Zainea, longtime owner of The Majestic entertainment empire, keep things fresh from week to week? Follow on for his tales of revival and survival.

Post 3: Scrip Money: New Economy?

My father started a creamery in 1916, and by the 1930s it was a very large creamery in Detroit called Family Creamery. They supplied Detroit public schools and many other schools with half-pint bottles of milk. As you know, cows continue to make milk whether there's a depression or not, and they had to sell it. The city of Detroit was only able to pay them with scrip money. So here they're accumulating this large amount of scrip money. There were three-year, five-year and seven-year payouts; some of them didn't meet they payout, so the creamery had to extend them. And the city paid interest paid on the scrip.

So they had a lot of this scrip money around. And it was used in the Syrian community in a bartering system. What they did with the scrip money was, let's say you had a job; you were paid an amount in cash, probably very little, and the rest you were paid in scrip. And my father would say to the workers, "I'm gonna pay you half in scrip money, half in cash, so I can survive in business. Use this scrip money over at Simon Grocery, or Johnson Depot, or in this hardware store", businesses that were all owned by the same ethnic people, the Syrian community.

And in a sense by using this scrip money internally they prospered while the majority of the country was suffering, because a lot of businesses in the city didn't want to take it.

My father and some partners took some of the scrip money and bought properties from Detroit Bank. There were three houses on Lakewood that were under construction, and the contractor went belly-up. This bank, which is the predecessor to Comerica Bank, was willing to accept scrip money for the properties they were stuck with. And this was one of the few banks that didn't fold during the Depression.

Then my father hired carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, and he paid them half cash and half scrip, and he told them, "Take the cash and pay for the things that you absolutely have to have, like your mortgages." Then he told them to use the scrip money wherever it was possible in the Syrian community.

And it worked. The bank was able to get rid of this property that was on their books, my father and his partners were able to hold on to their cash, and they were even able to exchange scrip money for stock in the Detroit Bank. So everyone ended up pretty well off by using this scrip money within the community.

Now it's the 90s and I went to National City Bank to ask for a loan. And they said the loan was too large for the manager in the branch to handle. So they called in another officer and he too said that the amount was too large, and that I would be given a "personal banker."

So a lady called me and she introduced herself on the phone as "my personal banker." And I was explaining to her about our business on Woodward Avenue, and I told her, "Come down and visit us, have lunch in one of our restaurants." And she said, "That would be difficult – I'm in Indianapolis." I said, "You're my personal banker and you're in Indianapolis? What is this? I wanna meet you." Well, that's the way the banks have grown and grown and grown to the point where there's hardly any personal contact.

And there was another day, this was in 1999, and I was very frustrated; business was very difficult. This was the end of the Reagan "trickle down" era, and our affluent customer base of African-Americans had left for suburbia, and we were left with a difficult clientele, and I was facing tough times. So I went to the bank and I was very frustrated. And I went to the window that said "Commercial Accounts Only – Not Available From 11:30 to 1:30." And it was the first of the month, and the line was serpentine out the door, because everyone had just gotten their welfare payments.

When it was my turn at the window the teller put up a sign that said "Closed." But I got the manager to have her open it up again for me. And all this time next to me there was this guy at the next window and he was eating peanuts, and he was drunk, and the peanuts were dribbling down his chin. And he was cussing out the teller; he wanted his money, and she wasn't able to give it to him because he had already expended it.

I finished my business, and he continued to abuse the teller, and I turned to him and I said, "Sir, this is a place of business. You cannot speak like that. It is not appropriate." And he turned to me and he said, "I'm sorry, sir." And I said, "No, you don't mean sir, you mean 'Reverend' ." I made myself out to be one! And oh, he started to tell me how much he loved his Jesus. Then he went back to the teller and he continued to cuss her out, because he wanted his money.

And that day I picked as the day when I said "I'm leaving." And I went to my credit union in the suburbs. It's too bad. I wonder if they ever learned their lesson. Like when you go to the post office – not the main office on Fort, where they've done a good job of educating the staff – but at the other post offices in the city there's a city amount of bitterness on the part of the clerks. And it's because they're putting up with lots of aggravation all day. But along comes another person who's not part of that scene, and they get treated the same way. And it's very frustrating.

So often times I pick up my stuff and I go to the post office either in downtown Detroit or in Grosse Pointe. Where you're treated differently. It should not be like that. Everyone should be treated the same. And the people themselves have to learn respect too.