Watch the video: Dick Shapiro, 92, does things his way

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Dick Shapiro doesn’t have a smartphone. He doesn’t have a computer, which makes his desk look strangely empty. His company, East Greenwich-based Special Delivery, distributes periodicals across Rhode Island, but it has neither a website nor a social media presence.

Shapiro runs most of his business through a landline, using a telephone shaped like Mickey Mouse.

Above all, Shapiro dislikes email.

“In my mind, email is giving somebody a ready-made excuse to tell you, ‘Oh, gee, I didn’t get your email, or I would’ve done what you asked me to do,’ ” says Shapiro. “You gave them the excuse to lie to you.”

Shapiro is 92 years old, and he has a special relationship with Jewish Rhode Island: His company has delivered the newspaper for the past 10 years. When you see issues of Jewish Rhode Island stacked up at a supermarket or coffee shop, Shapiro is likely the man who deposited them.

On delivery days, Shapiro fills his trunk with bundles of Providence Monthly, Truck and Equipment Post, and, yes, Jewish Rhode Island. He contracts with other drivers for some distribution, but he also personally navigates the state in his 27-year-old Volvo station wagon, ping-ponging from one vestibule to another.

“I like doing it!” Shapiro proclaims. “Like any business, you will run into problems. And not all problems can be solved – boom! – just like that. But when you fill up your station wagon full of these magazines, and it’s right up to the roof, and five or six hours later, it’s empty because you delivered it all, there’s a sense of accomplishment.”

Not surprisingly, Shapiro had a paper route when he was 12. He grew up in Mount Vernon, New York, where he delivered the Mount Vernon Daily Argus. His father and uncle also worked for distribution companies.

Shapiro’s first real job was checking the newsstand stock in New York City subway stations.

He went on to drop out of college and work a number of different jobs.

Sometime in the 1970s – he can’t remember exactly what year – Shapiro was invited to interview for a circulation manager position at the National Enquirer, the weekly tabloid based in New York City.

But Shapiro didn’t care for the Enquirer, and he bluntly said so.

“I just told them what I really thought and criticized much of what they were doing,” he recalled.

To his surprise, the Enquirer offered him the job, even after he asked for a salary that was twice what he’d ever earned.

“They said, ‘Fine, you start tomorrow morning.’ They were looking for someone who wanted to do things differently.”

During the one year he worked for the Enquirer, Shapiro says he increased circulation from 1 million copies a week to 2 million. The numbers might have continued to climb, but Shapiro says the company made a “morally unacceptable” demand, and he quit.

“I had come to realize that I was going to have to turn into the kind of person I don’t wish to be, and the money was unimportant,” he says, though he declined to explain what the demand was.

Morals and ethics have guided many of Shapiro’s decisions over the decades. He rattles off the names of many different employers, including Pines Publications, Simon & Schuster, the record label Golden Records, and his own label, Simon Says, which was purchased by ABC Paramount. In each anecdote, Shapiro faces combative managers, bad contracts, budget fiascos, stiffed raises and his own dramatic resignations. In Shapiro’s telling, corporate greed and impersonal business practices drove him out.

“I was very bothered by what I saw happening in the publishing business, being taken over by big money-making companies and harming the industry that I grew up in,” he says. “That really bothered me, and was a major factor in me wanting to get away from what I was doing. I sort of grew up feeling, if I tell somebody something, that’s the truth. And I found that that wasn’t true, dealing with big companies.”

Shapiro’s journey to Rhode Island was convoluted, involving a distribution company, an unexpected profit margin and a lawsuit. He had an apartment in Boston for years, but he knew nothing about the Ocean State. Nevertheless, in 1982, he relocated with his wife, Joyce, an English-born photographer. Mostly, he says, he wanted to escape from the rat race.

“I knew that no one knew where Rhode Island was, so it was a good place to go,” Shapiro says with one of his characteristic guffaws.

The couple first rented a house in North Kingstown, and they felt so comfortable there that they bought the place.

“It was very good for me in a number of ways. It was good for my marriage. I was home every night now; no more traveling. My wife and I had a wonderful time, almost like a second honeymoon. We went to inspect the state of Rhode Island. We were out every night, going to different restaurants.”

In Rhode Island, the Shapiros felt true stability. They settled in and raised two sons, Peter and Michael.

In the early ’90s, Shapiro made a decision that would shape the rest of his career. By that time, he was running his own publishing company and helping to publish a magazine called TV Jr. The magazine emulated TV Guide, but the younger audience was lukewarm, and the title only survived a few months.

Then one day, Shapiro learned that the magazine’s distributor was planning to retire. Shapiro made an offer, and in 1994 he became the owner of Special Delivery.

“I started [in] the business that I have now, which is distributing for other people,” he says.

Today, Special Delivery is housed in an unassuming warehouse in East Greenwich. The space is located so close to the railroad tracks that the whoosh of Amtrak trains frequently interrupts conversation. Periodicals are stacked on wood pallets, and Shapiro moves them around with a forklift he operates himself.

Three part-time delivery drivers work for the company, but Shapiro has only one full-time employee, his son Peter. At age 63, Peter is also the youngest person on Shapiro’s team; the nonagenarian prefers to work with older people.

“They will show up when they’re supposed to,” he says. “They will go where they’re supposed to go. They will actually do what they said they were going to do. Unfortunately, I don’t think I could do that with the younger generation today. This is the kind of business where you really like what you’re doing, or you really don’t.”

While Shapiro feels strongly about personal relationships, he has never shown much interest in his own ancestry. He opted out of a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 because his older brother had spent so much time writing thank-you notes. His father’s family came from Chicago, but many of those relatives were estranged, for unknown reasons, and his mother moved to the U.S. from Odessa when she was four. What Shapiro remembers of his mother’s Ukrainian background was her superb ethnic meals.

Joyce Shapiro passed away two years ago. These days, Shapiro revels in his two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

When he turned 89, Shapiro received a book from his son Michael, 65, who works as a cruise director. The self-published volume was a collection of family photographs and Shapiro’s words of wisdom: “Pick your parents carefully, so you get good genes”; “Under no circumstances … stop breathing – people may do things you don’t like”; “The time to retire is when you’re in your 30s, when you can really enjoy it; the time to go back to work is when you’re my age, in your 80s. You may as well, you can’t do anything else anyway.”

That last quip begs the question: How long does Shapiro plan to keep working?

“As long as I’m able to,” he says.

ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.