Barely hanging on

Jerald McCann, who owns McCann's Marble with his wife, Amy, works on a sink in the company's shop. McCann's once had 22 employees, but has cut its hourly workers to three.

Marble appliance makers Jerald and Amy McCann are working tirelessly — even harder than when orders for new sinks, tubs and vanities poured in during the real estate boom — to keep their small North Charleston business afloat.

Despite their efforts, neither has drawn a full paycheck in months. Instead, they continue to pay their three employees.

Making the cultured marble pieces takes heavy lifting, breathing chemicals and dust throughout the workday, and skill to get that speckled surface just right.

"You put up with it because if you didn't have them, you'd have to do it yourself," Jerald said.

Still, Jerald can't help being a bit resentful toward his employees, who earn about $18 an hour. It grinds on his nerves when they take long work breaks or show up late in the morning, and he constantly checks up on them.

The McCanns said they're determined to keep McCann's Marble in business, but their daily struggle shows what it's like to be a small business fighting against the unforgiving forces of this economic recession.

These days, orders for marble bathroom features are scarce, though a recent purchase from an optimistic local homebuilder has boosted their spirits. And it doesn't help that the price of the powders that are mixed and poured into molds hasn't fallen from its boom-time spikes.

During the homebuilding heyday, the McCanns had 22 employees who sometimes worked 18-hour days waiting for molds to dry so they could pour in a second batch before leaving at night.

Business began to slow at the end of 2007, but Jerald said he wasn't the type of boss who fired people during the holidays. So he drained almost all of his savings to keep them working for at least a few more months.

Now, Jerald is the one who's stuffing dusty rags into a washing machine near the shop's entrance. He used to have an employee who did that.

Amy, who keeps the books, managed to cut out some expenses by, for example, taking drivers with poor driving records off their delivery truck driver insurance policies. And employees wash and reuse buffing pads that cost a few dollars each.

She noticed that the federal stimulus package included some tax deductions for equipment purchases above $250,000. But these days, what small business has the money for that?

"We're barely making rent," she said.