COLUMBIA — Reuben Stokes is going on his third year as "the drone, laborer, back-muscle, whatever you want to call it" at Compton's Fireworks just north of Columbia. He said of the roughly 100 tents the owner operates across Missouri, his location on Rangeline Street was the first to open June 20.
"(We) were the first ones to sell," Stokes said. "It's pretty important to turn around and get it out there."
Stokes and two other employees will be selling fireworks as fast as people arrive — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — until their permit expires July 10 and the tent has to come down. The tent can be secured by locking its wire enclosure if need be, but the strategy is to remain open for business.
"A lot of it is word of mouth," Stokes said. "If you sell really well, they'll come back next year."
During fireworks season, the competition between vendors is fierce, but aside from snagging the choicest locations, sales are mostly determined by consumer decisions. Another tent is opening across the street, but Stokes says he doesn't feel crowded.
"They stay on their side of the street, we stay on ours. They don't bother us, we don't bother them," he said, noting that tussles and price wars aren't very common.
Hundreds of firework varieties are displayed at Compton's, from bottle rockets by the thousand — Stokes' most important seller — to behemoth package assortments with names like "The Godfather" and "King of the Block." At upwards of $350, the latter is the biggest bang Compton's has to offer.
And if the Chinese characters aren't obvious enough, every package under the Compton's canopy bears the mark 'Made in China.' Stokes said none of his fireworks were made locally.
"Ninety percent of your fireworks are made in another country," Stokes said. "What is 'American-made' anymore, you know?"
John Bechtold, owner of national wholesaler Spirit of '76 Fireworks, said sellers began stocking more and more Chinese fireworks about 10 years ago.
Bechtold deals only in consumer-grade products, and between his Columbia office and a warehouse in Pennsylvania, his fireworks ship to every state in the continental United States. His entire stock is imported from factories in the Hunan, Guangxi and Jiangxi provinces of southern China.
Bechtold visits the factories often. As he describes them, the facilities are "like little huts," where workers industriously wrap each popper, flasher and banger one by one. He said there's a fluidity involved that the workers seem to have mastered.
"Even if you had cheap American labor make them, I don't think Americans have the skills that Chinese women have," Bechtold said, describing the process almost wistfully. He moves his hands through the air to imitate a worker's dexterity, carefully packing each tube with powder and charges, then wrapping, sealing and applying each label by hand.
"The Chinese know how to make fireworks. They just know how to make them," Bechtold said.
Fireworks are an ancient invention, but exports didn't begin to thrive until the late '70s with China's Open Door Policy, designed to promote trade and foreign investment. China now produces an estimated 90 percent of the world's fireworks. According to a China Daily report, there are 500 to 600 fireworks factories in the Hunan capitol of Liuyang, making it a hub of the industry.
"There's political support within those provinces because there might be half a million people making fireworks, and the government wants those people to be employed and the money going," Bechtold said. "So they approve fireworks production."
The dangers are almost built in. An accident at a Chinese facility on June 18 killed 14 workers and injured 13 others. The incident was only the most recent in an unsettling history of casualties at fireworks factories worldwide.
In March, a flash fire broke out at Global Pyrotechnic Solutions, a fireworks factory in Grubville. Two workers were treated for first and second-degree burns at St. Clare Health Center, and another was airlifted to the burn unit at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. Investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ruled the fire an accident, but its exact cause had not been reported as of Thursday.
Despite the accidents, Bechtold says improvements in the manufacturing process have resulted in much safer fireworks as a whole in the past 10 years. From fuse consistency and stability to quality control and testing, Bechtold calls the change "dramatic."
The fireworks are also just getting more impressive, he said. His most complex models produce concentric rings and smiley faces, which he said are very difficult to achieve in production.
"If you've got flying birds coming out of your fireworks, you know, people are going to want that," Bechtold said. "Dancing monkeys..."
He let out a big, almost triumphant laugh at the thought, but sobered quickly.
"Yeah, we don't have that yet."
Bechtold calls the fireworks industry "a different world" than it was 20, or even 10 years ago, and that demand for the loudest, brightest and most eye-popping fireworks will keep him and his customers pining for the next big thing.
"If you can build a better firework, that's a big deal," he said. "If you're a factory and you have the best one, I'll pay you premium."
Supervising editor is John Schneller.