Saturday, September 27, 2003

Musings on a Guitar Store

The Mighty Barrister has a really great story about the difference between smaller stores that serve customers and megachains that dispense SKUs. I enjoy reading stories like this, they make you realize that "nation of shopkeepers" isn't the slur it's usually taken to be. A nation of shopkeepers like the one in TMB's story is likely to be a nation that is helpful, values quality, the individual, and self-sacrifice. Those aren't negligible traits in a nation, IMHO, they're far more praiseworthy than being "the world's only superpower." What's the point of being a superpower if you're not helpful, value quality, the individual, and self-sacrifice?

I contrast that story with what happened to me at Borders last week. Ever since this Borders opened two years ago, in a town about 35 miles away where we go to church, I've been visiting it as frequently as I do the confessional, which is to say weekly. (No, confession and buying books at Borders aren't directly connected, although I bet my wife thinks they should be). I always pay by check. I don't carry cash (I'm not allowed), and I like credit cards only slightly more than my wife likes the idea of my having one, which is to say not very much at all. In two years, I've spent hundreds of dollars on books, music, and DVDs at this store. Mostly on books, because I rely on Borders to divert my reading away from religious subjects. (All theology and no historical fiction, sci-fi, or books like Fast Food Nation make Jack a dull Catholic).

I was poking around after going to confession and found some really neat books. There was a History of Food that looked really interesting (3 whole pages on salt cod!), Shelby Foote's book on Gettysburg, and some music by Kodaly and Prokofiev. I went up to the register and wrote a check. The assistant manager (he's about 50 years old) put it in a machine, and told me my check's been declined. Then he put it through again, and told me it was declined again. Then he went to the second register, and put my check through the machine. He told me it was declined. Then he put my check through the machine again, and told me it was declined again. Then he took my check to the third register and put my check through the machine. He told me it was declined again. This took about ten minutes. Meanwhile the head manager, who's just about old enough to buy cigarettes without an ID, has arrived.

So the assistant manager looks at me and says, "Gee, I don't know why it's doing that. I know you've been coming here for years, I recognize you, you're a good customer. You always pay by check. I'm really sorry about this." I figure there's nothing really wrong at this point, he'll just take the check and ring it up later when the machine is healthy. He knows me, I've been coming here for years. I'm a good customer! Nothing doing, says the chief manager. "I can't take that check. It's been declined." Now I can be a jerk, and at this point I start thumbing through my checkbook register for the chief manager's benefit, showing him the weekly checks I've written to his store for the past five months. I offer to come back in a week with cash if he's still having problems with the check. He can call me at the number on the check, I say, helpfully pointing to the
line right below ATTORNEY AT LAW underneath my name. (Look, I know America's unanimous in its agreement that lawyers are the scum of the earth, but no one's ever included check-bouncing in our list of sins). "I'm sorry," he says like he's not really sorry at all, eyes dulled with that unmistakable dullness that comes from having mentally moved on to the next thing on the list, "I can't take that check. It's been declined."

Then he moves the books and CDS back across the counter at me. I'm sorry, but if Borders doesn't think my credit's good I'm certainly not going to volunteer my time to restock their shelves. In fact, I'm so peeved at this point that I hoped the Prokofiev CD would be restocked by the chief manager himself, ignorantly stuck behind the "Miscellaneous P" divider where it would lie, unsold, until the day when Borders files for Chapter 11 because it's $14.99 short when Chase Manhattan calls in the loans. Rather than say anything (confession was over by then anyway), I walked out of the store without my History of Food (3 pages on salt cod!), my Kodaly, or my Prokofiev and drove home in the falling gloom, wondering what I would do that evening with only 673 unread books at home and not a single History of Food among them.

What makes the difference between the guitar store in TMB's story and Borders? The guitar store isn't infected with the modern illness that separates labor from management, and management from capital. At the guitar store, the owner really has all three roles -- he's the capitalist, the managerial class, and the righteous toiler all in one. At Borders, nobody really shares any of those roles, at least not enough to encourage a personal do-or-die attitude towards its success; they're all working there because employment with Borders is the economically-smart transaction at this point in their lives. Next week it might be different -- the chief manager could be selling Subarus, the assistant manager could be let go because his health insurance costs too much, and the stock-persons could be bartenders or hotel receptionists. The workers don't own or manage, and the owners and managers like it that way because workers who don't care passionately about the business aren't going to make problems about how it's run. The owners don't work or manage, and the managers like that because they don't need dumb owners interrupting the flow chart. Managers don't own, and the owners like that because they don't need a zealot treating the business like it was his own child and wrecking the scientific generation of dividends. Everybody's got an interest in making sure no one's interested, because common interests mean community and communities are very messy places that require initiative, self-sacrifice, and emotional/professional exposure to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They're also not as profitable on the margins as scientifically-run processes. I bet Applebees serves dinner a lot more cost-effectively than my mom or my wife.

If you're going to take on that kind of suffering, you're going to do it for something you love. Like guitars. Or the mom-and-pop used bookstore in another town, 50 miles away. Once I found all kinds of neat books there. There were biographies of Robert Bellarmine and Junipero Serra and two hardback Robert Graves novels. I went up to pay for them and realized I'd left my checkbook at home. The owner said that was fine, he knew me. He took my address and wrote a teeny promissory note for the purchase amount, had me sign it, and told me to mail him the check within a week. Yes, there's a clear-headed, self-interested reason for what he did -- he wants the business, and is hungry enough to put himself out for it. But only love allows people to truly put themselves out, because people in love want everyone to be happy. That man is love with books, the idea of buying and selling books, and the people who buy and sell books. I bet his blood pressure decreases when he enters his store, that his soul gives a little sigh of energetic comfort, just like you do when you smell your beloved's perfume or come into your own house, or are reminded of experiences when you were your best "you." The fellow's not permanently enraptured. I'm sure he has his good days and his bad ones. But he's fundamentally happy, while the temps at Borders are fundamentally on the lookout for another economically-smart transaction at this point in their lives. I don't blame them, that's what their world is, but it is that way.

Fortunately for us, people who go out into business on their own are forced to be small-time entrepreneurs, and many of them say "hey, if I'm gonna suffer this much, I'm gonna have fun with it and sell Harleys." That's probably why a lot of small businesses fail after five years or so -- the owners are simply having too much fun having fun to do all the things good business requires. But the ones who survive will get you your guitar, or write teeny-eensy promissory notes for four used books, instead of mindlessly bleating "I'm sorry, but your check was declined. I'm sorry, but your check was declined. I'm sorry . . . . . ."

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