Tuesday, March 20, 2012

afterthoughts on the most bizarre event of my life

After my bizarre encounter with the man who wanted to give me $50 million, I thought long and hard about my objections to a 'chain' of yarn shops.

What is the downside to chains? (All of what follows is supported by either personal experience or research.)
  • They aren't sensitive to their demographic.
  • They aren't sensitive to their geography.
  • They don't pay their staff as well.
  • They hire fewer staff per square foot than small retailers.
  • They don't put as much money into the local economy.
  • They don't give as much money to local charities.
  • They don't have the unique character a local shop does.
  • They are usually in outlying areas, which requires that I drive some distance from where I live.
  • They specialize in lower end goods.
  • They usually have a much more limited range of inventory.
  • They're often so big that I have to wander through lots of stuff I don't want to find the thing I do want.
 What is the single advantage to a chain?
  • Lower prices.
Period. I can spend money on gas to drive to outlying areas to wander around—looking for service—through an inventory with fewer choices and yarns of lower quality than I might find at my local yarn shop (LYS). Wow.

I understand needing to save money in tough times. But what price have we paid for saving these few dollars? I'm not an expert on global economies, but it seems to me that by giving our business to the large chains, we have squeezed out our little downtowns and their locally-owned shops, and how well has that served our towns, cities, local economies, and society in general?

While I don't know much about all this stuff, there are people who do. One of them is Jane Jacobs—a brilliant thinker who wrote some very important books. Perhaps her most well-known was The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The one I have read was Dark Age Ahead. 

In this latter book—which I have lent out and so cannot quote—I remember reading that successful societies (ones that have survived longer than ours) are expensive. They support their artists, their teachers, their child-care providers, their aged, their workers, their suppliers of goods. They don't outsource for cheaper goods: they pay what they must to support the care and welfare of their community's citizens.

Since we might all have fewer disposable dollars, we may now be looking at what she called an expensive society. So how do we make the best use of our spending dollars? Look for cheaper goods? There are people who will tell you that the solution is to shop at WALMART. But I could not disagree more.  I believe that what we need to do is behave as if we are part of expensive but successful society. This means that we look very carefully at where and how we spend our money. And it seems to me that supporting our communities--by buying goods and services from our small, local, independent businesses--is a first step in the road to recovery.

 I know we can't all do this; nor can we do it for all goods. But we can do what we can do. And in the meantime, see you at our LYS!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The most bizarre day of my (knitting) life

I am calling this the most bizarre day of my knitting life. But it may, in fact, have been the most bizarre occasion of my life: it would be a stretch to recall a stranger event. (By the way, I did post this on my website many years ago, but I didn't have a real blog then so not many saw it. And it's just too crazy a story not to entertain you with it.)

Okay, so here's the story.

In early 2003 I was sitting in a very busy yarn shop, knitting a piece for my COLOR book, after teaching for the day and now waiting for my end-of-the-day drive home. I noticed, absently, a tall couple entering the store. The woman seemed to require 3 or 4 staff people to wait on her: the man asked questions that caused impatience with the staff. He was, eventually, directed to me.

This man wanted to know what all the excitement of a regular day in a yarn shop was all about. This was in our heyday and in a very large shop with many customers and staff. There was clearly a lot going on (and a lot of money being made), and he wanted to understand it. The following conversation ensued.

Him Who are all these people?
Me Customers and staff.
Him How many customers do they have in a day?
Me I've been told that it's between 100 and 120.
Him And what do they want?
Me Yarn. 

(Duh. Actually I tried to talk about the current knitting demograhic, but he interrupted me. I need to make it clear that he never seemed particularly interested in my answers—especially when I did not appear to be saying what he wanted to hear. And what won't translate through my writing is that it was rare that I was permitted to complete a sentence. I eventually learned to give only short answers—which is what I offer through my re-telling.)

Him How many yarn shops in the US? Hundreds?
Me No, I answered, perhaps a couple of thousand. I can tell you where to find out.

(I would have sent him to XRX's directory, but he was not interested.)

Him So what makes a good yarn shop?
Me Service and inventory.
Him (sniffing) Well, that's no different from any other retail operation.
Me (thinking but not saying) And why would you expect anything different?
Him What do you think of the idea of a chain of yarn shops?
Me Bad idea.
Him (apparently insulted) Why?
Well, chains tend to be low end . . .
Him (defensively) Not necessarily! I started X and X, USA, and used to own half the XXX's on the West Coast.

(There is nothing high end about either of the chains he mentioned: think cheap clothes and fast food.)

Me (continuing my sentence) . . . and local yarn shops can do things chains can't.
Him Like what?
Me Be sensitive to their geography and demographic.

(At this point I attempted to talk about the demographics of knitters—something I had tried earlier—but he had his own agenda.)

Him I want to talk to you about a chain of yarn shops.
Me I am not interested.
Him Of course you are! When are you back in the US?
Me March. But no, I'm not interested.
Him (writing 16 phone numbers onto a card and ignoring anything I said) I want you to come and see me to talk about this.
Me I'm not interested! I'm Canadian! First borns don't do retail!

(I was digging deep into my arsenal of reasons to refuse!)

Him I want to start a chain of yarn shops, and you're going to help me.
Me But why?
Him Because I am spending X $'s (an OBSCENE amount of money) to open a chain of XXX houses on the East Coast and I need a "soft market" alternative.
Me (thinking but not saying) Yarn is soft? Or are we talking money-laundering here?

(To my bewilderment, he continued.)

Him You are going to come and talk to me about a chain of yarn shops.
Me No, you don't understand . . . .

(I am fumbling and near-speechless. I don't know how to continue. I COULD have said "We can't do this! It'll ruin the industry! It'll put the independents out of business! There already isn't enough yarn in the world." And at the same time I'm thinking "Better not say these things. He'd see all that as an opportunity." I sit paralyzed.)

Me, continuing Please . . . not a good idea . . . you don't understand . . . .
Him No, YOU don't understand. (He leaned towards me.) I have fifty million dollars to give you.

Later that day I found myself driving a very large and lovely Mercedes up the coast of California . . . having just turned down $50 million . . . and I'm thinkin' "THIS is a day that doesn't come often."

But it doesn't take a genius to imagine what kind of mess would have been created had I said yes?