Monday, December 1, 2003

Peggy, and Yeis

As you may have gathered from our previous messages, there are many difficult lessons to be learned in the trading post business, and standard principals simply do not apply. As you may have also guessed, after all these years, Steve and I are still working on the fundamentals. We have read the books about what they don't teach you in business school, how to run small businesses and all the rest, and are still adrift when it comes to this particular entity. You may think that we are simply slow learners, and you may be right. We hope there is more to it than that

Navajo Basket Artist Peggy Black at Twin Rocks Trading Post Navajo Basket by Peggy Black from Twin Rocks Trading Post
Peggy Black and her basket at Twin Rocks Trading Post

One thing we have learned is that the local artists are an impassioned group. We have developed a variety of unsuccessful procedures to deal with this passion, which generally manifests itself when an artist brings in his or her art and the negotiation process begins. Attempting to work out a reasonable settlement for the creation can be a truly exhilarating experience. This bit of wisdom has resulted from a number of head on collisions with emotional artists. Translating that emotion into financial principles is seldom easy. There are, however, certain bright spots, and some room for encouragement. Peggy Rock Black is one of those bright spots. She is an artist who has the patience to bring us along. She does not become frustrated when we start the negotiations in deep left field. She knows that she will eventually get us to understand her position.

There are those artists who come in with their work and are already so geared up that we are afraid to begin the negotiation process. Everyone scatters when one particular basket weaver comes in, because she has usually built up an emotional high before she arrives. It is an adrenaline filled experience for everyone involved. I know you will forgive me for not mentioning her name. In contrast, however, when Peggy strolls in the door we know that we are in for an interesting time. This skilled communicator comes prepared with the patience and knowledge to convince us that her position is correct.

Many of the workable standards we have in place for evaluating baskets were developed after discussions with Peggy. We now keep photograph albums showing the weavers and their baskets. Each photograph shows the price paid for the basket. There are also notations relating to the quality of weave, size and overall technique. All this is intended to help us maintain a consistent pricing policy. It sounds easy, but remember, we are dealing with extremely sensitive individuals, and that is saying nothing about the artists.

Just when we think we have our pricing structure in order, the artists throw us a curve. By way of example, we have carefully documented Peggy's creations and the prices we have paid for several years. She then brings in a basket featuring Yei figures, and we have to completely rework the system. That's right, those baskets with Yei-be-chei figures are going to cost us more money!

One day Peggy brought in a gorgeous basket with a profusion of Yei figures. We were pleased with its creativity and visual appeal. So, I cracked open the volumes of past knowledge and began comparing its size, weave and creative appeal. Thereafter I proudly proclaimed a price I felt was compatible with her previous works. Peggy simply looked at me with her sad eyes, shaking her head as if showing complete disillusionment with one of her "slower" pupils.

Wincing under "that look", I asked, "Where I have gone wrong? I have done my home work, studied hard and learned my lessons well. I even have a degree in Trading Postology!" Peggy looked at me as if enduring unbearable hardship and began to explain, "When I weave the Yei-be-chei, I am portraying an extremely sacred and powerful being; one that demands respect. If I convey this respect in the proper manner, these Holy People will bless me and my family. If I show disrespect, these same beings can, and will, cause me much trouble. One way I show that respect, and protect myself from harm, is by having a Beauty Way ceremony done each year. I save part of the price from each basket to pay for the ceremony. Since you are involved, you too must help keep me safe and healthy."

As I stood there letting her explanation sink in, Peggy simply smiled and quoted a new price. I looked around for support but found none. Steve shrugged and said, "It makes sense to me." Peggy was aware that we knew what she was talking about. She also knew that we had spoken of such ceremonial practice and belief to our customers. There was nowhere to turn, nothing to do but add another notation in the book of advanced learning and close it before another costly lesson arose.

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