Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Guilt of the Grandmothers

Barry & Steve Simpson
Barry & Steve Simpson at Twin Rocks Trading Post.

Barry and I like to think of ourselves in terms of the old-time Reservation traders. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Indian traders, Lorenzo Hubbell, J.B. Moore and C.N. Cotton, my personal favorites, would certainly be on it. When Barry and I dream of our legacy, we can visualize ourselves right up there among those legends, just smiling and winking like we knew what we were doing.

It may be all those self-help audio programs and leadership books Cindy and Amer have convinced us to consume over the last decade, but, whatever the reason, we know, “Whatever we can conceive and believe, we can achieve,” and we are out to find our place among the pantheon of the Southwest’s greatest Indian traders.

So there I was, conceiving and believing behind the sales counter the other day, chanting our mantra like the little engine that could, when Mr. Jeff and his bride walked into the post. “If I can conceive and believe, I can achieve. If I can conceive and believe . . .,” I kept repeating under my breath. About that time, Kira and Grange ran wilding through the store, and I realized that I might be halfway there; at least I could conceive.

Mr. and Mrs. Jeff were on their way to see Dr. Black to check on the biscuit Mrs. Jeff was gestating, so she and he had apparently mastered that part of the equation as well. Although he was younger than I, Jeff was a trader from way back, having been raised at Fort Courage, just west of Gallup, New Mexico; Jana’s home town.

When he proclaimed that automobile DVD players had been the death of Interstate 40 trading posts, I was a little dubious about his experience. Once he laid out his logic, however, I realized I was in the presence of a genuine master.

As Jeff and I talked, he said, “Well, anyone who has been in this business an appreciable length of time knows you have to stop buying in October, otherwise you just can’t survive the winter.” Barry and I gave each other sideways glances, and jointly shrugged our shoulders. Somehow we had missed that lesson during Indian Trading 101.

Jeff went on to talk about his years buying and selling Navajo arts and crafts, and I soaked up his information like a sponge. Only one other time had I felt this way, and that was when I initially met Bruce Burnham of Sanders, Arizona. Now, Bruce is an honest to you-know-who old timer in this business. He has been around so long that he has accomplished things Barry and I can only dream of.

Bessie Coggeshell
Navajo Rug Weaver Bessie Coggeshell

As we swapped stories, Jeff finally said, “You know Steve, when we stop buying for the season, I can say no to anyone, . . . except the grandmothers. “Oh,” I shook my head knowingly, “I understand what you’re saying. Once those grannies lay that guilt on you, you’re finished.” “Yep,” he said in full agreement.

At that point, I told him a story our photographer friend Bruce Hucko had related to me about Bruce Burnham. It seems that Mr. Hucko had gone down to interview Bruce Burnham for a book or magazine article. As they sat around the trading post, shooting the you-know-what, an elderly Navajo rug weaver strolled into the post. Trader Bruce got up to handle the situation, while author/photographer Bruce looked on. Apparently, the opening offer from this old grandma was enough to set Mr. Burnham back on his heels.

“Ya da la,” he exclaimed in his fluent Navajo. “Yes,” she explained, holding up her bent and twisted fingers, “this weaving is hard on my body; it hurts my fingers.” “Well, that’s a lot of money,” he said. “Yes,” she admitted, “but this weaving is hard on my body; it hurts my arms,” she said, showcasing arthritic elbows and wrists. Well,” he countered, “that’s a lot of money, and things have been slow. How about a little less?” “No,” she advised him, stooping slightly more than usual, “this weaving is hard on my body; it hurts my back.” “I know it takes a lot of time and effort,” he persisted, and this is a nice rug, but that’s a pretty high price.” “Sure,” she said, rubbing her backside, “but this weaving is hard on my body; it gives me a pain in my butt!”

At that point, Bruce lost his negotiating advantage, began laughing out loud and Grandma got her price. “Yes,” said Jeff, “that’s exactly what I mean. I just can’t hold up under that kind of pressure; I cave in every time.” Not long after Mr. and Mrs. Jeff left, one of our favorite grandmas arrived, and I noticed Barry purchasing her rug without even bargaining; he knew he was beaten even before the negotiating began. Now that is the hallmark of a real Indian trader.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Everyone Belongs Somewhere, Somehow

The well-dressed man facing me across the trading post counter leaned in closer, put his diamond ring adorned hand alongside his mouth and, in a hushed and confidential tone, said, "Do you really belong here?" I leaned back to assess him from a different angle. He was a handsome gentleman with an intelligent air about him; carefully groomed, too carefully groomed from a "Bluffoon's" perspective.

Navajo Monument Valley Rug by Eleanor Yazzie
Navajo Pictorial Rug by Eleanor Yazzie

When the man pushed open the Kokopelli doors and strode into the store, I recognized confidence and intellect. I thought I also sensed a slight uneasiness, maybe he was feeling a little out of place. He looked to be a well maintained fifty-something. His dark brown hair, slightly streaked with gray, was lightly oiled and combed into perfect form above his aristocratic brow. He was freshly shaved, and I could smell a woodsy, cinnamon aroma about him. He viewed his world from bright blue eyes under two distinct, carefully plucked and proper eyebrows; no Cro-Magnon unibrow on this fellow. I rubbed my own furrowed and fuzzy forehead, feeling a little self-conscious.

The man was dressed in a freshly pressed white long-sleeved cotton shirt with thin blue pinstripes; the first two buttons unfastened at the neck and sleeves rolled up one turn. A gold Rolex adorned his left wrist. The tails of that stiff shirt were tucked neatly into a belted pair of what looked to be expensive wool slacks. On his feet were a beautiful pair of brown leather loafers; no socks. The outfit spoke volumes, saying, "Big city, on vacation". I looked down at my Eddie Bauer pull-over, Levi's, hiking shoes and ragg wool socks. Smiling to myself, I thought, "Bluff casual".

The guy was actually very pleasent. After he browsed the store, we spoke of turquoise, the gold and silver markets, Indians, outlaws and local history. I was surprised when he served up his curious question. "Do you really belong here?" "Umm, whaddayamean?" I queried, disgusted with myself for abusing the King's English in such a manner. "I mean," said the man, "This is a nice gallery, high-quality inventory, educated staff and a progressive attitude. You sound ambitious and thoughtful, this place does not seem to fit the area. With a little fixing up you might go somewhere more. . . financially productive. I ask again, do you really belong here?"

I felt complimented and rebuffed in the same moment. Looking intently at the man, I said with passion, "This is where it's at! This is the source of the artists and the inspiration for their creativity." I attempted to explain the beauty of this place. How the light moves across enchanted mesa tops on cloudy days, playing games of illusion on your mind; and how the contrast between snow-covered mountain peaks, ruggedly appealing red rock country and high plains spotted with sage and cedar cause you to stop and stare in wide-eyed wonder. I told him how the silence and loneliness of this vast, exposed landscape calms your mind and eases the pain, fear and frustration of the spirit. I went on to explain how the canyons hold the mystery and magic of a still vibrant American Indian culture in their rough and tumble depths. How on incredibly bright, star-lit nights, myths and legends spring forth from yellow-hot Juniper fires surrounded by indigenous people looking to the past for answers. I related the power and security of deeply rooted friendships based on time, space and patience. I told my new acquaintance of the strength and satisfaction derived from working closely with family towards common interests and goals.

Navajo Changing Woman Basket by Elsie Holiday
Navajo Pictorial Basket by Elsie Holiday

At some point, I had heard a story broadcast on what I think was NPR's This American Life. The program spoke of interviews with American pilots flying bombing missions over Afghanistan. The host was surprised by the wide variety of opinions these young men held on the beauty, or lack thereof, of the foreign landscape they flew over and often pulverized. A few of the "fly boys" recognized a rugged and unique beauty beneath their wings and regretted its destruction, others were apathetic; giving no opinion at all. The final group saw only wasteland below, and were more than willing to pound the countryside and its enemy inhabitants into oblivion. It is all a matter of perspective, and vision, I suppose.

The polished and proper, seemingly wealthy, gentleman nodded his head in understanding as I ended my recitation. The reasoning behind my "belonging" was evident to him now. This was home, comfort and a life lived slowly and easily, near to the earth herself. Surrounded by family, friends and spectacular scenic beauty, there is no better place for me. Everyone truly belongs somewhere, and I understood this man had discovered his proper place in the city. He found his comfort zone and source of milk and honey amidst the bright lights, noise and confusion I find totally alien. I guess every source of refuge has its price, and rewards.

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It Ain't Easy, But It's Necessary

It is the new year, and at the trading post we have been diligently working on our New Year’s resolutions, and wagering on how long they will last. Realizing that people have been making and breaking resolutions since the Babylonians began the tradition, we have allowed ourselves to become somewhat sanguine about our New Year’s commitments. This year, however, will be different.

Bessie & Ruby Coggeshell
Navajo Weavers Bessie & Ruby Coggeshell

Barry, Jana, Priscilla, Tina, Tarrel and Rose have not fully disclosed their resolutions as of this writing. Mine on the other hand is relatively simple in concept, but may prove difficult in practice; I have resolved to improve the organization at the store, find new and innovative ways to capture and preserve the rapidly changing Navajo culture and better support the artists who are working hard to maintain those swiftly mutating traditions.

This resolution is the result of a conversation I had with a friend just prior to the end of the year. As we slouched over the counter, cussing and discussing 2007 and the experiences we had during the year, he said, “You know Steve, it ain’t easy, but it is necessary.” It struck me that his philosophy pretty well summed up my life to this point.

In truth, 2007 was a genuine challenge, both personally and at the trading post. Not that it was bad, it was simply extremely demanding. Things are rapidly changing in the trading post industry and in this part of the country. For example, the internet has hugely altered the way we do business, and Barry and I are struggling to understand its complexities and requirements.

Although Barry and I are of the generation that came of age during the computer revolution, I have always felt half in and half out when it comes to understanding computers, or as the Navajo people refer to them, “the talking metal.”

I remember the first time Damian Jim asked if we wanted to put up a web site. “A web what?, Barry and I asked, looking dazed and confused. “A web site, you know, on the world wide web,” Damian had impatiently explained. “The world wide what?, we responded, even more confounded. After several days of Damian’s often exasperated explanations, Barry and I looked at each other, crinkled our foreheads and said, “Why not? How much will it cost?” Damian should have replied, “It won’t be easy, but it is necessary.”

There are times when being ignorant is a blessing, and this was one of them. Had we known what we were getting into, we likely would not have had the courage to undertake the project.

For a few years, the site was mostly static and did not require a lot of time or financial commitment. Damian was learning, the web was developing and Barry and I were trying to understand why Damian was doing all these incomprehensible things on the computer we had purchased for the project. It was not until about ten years ago that we began to realize the power of the web. Still, even after reading The Internet for BIG Dummies, we did not understand how to make it all come together.

In early 2007, I called John, a friend who is living in Vermont. We had been trying to decipher search engine optimization and had gone through a number of people who said they understood it, but really didn’t. “Oh, I have been doing a lot of work on my site and have learned a bunch. Want me to give your site a go?”, John asked. “Why not,” Barry and I said once again. Some people never learn.

After months of keyword coding, duplicate content changing and web site redesign, we noticed the traffic to our web site had increase exponentially. We had bought new equipment, started recording the artists on video to capture their unique personalities and worked Tina, Tarrel , Rose and Jana to death, but the freeway had been built. But where were the sales?

“The site is too cumbersome, you must strip it down and make it easier to shop. All those people are coming to your site, but they don’t stay, because you confuse them with too much extraneous content.” Extraneous content? I have decided he must mean bull you know what, and we surely generate volumes of that around the post.

So here we are in the new year, trying to better organize ourselves, trying to understand a waning culture and trying to keep that culture and ourselves alive long enough to make a significance difference.

Happy New Year, and long live the resolution.

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry and the Team.