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.

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