Saturday, March 30, 2019

A New Marketing Strategy

Barry and I have been lamenting our lack of image within the Indian trader community. All the other traders seem to have distinctive personalities, and we have none. In The Weavers Way, a text written by Carter and Dodie Allen several years ago, I am included in the section on traders. The problem is that they put me on the page opposite Jed Foutz. Jed comes from a long line of traders, is younger, and much more attractive. That only made matters worse. When I complained to Carter and Dodie shortly after the book’s release, they just laughed. My insecurity accelerated. While Barry and I have mulled over several alternatives, until recently nothing workable presented itself. All that changed when I traveled to Salt Lake City. 

When I started back, traffic on the freeway was light as I approached a slight uphill section of the road. That particular stretch made me think of an urban forest. The concrete path sloped gently up and to the left, obscuring any view of the city. No cars were visible, and the tall, thin street lamp posts lining the road looked like abstract versions of lodge pole pines. I began to feel peaceful, as though I was in an isolated part of the world. In its own way, the freeway was every bit as beautiful as the forests we have just north of us on the Abajo Mountains.

As I crested the hill, my mind was flowing in a stream of consciousness, jumping from one thought to the next. As the traffic increased, I watched cars responding to the movements of other vehicles. A large truck blinked and moved quickly to the left, and the entire flow changed. I thought of how that is somewhat similar to the marketing plan we needed at the trading post. If we were able to do something novel, to be nimble, maybe the store atmosphere would alter, resulting in a new direction. Then I saw it, a billboard advertising a modeling program, and guaranteeing results. It started me thinking how Barry and I had searched in vain for the right solution, and it had been right in front of us all the time. He and I needed a fresh look.

A few weeks earlier, one of our customers had mentioned that Abercrombie and Fitch long ago decided all their sales clerks must be young and attractive. When I saw those billboard models, I knew why we weren’t getting results; Barry and I are just too . . . ugly. I am tempted to blame it all on Barry, but realize I probably can’t convince anyone it is exclusively his fault.

In the past, we had been able to overcome the ugly with creative Navajo baskets, rugs, and turquoise jewelry, but as we have aged, that strategy is less and less effective. Before Barry started coming to Bluff, Priscilla and I used the ugly cop, pretty cop routine with good results. People would walk into the store, see me, and immediately gravitate to Priscilla. It was almost as though they were thinking, “Wow, that’s a face only a mother could love. Oh, there’s someone attractive, let’s go talk to her.” Priscilla got lots of sales, and from time to time I got the sympathy sale. Altogether, it worked reasonably well.

Then Barry arrived and we had ugly cop, ugly cop. That hasn’t worked very well. So Barry and I have decided cosmetic surgery and liposuction are needed. Fortunately, we have a friend who is one of the top plastic surgeons in the country. In the near future, Twin Rocks Trading Post will have a new, attractive staff. Priscilla, by the way, is not participating in the scheme.

Let the chicks fall where they may.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Among the Rocks

As a small boy growing up in Bluff, I often wandered off alone and found myself climbing upward. The jumble of rock and rubble piled at the base of the towering cliffs frequently called out to me, and I would scramble up the difficult grade, through the boulders and into the zone between slick rock and slag. Backing into the shaded depression, I would gaze upon the happenings of our tiny city.

Some of my earliest memories are drawn from that vantage point. I am old enough to recall dilapidated round-fender pickup trucks rolling into town packed with vibrant Navajo families dressed in colorful swatches of satin, velveteen, and denim. The back of the vehicle would be stocked to the gunwales with sheep, dogs, or bright-eyed, smiling children. Their trips into Bluff seemed to be as big a deal as ours were to Blanding and Monticello to our north. The Navajo people seemed to have a knack for keeping those old work horses running; they were amazing mechanics. Bailing wire could be counted on to bind everything from axles to valve covers.

The K and C store was a hot spot of activity. Keith and Curtis Jones ran an early example of a convenience store/trading post that drew the locals for all of their grocery and trade-good needs. Livestock, pinion nuts, propane, gasoline, white gas, Spam, Vienna Sausages, huge saltine crackers, canned peaches, and red pop were just a few of the staples. If there was a demand for it on or near the reservation, you could find it at K and C.

From where I sat, I could see Bob Howell patiently working his garden. It seemed a never-ending effort to keep the weeds at bay and the soil from locking up. Traces of alkali were clearly visible, especially from that height and distance. I could see my sisters Susan and Cindy playing around the clothesline as our mother hung the wash. Five children and a hard-working man kept her busy washing and cleaning up after her brood. Mom always kept a clean house and hot, fresh food on our dinner table. She persistently attempted to keep the red dirt out of her children's clothes and off of their deeply tanned hides.

My brothers, Craig and Steve, were forever getting into trouble and, because of their highly mobile nature, could only effectively be tracked from above. Craig was big and strong, the local "Conan the Barbarian." Steve and I depended on Craig to regularly save us from harm or misfortune.

Once a month, the traveling Catholic priest would make his rounds. It was extremely entertaining to watch as Mom scampered about town locating her wayward children in an attempt at indoctrination. The priest finally gave up; Mom never did.

I recall heat waves dancing upon the pavement as the rare tourist made his or her way through the S-turns of town. Many would slow down as the unshaven and reckless Bobby Goforth in his black cowboy hat, blue jeans, and boots, waved them on through with his realistic looking set of cap pistols and authentic leather holsters. Bobby would scowl, spit Skoal into the dust, and "move-em-out." Gene and Mary Foushee attempted damage control by calming their fears, inviting them to stay the night at the quietly comfortable and quirky Recapture Lodge. After a good night’s sleep, a tour of Monument Valley might even be in order.

In the cool of the evening, like James Dean, Billy Huber could often be found touring the town on his motorcycle. If we were extremely fortunate, his very attractive sister, Barbara, would be with him. To this day, the distinctive sound of a motorbike reverberating off of the cliffs brings back fond memories of a dark-haired beauty roaring by at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, dear sweet Barbara was less than interested in younger men. Their parents, Bill and Gladys, owned the Silver Dollar Bar on the west side of town. Bill often opened the door after sundown in order to ease the strain on his over-worked air conditioners, which allowed a clear and entertaining view into the joint. Temptuous strains of animated laughter, cigarette smoke, and the sharp "clack" of pool balls colliding drifted out onto the cooled night air.

I remember Father Pontias of Saint Christopher's Episcopal Mission could often be tracked about the village on service-oriented visits. His three young, blond-haired daughters might also be seen following closely behind. One of the girls remains in Bluff to this day; a lonely but fondly remembered resident of the Mission cemetery. She became an all-too-early victim of the ravages of cancer.

On a lighter note, our local constable, Rusty Musselman, backed up by his wife Lillie, watched over the local population and kept a sharp eye out for young troublemakers in the making. Rusty's jaunty character, distinctive laugh, and Lillie's brilliant smile are fondly remembered by those of us who knew them well.

I once saw an episode of Star Trek where the crew of the USS Enterprise rescued a team of ethnologists from a cliff face overlooking a primitive community. The force field they hid behind had partially collapsed and the scientists become visible to the residents below, a shocking development indeed. Because of the time I spent in the rocks, overlooking and participating in this community, I believe it would have been, and probably would still be, an extremely fascinating case study. And who knows, if you believe in extraterrestrial beings, maybe we are being watched right here and now. I wonder if they might like warm, canned peaches and cold red pop.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Thin Green Line

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the trading post and its place in the larger scheme of things. At times, I feel it is simply a brokerage, nothing more than a buyer and seller of arts and crafts. On other occasions, however, I believe it may be helping the local craftspeople improve their lives and introduce their art to a larger market. It may be my place on the stage of mid-life, or just an ongoing search to find meaning in what I have been doing for the past several years, that has raised the concern. In either case, I have begun to look for relevance in this life among the coral cliffs.

I remember seeing a movie long ago called The Thin Blue Line. The film was about police officers and the separation they maintain between law-abiding citizens and those lawless individuals' intent on doing harm to the general population. The troopers create that narrow barrier, a thin blue line as it were, that facilitates order and helps keep us safe. I have begun to think of the trading post as The Thin Green Line, a financial buffer that helps Native artists rise above the subsistence level and stop worrying so much about how to pay the bills. In many ways, we are like the old-time traders; if we do our jobs properly, the local economy becomes more stable and the artists begin to create, rather than just recreate.

Since this area is chronically one of the poorest in the United States, it is always difficult for Navajo people, or anyone else for that matter, to find a job and become successful. The unemployment rate is staggering and job opportunities are rare. As a result of this difficult economic climate, many Navajo people rely on traditional crafts to sustain their families.

Under these circumstances, the craftspeople must be assured their work will sell; if it doesn't, the outgo exceeds the income. As a result, artists frequently become conservative and simply replicate what they have previously been successful making and selling. This conservatism stifles the artistry that may otherwise be found in the fingers of the weaver or the hands of the silversmith. In essence, the economic circumstances act as a barrier to innovation; the artists simply cannot accept the risk of making innovative items which may not sell. Even though the rewards can be higher for a new style or inventive pattern, the investment of time and materials simply cannot be justified. The question is always, "What if it doesn't sell?"

Many years ago we decided Twin Rocks Trading Post should be a catalyst for change. The process started simply---we just ask the people who brought their art into the store to make something different. To say we were naive would be a gross understatement. We had no idea what would be required to make the project work for us, our customers, and the artists, and no feel for the financial commitment we were making to these people and their art.

From the start, there were the mistakes and mis-firings that had to be purchased. Since we had asked for something extraordinary, we felt obligated to buy the piece, even if it was not really what we had in mind. Turning away the work left the artist with no outlet, and the creative force was immediately extinguished. That meant the project had failed, and the artist would be required to fall back on the old standards, or the repo man might begin circling the hogan. By purchasing the mistake, progress was maintained. If the process continued, the next piece might be interesting enough to merit the overall investment.

For almost 30 years, we have continued to ask for the unusual and have been rewarded with some of the most remarkable work produced in this part of the Navajo Reservation. As the artists have become more independent, they seem to feel greater freedom to experiment with new colors, shapes, and designs. By acting as that "thin green line" and shifting some of the financial risk to the trading post, we have actually set them free to be true artists, rather than simply subsistence craftspeople.

The excitement of seeing the latest creation unveiled can be extremely rewarding for the artist and for us. At this point, we cannot even begin to predict what will be brought into the trading post and that makes it an exciting place. From time to time, we still find ourselves groaning over something that didn't turn out exactly right, but the successes far outweigh the failures.

That, I guess, is what a trading post was meant to be: a line, a liberator, a catalyst for change, and a means of helping local artists grow and progress in their own unique ways.