An early morning email from one of the better local designers at once chided me for moving away from Jackson Square, but, having left the neighborhood herself a few months ago, quickly told me that moving was the best thing she ever did. I must say, we still have the occasional feeling of ambivalence, as we do have some people down here we will miss seeing, but believe me, by no means everyone.
A few of you know that for a significant part of my working life, I was engaged in commercial lending with a large bank. Asset based lines of credit to middle market companies, with the occasional commercial real estate loan, were what kept me busy, and up to the mark, as most of the businesses I dealt with, although legal entities, were basically the alter egos of the primary owner. All self made, they were to a person extremely sharp and always with their heads in the game. Then, too, were my colleagues within the bank- a few were occupied primarily with keeping the seat of the swivel chair warm, but mostly they were bright and hardworking. All, both customers and colleagues, had strong opinions that they were not reluctant to give voice to. That said, strident conversations were a rarity.
I say this because, in our years in the trade, strident conversations with colleagues are a frequent occurrence. It has astonished me what a petty, spiteful group of individuals are gathered together in one vocation. The why of this is mystifying, but the result of long custom, no longer surprising. A bit of insight was given me early on by one of our less collegial neighbors who, when I decried the leaving of a vaunted colleague on the street for the greener pastures of New York City, told me, and I quote- ‘What do you care? That’s just that much more business for the rest of us.’ What a fool. Any diminution of a venue makes it less of a venue and less of a destination for buyers. The not surprising upshot, when the dealer in question left Jackson Square, we noticed no uptick in business. Using our surviving colleague’s rationale, we should all of us be millionaires, because where we once had nearly 30 dealers in the neighborhood, we now have three. And when we leave, there will be two. They will reap, I suppose, but what they will reap will be the whirlwind.
It seems, though, that the penny did eventually drop, but it hasn’t resulted in anything but additional spitefulness and backstabbing. We had not so long ago a gentleman interested in a piece of our stock, but it was an item about which he was unfamiliar and wanted to have someone of expert mien provide a second opinion. We never say no to this, although it is a circumstance that rarely presents itself. Still, nothing happened until a week or so later, one of our neighbors presented himself right at 5PM. He had been drinking and his first remark was ‘Well, I guess you know why I’m here.’ I didn’t, but when he asked to see the item in question, I put two and two together. His examination was at best cursory, however, and he left without further comment. In fact, nothing further was said to us at all, save being copied on an email sent to the prospective buyer warning him off the purchase, citing a couple of inaccurate and biased criteria. Mind you, this is someone whose own place of business is less than the throwing distance of a large stone away from our front door, yet he did not extend the courtesy of discussing this matter any further with us, before he contacted the client in an effort to put the boot in. I must say, when Keith and I read the email, we instantly paid a call on our neighbor and told him he was an asshole. We were not so upset, however, that we failed to notice in his shop an item similar to the one he was engaged to assess. Whether his attempt to knife us resulted in a sale for him I don’t know, but what I can say for sure is that he gained our everlasting enmity. Sue him? Ironically, he did us a favor. We sold the piece shortly thereafter for more money.
Diminishing a colleague’s stock in order to put forth one’s own seems to be a favorite trick and it can be accomplished in a variety of different ways. Not so long ago, we had a vetting issue at an antiques fair on an item that we knew was perfectly fine. Rather than relabel our piece with a description we knew to be inaccurate, we decided to just not exhibit the piece. What a surprise to find, later during the run of the fair, the dealer that had raised issue with our item, brought in something similar of his own- with the connivance of the vetting chair! Again, we were in the long run not damaged, as we sold the item to an institutional collector.
While one might initially suppose that commercial advantage (read ‘greed’) might explain a fair amount of this, it is hard for me to believe that so many of our colleagues would be so stupid as to think that a sale lost by me will necessarily result in a sale for them. Witness, of course, the dealers who’ve left, with no increase in revenue for those of us who survive. Beyond that, though, none of us have the same stock or the same look. Similar, perhaps, but the overall aesthetic that each dealer brings to his stock in trade is unlike that of any other dealer. We have people who will trade with us almost exclusively, while our colleagues certainly have a loyal cadre of buyers, as well. While we do have all of us spot sales, no one’s business is built on it. Even on the internet, we find that, as much as in the storefront, buyers still like our signature look and tend to return.
In the late 1980’s and through the 1990’s, though, dealers at least locally cut a fat hog, with dot com companies and their stock option rich owners buying wildly, with dealers achieving incredible markups. With the crash, everyone’s fortunes changed, with dealers very much diminished, both in revenue but also, crucially, in outlook. Keith and I missed all that, beginning trading full time in mid 2002. We’ve never known anything but tough sledding, but our surviving colleagues have never recovered their equanimity following the glory years. We see ego run amuck all the time. One nearby colleague whose fortunes are vastly reduced will tell anyone within five minutes of meeting them, regardless of subject or appropriateness, about his participation in the New York Winter Antiques Show. Our most telling experience, and ongoing for our entire tenure in business, is the absence- I don’t mean dearth, I mean total absence- of referral business from other dealers. I don’t mean it seldom happens- I mean it never happens. Our attitude has always been one of trying to keep business local. If we don’t have what the customer is looking for, we happily will refer them to someone we think might. As well, we do make purchases from other dealers from time to time, usually with a particular customer in mind. This always engenders- wait for it- ill-will from the dealer from whom we make the purchase. ‘Ill-will’? Yes, in spades. Not so long ago, we purchased a set of 12 chairs from a curmudgeonly colleague for a client who happened to ask us for a long set of chairs. When we returned to the dealer to also purchase a sidetable, he brushed us aside, telling us that, next time the client was in town, he could come in and make the purchase himself. The fact was, the client had been in, but found the dealer and his premises so off-putting, he had no desire to return.
So, while I suppose we still have some lingering ambivalence about closing our storefront, none of it is associated with the benighted neighbors we’ll be leaving behind. God bless them, as they stew within their own juices.