The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

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CHRISTMAS EVE WITH ALISTAIR COOKE

I first knew of Alistair Cooke through television. He was the host of “Masterpiece Theater.” Our family would watch the show together. One night mom casually mentioned that Mr. Cooke was a client at her store. How had she kept it to herself all this time? 

Mr. Cooke had started coming into the shop a number of  years before the series, “Upstairs, Downstairs” was broadcast. A talented journalist, he lived in New York and was attracted by the display in mom’s window. There were several friends for whom he wanted to purchase Christmas gifts.  

It was Christmas Eve. 

Mom told us that he was a charming and delightful man, very simple and down-to-earth. 

The first year Mr. Cooke came into the store he selected a few items and asked, “Would it be possible to get these delivered?”

 Mom said, “Of course. I’d be happy to do that for you.”

 “Well that’s the way it used to be done in England,” Mr. Cooke said. And then he smiled. 

The next year Mr. Cooke returned on Christmas Eve to purchase gifts for even more of his friends. And the next year the list grew yet larger. There were now twenty people on his Christmas list.

 By now mom had a good idea of what his friends liked and, anticipating his annual visit, had put certain items aside to show him in order to make his purchasing decisions easier. He appreciated that.

 During that visit, Mr. Cooke asked if mother had any tea in the store. Mom enjoyed a good cup of tea and normally had loose Earl Grey, Jasmine, English Breakfast and Russian Caravan in the shop. She offered to make Mr. Cooke a cup.

 Much to her surprise he said, “Oh, don’t bother. I would be happy to make it myself. Just show me where everything is. I can do that while you start wrapping the first five presents. Then after we have had a cup, we can get back to business.”

 The next Christmas Eve, Mr. Cooke arrived as usual. However, he had brought a little shopping bag with him. He walked into the back and started heating the water in the kettle. Then he came out to the front of the store.

 He started selecting between the items mom had set aside for him until he heard the kettle whistle. He returned to the rear of the store and began brewing the tea.

 Another customer came in and mom asked if she needed any assistance. This lady said that she would like to look around for a bit.

 When Mr. Cooke re-emerged from the back he held two tea cups and saucers in his hands – one for himself and one for mom. He had donned the apron which he had brought in his shopping bag and to all appearances might have been one of the domestic help in “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

 The lady who had come in to the store said, “Oh, would I be able to get a cup of tea?”

 Mr. Cooke said, “Of course, madam. Today we have Russian Caravan. Would that be acceptable?”

 “That would be wonderful,” she responded.

 So Mr. Cooke went to the back of the store and returned with a cup of tea for this lady. 

Perhaps as a result of the warm atmosphere he helped to create this new customer made a very large purchase.

 There are people who think they are important. And there are people who are important. Those in the latter group are genuine, simple and caring and Mr. Cooke was one of those.  

Mom always looked forward to spending part of her Christmas Eve with him in her little shop.

 

 

 

THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

 Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. The smells and tastes of the day filled our small apartment. But what I liked most about Thanksgiving was that it was the gateway to my even more favorite celebration – and that, of course, was Christmas.

 Grandma was a phenomenal baker. Her strawberry short cake, lemon meringue pie and apple strudel were legendary. But when it came to baking cookies, she left that to my mom. And mom was up to the challenge.

 Night after night after Thanksgiving, mom would bring home flour and sugar and bags of nuts, as well as beautifully painted cookie tins. We would store these in our already crowded pantry. But the perishable items, the butter and eggs would have to wait until they were nearly ready for incorporation into the different cookies that she would bake.

 I had a hand in all this. My job was to crack all the nuts and put the meats in glass jars – carefully keeping the almonds from the walnuts and the pecans away from the hazelnuts. Fifty pounds of nuts to shell. I enjoyed doing it, but by the time I finished my task my hands were usually pretty sore and tired. 

The butter began making its appearance – but the eggs were always an on-going and last minute purchase. There was a store that sold “cracked” brown eggs, about a mile and a half walk from our apartment. They were $.19 a dozen. Because the shells were cracked, they had to be used within a day or two of purchase. But buying these was a big cost saving as mom usually went through 30 dozen or so.

 During her annual “cookie confab,” mom never varied her work schedule. She would leave for her store at eight in the morning and return home at six that night. Then a brief dinner – then on to cookie-making – normally until about eleven in the evening.

 She made wonderful sugar cookies cut out in the designs of angels and stars and camels and topped with a half a walnut or a maraschino cherry or merely sprinkled with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.

 There were shortbread cookies, carefully sliced in half. Between the two pieces she would sandwich a thin layer of home-made raspberry jam.

 There were delicate rum balls which had been rolled gently in confectioner’s sugar. Pecan crescents were always on the list. All in all, mom made over twenty different kinds of cookies each year. But my favorites were the lace almond pralines.

 Mom would take the almonds which I had shelled and blanch them. Then she would crush them to the point that they were as fine as a grain of sand. She added a bit of flour to them and some melted butter. When the mixture was lightly bound together she rolled them around small wooden dowels and quickly transferred them to the frying pan which contained several sticks of melted butter.

 These cookies were so delicate that perhaps only one out of three came out intact – but I got to eat the ones that did not meet mom’s standards. I still can taste the butter and the amazing almond flavor.

 You may ask why mom made so many cookies for a family of four. The answer is that this was her Christmas present to our friends and neighbors and to those people whom she considered her most loyal clients at the store.

 She would cut out pieces of wax paper to line the beautiful tins, adding a few of this kind and some of these and would hand deliver them to her customers up and down Park and Fifth Avenues after tying them with beautiful bows.

 After tasting her cookies, five of her clients offered to advance the money so mom could open a second business – a cookie store. They weren’t interested in being partners in the business. They simply wanted to be able to buy them throughout the year and raved that they had never had cookies like mom’s before (and I suspect they haven’t since).

 Mom had a simple reason that she did not accept these offers. 

She said, “I make cookies because I love to do it. I enjoy watching people eat and enjoy them. If I started to sell them commercially – it would just be a business. And that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

 After all these years, I still miss the smells and tastes of mom’s wonderful cookies.

 But I am glad that, at least as a child, I had the opportunity to share in her Christmas Miracle.

 

THE ART OF DIPLOMACY

 Diplomats and government bureaucrats are involved in important discussions with allies and foes around the world. They go through training programs in order to master the finer points of negotiation. (Given the lay of the land, perhaps a refresher course is in order).

 I suggest there is no finer on-the-job training program than the one to which they would have been exposed had they worked during the Christmas season in my mom’s little retail boutique.

 It was the same year that mom had her experience with the “rose pens”, (discussed in an earlier post entitled, “The Art of Retailing”). The next biggest sellers that season were some very lovely belts. They were made of an expandable gold-finished metal. The clasp on the belt was a snake’s head (snakes were in that year) and the clasps came in white, turquoise and coral. The belts were available in three sizes – Small, Medium and Large. 

Mom was in the back. She was wrapping purchases made earlier in the day which we would deliver that evening. As I watched her expertly cut just the right amount of heavy gold wrapping paper and then artfully create a bow for each one of them, the door to the store opened. 

Mom looked at me and said, “That’s Countess Neverovsky. Please see if you can help her.” I went to the front of the store to assist this lady. 

Good afternoon, countess. Is there something that I may show you?” 

The countess might have weighed ninety pounds dripping wet. She didn’t give me a very warm and fuzzy feeling as she looked me up and down. The attitude she projected was that I almost certainly was incapable of doing anything for her.

 “I would like to see one of the snake belts you have in a medium – in coral.”

 I knew that a medium would be far too big for her. In fact, I questioned whether she would be able to wear one of them in the small size.

 But, as mom had taught me, “the customer is always right”. So rather than disagree, I reached into the cabinet under the counter where we kept our inventory and pulled out a coral belt in medium.

 I said, “You know countess – these belts run a little large. Perhaps you would like to try it on.”

 She snapped back, “There’s no need for that. I always wear a medium. Just add it to my account.”

 There was nothing to do other than hand-write her sales slip, put her belt in one of our little shopping bags and add this purchase to the store account that she maintained with us. The countess took her purchase and left.

 Mom had, of course, heard the mostly one-way conversation.

 I apologized to her. I knew the countess wouldn’t be able to wear the belt and would return it.

 Mom just said, “Don’t worry, dear. She does this all the time. Pull one of the small coral belts and bring it back here. That way when she comes back we’ll be sure to have one available for her.” I did that and we taped a little piece of paper to it that said, “Countess Neverovsky”.

 Two days later the countess stormed into the store with her shopping bag and the belt. She was a woman on a mission – and she wasn’t a happy camper.

 She said to my mother, “If your children are going to work here you should teach them how to wait on customers. The belt I bought the other day is far too big. I need one in a smaller size.”

 Mom apologized for the inconvenience, went in the back and exchanged the medium that the countess had insisted on purchasing for the smaller one that we had set aside for her. The countess apparently had enough of our ineptitude – so she decided to try on this belt. It fit her perfectly.

 If we are ever to find a path to world peace; if we are to live in a world where compassion and courtesy are the norm rather than the exception – here is my suggestion.

 Pull all the bureaucrats and diplomats from their posts and have them spend a week as sales people in retail.

 

THE ART OF RETAILING

 I returned from college for the Christmas break one year and my parents picked me up at LaGuardia. As with all retailers, then as now, this was the make or break season for mom’s little store on Madison Avenue. 

The ride home was uneventful but a little quieter than usual.

 Dad asked if I had plans to spend my time back in New York with any of my high school friends. But I had spoken with several of them and they were going skiing with their families. So I was pretty much on my own and free to do as I liked.

 Mom asked if I would mind helping her at her boutique. I was happy to do so. I loved her little shop and I enjoyed working with her customers – so I was all for it. 

As mom and I walked to her store the following day, I knew something was wrong. I asked her what was going on.

 She told me that she had made a “very big mistake”. She had purchased 20 dozen of an item that she was sure would be a big seller – and after four weeks she had yet to sell one of them. (She had spent $600 on them – which for her little shop was a very big investment).  

When we got to the store I looked in the window. As usual mom had done a beautiful job, artistically showcasing the items that she had for sale. I saw the culprit which was the subject of mom’s concern. It was a writing pen. 

The pen was topped with a silk rose and fit neatly into its flower pot base. The rose came in white, pink, yellow and red. Although it didn’t appeal to me, I thought it would have been a very acceptable present as a “hostess” gift – and many of mom’s customers enjoyed hosting little get-togethers.

 As I looked at the window display, I realized why mom wasn’t able to sell them. 

We went in the store, turned on the interior overhead lights and those for the display cases within the shop.  

I said to her, “Mom I know why your pens aren’t selling. They’re too cheap. There is nothing in your store that a customer can buy for less than $20 – and these pens are priced at $5. Your customers think that they’re junk. So let’s reprice them at $17.50 and see what happens. What do you have to lose?”

Without saying a word, mom took off her shoes, went into the window and pulled the price placard from the rose pen and the ones inside the store and went to the back of the shop. A few minutes later she came back with new placards which read $17.50 and put them in front of the pens which were on display.

 That day we sold twenty-eight of the pens. And during the following week we sold over fourteen dozen. (They were almost as hot as today’s latest iPad). Even though she reduced the price on the remaining stock to $10 during her after Christmas sale, her original investment of $600 returned over $4,000. By far, these pens were the most profitable item she had in her store that season. And all because of a price change – or more exactly – a price increase.

 It makes you wonder.  

Does a rose at any price not write as well? 

(My apologies to the immortal bard for maligning his verse).

 But to quote him more accurately,

 “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

 

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