Saturday, March 3, 2012

Craftsmanship and the Consumer

This photo along with a version of the essay below was published in the Concord Monitor 3/3/12

Walking the dog along the drab banks of the Merrimack, I could hardly miss a garishly colored Nike sneaker, bumping aimlessly against the shore, apparently abandoned in the prime of life by its owner.

How different the fate of this forgotten sneaker, I mused, from another sneaker of the same name, touted in a recent Concord Monitor headline: Nike Sneakers Causes Frenzy. According to the article, large crowds of sneaker fanatics lined up outside stores overnight to get first crack at Nike’s new $220 outer-space themed basketball shoe, getting so unruly in some cities that police had to be called to restore order.

Experts have advanced many theories to explain this conundrum: the extreme difference in in how we value these two seemingly similar items: the brand spanking new sneaker versus the almost – but not quite – new one.

This disparity, as we all know, goes far beyond sneakers: sadly it is the norm for much of the mass produced products that line our store shelves.

I recently read a quote by sociologist Richard Sennett that gave me personal insight into this perplexing situation: The craftsman is proud of what he has made, and cherishes it, while the consumer discards things that are perfectly serviceable in his restless pursuit of the new. 1

Sennett’s observation rings true to my own lived experience, watching craftsmanship decline over the last 66 years.  And this decline, it should be noted, is not just on the side of the producer!

When I was a young man, what Sennett says about the craftsperson was also true for the consumer. I remember the pride I took in making what, at that time, was a big investment: buying new all-leather work boots.

As opposed to today’s orgasm of marketing hype, my purchase was less about falling in love with the ultimate object of my desire and more like entering an arranged marriage.

Because it was a big investment, I wanted to be kind to my boots and treat them well. By working hard to build a good relationship, my affection for them grew stronger over time.

Although my boots collected scuffs and scars from the travails of everyday life, I saw them as beauty marks, not blemishes. Maintaining the relationship was what counted: massaging them with Huberd’s Shoe Grease or neatsfoot oil to keep the leather conditioned and supple, while, at the same time, coaxing the leather to ever more perfectly form to my feet.

No need to watch the ads for the best deals to buy new, just rare trips to see Joe at United Shoe Repair for new soles or, perhaps, a little cosmetic surgery.  When my boots finally did grow old, wear out, and die, I felt genuine loss as one does when any close relationship ends.

How different it is today.

In the throwaway society of today, most shoe repair shops have disappeared. We are so lucky that United Shoe Repair, a Concord institution on Main Street since 1909, has managed to survive.  In fact, Pete, third generation cobbler in his family business, says that, beyond just surviving, he has seen a recent increase in business.

Is this a sign that the tide has turned?

Certainly, more of us each day are realizing we have responsibilities beyond being just a mindless consumer: that we have a higher responsibility to buy local in order to benefit our neighbors and keep our hard earned money within our community and a higher responsibility to work toward sustainability for the sake of a sane economy and a livable earth.

Hopefully, a new day is dawning where we can look forward to the Merrimack being home again to ospreys and eagles, not abandoned, neon-colored sneakers.

XXX

1  Sennett’s quote comes, from what is in my opinion, a paradigm changing book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work by Matthew B. Crawford. Mr. Crawford has a Ph.D. in philosophy but earns his living as a motorcycle mechanic.



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