The other day, two people came into my studio. It turned out to be a mother and son. Mother was in her late-seventies/early-eighties. Son was well into his 50’s .
Both were rather poorly dressed. Mother wore a “Goodwill” skirt and blouse. Son was wearing very thick, old, glasses ….scratched and smudged. His T-shirt did not cover about 4 inches of his pendulous midriff.
I greeted both of them, as I always do, remembering that everyone can appreciate pottery, even if they may not be able to purchase it. We exchanged some pleasant conversation. I learned that it was their first time in the studio. And while I did not expect them to be customers, I spent 4 or 5 minutes giving them the “lay of the land”: showing them our line of ‘production’ works in the Showroom, and describing some of the ‘one-of-a-kind’ works in the Gallery. They thanked me and made a bee-line straight for the Gallery.
After only a few moments, Mother came back to where I was working, holding one of my finer wood-fired pieces – a flattened bottle that sits on three feet. It was priced at $295. “This is remarkable!” she said. “I must have this. This is a special process, isn’t it? Do you have anything to describe this process?….something written?” (She obviously had a well-developed sense of visual literacy.)
I told her that I did, and that I would get it for her.
As I walked into my office, I “clunked” myself on the head, reminding myself again how important it is to avoid making quick judgments based on appearance….how unnecessary and hurtful it can be to wear an elitist attitude on one’s sleeve….and what a remarkable experience it is to have one’s stereotypes “re-arranged”. And I would have to admit, if I were to be forthcoming, that for a moment I think that I offered to myself a smug and undeserved pat on the back for not having entirely overlooked these customers.
As I returned to the sales counter and was beginning to package the pot, Mother said, “You know, this is for one of my daughters. I have a second daughter who might like one of those vases that hang on the wall. Let me go look at those again.”
She walked back into the Gallery, and with hardly a moment’s hesitation, went straight to what I considered to be the finest wood-fired wall vase in my collection. “This is perfect. I’ll take it!”
Back at the check-out counter, I was busy taking price tags off, and gathering the fine fabric draw-string bags in which I put my finest works, before packaging.
At this point, Mother asked a thoughtful and sensitive question: “You know, I can pay you with Travelers Checks, or a credit card. Which do you prefer?”
I told her that I paid less commission on the Travelers Checks, and thanked her for the kind offer.
She pulled out some Travelers Checks and began to fill in the date.
It was at this point that I noticed that she had only two $50 Travelers Checks on the counter (and she had $600 worth of pots sitting next to them).
Knowing that once a Travelers Check is filled out, it must be used, I interrupted her in a rather abrupt way.
“You know, this is going to be rather awkward for me, but I must bring this to your attention. I am noticing that you have only two $50 Travelers Checks there.”
“Yes???”, she wondered.
“Well,” I said, “you have two pots here that are both ‘two-ninety-five’.”
“Two-ninety-five,” she repeated, “and……………?”
“Two hundred and ninety five dollars……..each…….,” I said.
There was a huge pause as she drew in a great breath of air…………”Two hundred and ninety five dollars, EACH!!!?,” she asked incredulously…………. “Why……why…..that would be just…….just RIDICULOUS!……just RIDICULOUS!!, don’t you think?….. don’t you think??”
At this point, I made what was perhaps a well-tempered Retailer’s “knee-jerk” response (not taking offence at the implication of her question, not losing control, but perhaps, also, not directly addressing her question): I tried to sidestep the issue by automatically responding with a compliment.
“Well, you know, I was so delighted that you selected two of my finest pieces. You obviously have a well-developed visual literacy and you appreciate………”
She was having nothing of the compliment. Before I could finish my sentence she leaned over the counter, getting a little closer to my face and with eyes squinted and intensity in her quiet voice, asked again: “It would be RIDICULOUS, don’t you think? Why, if I paid $300 each for these two pots, my dead husband would come back from his grave and pay me a VISIT!!!”
If there is anything that I pride myself in, it is in maintaining some semblance of propriety in difficult situations: not getting too ruffled, and maintaining a sense of humor. But at that moment, a kind of magical and uncontrollable transformation occurred in me. It was as if I could see myself leaving my own body….drifting away to a “safe”distance. Then I was absolutely shocked – and a little horrified – as I heard my (uncensored) self say: “Well gee, if you could get your dead husband back for only $600, that would be a hell of a deal, don’t you think?!?”
I cannot describe the deafening silence that next occurred, nor the absolute un-readability of her face. I wanted desperately to disappear, or to conjure myself back in time to negate this horrible faux pas. There was a gasp, and for a moment I didn’t know if she was going to have a heart attack , or if she was going to slap me. Then she cocked her head, some of the intensity draining from her face, and she ‘sighed’ a laugh saying, “Well, that would all depend on what kind of a mood he was in!”
I did my best to recover my senses and to regain a little dignity. I said, “Well, I suppose you and I will both have good stories on each other. I’ll just put the price tags back on these fine pots and return them to the gallery.”
I did so, fully expecting to see that these two had already “make tracks” out of my studio. But instead I overheard Mother saying to Son, ”I still think we can find something, don’t you?”
Then, spying the Brie Bakers in the production-pottery portion of our Showroom, Mother looked at me and pointed, “That pot’s kinda small. What does THAT price-tag say?” (It was at this point that I realized that neither Mother nor Son could see well enough to read anything, much less the small printing on my price tags!)
“The Brie Bakers are eighteen-ninety-five”, I said.
Mother squinted her eyes again, and walked over to me gently, touched my elbow, and, grinning, said in a low tone, “Now honey, are you saying eighteen hundred and ninety-five dollars…….or eighteen-ninety-five?”
I laughed – we all laughed – and I assured here that they were each priced at less than twenty dollars and that she could buy one for each of her daughters for less than the price of one of her Travelers Checks…..and she did!
I remain grateful, each day, for the lessons offered by regular contact and relationships with the Retail Public.
Dick Lehman maintains a full-time production and retail studio in Goshen, Indiana. Dick and his studio- mates make and sell a line of 100 different production pottery pieces which are for sale in his Showroom. Dick also maintains a sales Gallery of exhibition-quality pieces which explore Wood-firing, Saggar-firing and Side-firing approaches.
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the October 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org
1100 Chicago Ave.
Goshen, IN 46528