Friday, September 3, 2010

Competition and Sisterhood

Well, we're least in the formal sense. Furniture is in place; yarn and needles and books (and so on) are mostly out of moving containers; volunteers have moved in and out of the place like benevolent angels. And the place is lovely: High ceilings that remind me of a Manhattan loft, complete with girders and big metal ducts, everything a warm shade of antique white, including the ceiling metalwork. We have some minor problems with spot lighting which, I assume, a good electrician can fix in an instant. So I'd call it a success. I bought two half-moon composite planters for each side of the front door with pyramidal boxwoods; I am calling them the Elaine Clark Memorial Boxwoods because my dear friend Elaine suggested them (they make the place look even more like a loft, though perhaps a London loft.....).

Now perhaps I'll have time to knit the medium-weight version of my Orkney vest, the pattern for which Barry Klein has purchased -- he is knitting the bulky-weight version and I volunteered to create a slightly lighter version (from Tonalita) so that knitters will have two options.

But today I must say I was troubled all over again by two very important things.

The first has to do with our old location, four blocks from the Detroit city line, across the street from the Grosse Pointe Park police station, for heaven's sake.....We left because foot traffic had dropped to almost nothing and because the small shops in the neighborhood had closed. It's a recession, after all. During recessions, people go out of business.

But, now that we've moved, people have been confiding (to quote one woman a few days ago) that they didn't feel "safe" coming "down there," and are SOOOO relieved that we have moved to where they can feel "safe." Of course there is nothing at all unsafe about the old location. But the closer you get to Detroit, the less "safe" some people feel. What they are really saying is this: I don't like being close to Big Black Detroit, and so I'll patronize shops that don't force me to go where I feel uncomfortable. It's racism, pure and simple, or more precisely racialized anxiety. I have to deal with the fact that a significant number of people will continue to say that they are SOOOO relieved, SOOOO glad to see that we are located in a "better" or "safer" or "closer" place -- references that typically speak to sentiments that I despise, and which I can't bear to have associated with me. This will be my little cross to bear, won't it? All I can do, really, is to counter racial anxiety with fact and hope it is enough to cut through the ugliness.

Second: An old customer came in today to see the place -- loved what she saw -- and then said, "Of course this brings you into REAL competition with the Knotted Needle!" -- a fiber studio down the avenue a few miles. The frame of mind is deeply engrained: If you're in a shop, you must be in some kind of tooth-and-nail competition with everyone else in the same business. As we organized a shop crawl this year and last, we ran into the same thing: "I'd do it, but I don't like So and So," or "No, I want to keep my own clientele." Company reps have talked about the "toxic" atmosphere in Michigan yarn shops -- a zero sum game apparently, in which the sale of a button in one shop means that another shop isn't going to sell a button. Never mind that, if people are milling around in greater numbers, all the boats will rise. No. Here, we have to do battle, compete, and -- most troubling of all -- never set foot in one another's establishments. Of what use was organized feminism, I wonder, within this community of women? And have they never read anything about the history of knitting????

When my colleague Allyson and I went on one of my periodic shop visitation road trips (this time to Birmingham and other points northwest), we actually encountered one shop owner who was so hostile we fled within about three minutes -- actively not wanting us there -- glaring at my card as if it were a grenade.

So when the question was put to me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that I would view myself in some kind of mortal combat with the Knotted Needle, I could only say, "I don't compete." I tried not to sound annoyed, but I didn't entirely succeed. I got a blank stare in return. I quickly added that the shop in question was mostly into needlepoint; that helped a little. But I also told her, and I guess I'm going to have to say this each and every time it happens, that I simply WILL NOT COMPETE. I view myself and my work and my yarn collection and my buttons as augmentations of the holdings of other shops, and as a kind of repository of historical understandings. We are sisters and brothers in the same life-enhancing enterprise, perpetuating a chain of understandings that can be traced at least to classical Egypt. We make beautiful objects from natural fiber. We teach. We enrich the human condition.

Let me be more precise: We are part of an ancient community that has exhibited uncommon generosity over the centuries -- clothing the poor, warming the destitute and the very young, healing the sick with the soothing rhythm of handwork, putting food on the table (as with the men who used to knit stockings for sale), protecting fishermen with layers of wool. When my mother and her sisters made woolen socks for soldiers during World War II, and woolen soakers for soldiers' children, they were not competing with one another, or with knitters in other cities. Modest wool shops contributed huge quantities of yarn to the enterprise, setting themselves apart from a good many other capitalists. When Mary Livermore's helpers put bandages and stockings together during the Civil War for public use, they certainly were not fencing and guarding in relation to other makers of bandages and stockings. Once upon a time, sewing needles and knitting gear were so expensive that women (and men) actually carried them lovingly from door to door in protective cases. We move as one. Other sellers of wool can "compete" tooth and nail if they want to. I can't prevent it. But they impoverish themselves. They insult our forebears. They succumb to Ross Perot-style economic barbarism, thereby losing an opportunity to show other makers and sellers of things a better way to move from one day to the next. I simply refuse.


1 comment:

  1. I love your views and your attitude. Bravo! I have found as a knitter and consumer that just going from one shop to another and mentioning another shop is NOT a good idea. I found your shop through my daughter in law and a neighbor just recently (Oct. 2012) and already feel so comfortable in your shop. The Wool and floss made me feel like a trashy heathen because I was a crocheter and I was alm ost excorted out of the door. So, thank you for creating a space where everyone is welcome.