Yesterday, walking to see friends in Boston’s South End, I stumbled across Olives and Grace.
I am working on a project called The Artisanal Economies. So I had to go in.
Olives and Grace is run by Sofi Madison. It’s been open for 5 years. (See more details here in a Boston Globe article. ) That I should come upon an interview opportunity this rich virtually at random encourages my suspicion that god is an artisan. (It would explain so much.)
Sofi and I spoke for about half an hour and the conversation was far ranging. In the spirit of Jerry Michalski (my favorite anatomizer of conversation), I will extract a couple of points.
1) Artisanal economies are robust in some ways, less so in others. One of the special challenges is “paths to market.” Farmer’s markets are useful. Etsy is super useful. But many artisans struggle to get their work before the public. Target isn’t going to carry it. Malls may be dying but they are for the moment closed to the artisan.
So a place like Sofi’s is a vital proof of concept: specifically that you can bring artisanal goods to market and flourish doing it.
2) A second big problem for Artisanal Economies has to do with what Eric Glasgow calls “cheap food.” (This idea may come from another source. I heard it first when interviewing Eric Glasgow of Grey Barn Farms,). The idea is that consumers are addicted to the cheap prices that industrial economies, producing at scale, make possible. Confronted by the prices charged in the world of the hand made and the small batch, we sometimes balk.
Solving this problem is, in a sense, what Olives and Grace is for. It is little, inviting, curiosity provoking, engaging. You are drawn in, as if into a children’s book. And you’re then engaged by Sofi in a conversation that moves effortlessly in the direction of anything you might happen to want to talk about. Sofi is there. Drawing you forward, gently shooing you along, helping you find that question you just have to ask. She calls this “intimate retail” and it deserves a study all on its own.
Several things happen in this conversation but one of them is that we begin to see into the history, we might even say the “intentions,” of the objects on the shelves. We begin to see that these things come from someone, that they were crafted to a purpose that begins with “coffee mug” and then scales up to include the lifestyle, the community, the economy, the culture that might be loosely designed artisanal.
Ah, now we get it. That’s why things cost more. That object on the shelf of Wal-mart doesn’t have a story. It was made by a stranger in a factory in Chengdu, shipped across an ocean, and banged around in the distribution system until it just happened to roll to a stop here on a shelf. It doesn’t mean very much because capitalism was so busy giving it value, it forgot to give it meaning.
And that’s what Sofi is for, to gently help us see what the mug means. Yes, we can buy a cheaper mug somewhere. But, by this standard, cheaper doesn’t feel better, it feels poorer. As if everyone in the production – consumption chain as been diminished by the effort.
So, we could say, if we were rushing to conclusions (and that is what we do here), that retail is not merely the last moment in the distribution chain. It completes the meaning making process. And more to the point, it helps consumers understand and grasp the “artisanal premium” they are required to pay. It’s always true to say “we get what we pay for.” The very point of Olives and Grace is to help us see what we’re paying for. It helps solve the problem of cheap food.
3) Olives and Grace sits in a tiny shop in Boston’s south side, a neighborhood that continues to gentrify at speed. And this is another problem for the artisanal world. The best retail space is only temporarily affordable. A change in the surrounding neighborhood will eventually push us out.
Sofi has a plan for preventing gentrification, and it is a larger version of the education process that happens when you visit her in her shop. With the help of other shop owners, she is trying to tell the artisanal story in a way that makes it clear to people who live in the neighborhood how much value comes from shops like hers, how these shops transform the local style and spirit of neighborhood, and what happens, cue Frank Capra, when the big brand boxes come in. (Reebok has just set up shop down the street and while it is calling itself a collective and trying it’s hardest, people are nervous.)
So Olives and Grace is solving this third problem. Let’s call it the “where do you want to live?” problem. And to put this boldly, and much more bluntly than Sofi ever would, the proposition is this: you moved here because you found the neighborhood charming. But this charm doesn’t happen by accident. If you want this place to remain charming, you know want to do. You want to patronize local shops. And not “patronize” in the diminishing sense, as in dropping by every month or so. No, you want to make Olives and Grace the places you get your olives. Routinely. That’s if you want this neighborhood to be a place you get (some of) your grace. There is a connection.*
That was one of the pleasures of the conversation, listening to Sofi show how all these things things, the artisan, the olives, the coffee mugs, the scented candle I bought Pam, the store itself, the neighborhood, the local economy, American capitalism, all thread together. Pre-artisanal capitalism breaks these all apart. Sofi sees them (says them) whole.
Olives and Grace, and Sofi’s mission, comes down to the child’s art she has taped to the wall. It was done by a local kid who likes to come into the store and look around. She prizes this. Not because it’s good. And not because Wal-marts discourages people from bringing in children’s art. She prizes it because it completes the circle. All that’s hand crafted comes down finally to this thing that’s hand drawn.
More details at Olives and Grace.
Thanks to Sofi for the impromptu interview.
* A last point here. Sofi is working with other shop owners, many of whom happen to be women, and there is, she says, a fierce, “mama bear,” intensity to the way they protect their community.. We swept past this topic. I would have liked to have heard more.
(This piece was originally posted at http://www.cultureby.com. It has been lightly edited for inclusion here. Ok, improved.)