Singing Pickles, Cat Paws, Kaleidoscopes:
Reflections on Thirty Years of Joie de Vivre.
When I initially conceived of opening a small shop, the idea that it might become a life's work of sorts never occurred to me. Besides eating peanut butter sandwiches, attending public school and breathing, there was nothing I had done for even remotely close to that long. And today, at age 62, it seems doubtful that any new venture I might dream up would last anywhere near thirty years - I'll count myself lucky if I do. Retail Herectic, or a Thousand Singing Hamsters, my planned book about the store, an idea conceived while taking my first memoir class and observing how the pieces I wrote about Joie engaged my fellow classmates, has yet to be finished. In the meantime, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back, and write a bit about being in business all these years.
The passage of time inevitably brings change, and to be in business this long is to experience a lot of it. The makeup of our neighborhood is one. When we first opened, it was rent controlled, inhabited by a lively mix of students, artists, and old time Cantabrigians. It was a little dingier as landlords had little incentive to fix up their properties. We had an actual beat cop who walked the street, and would stop in to chat. It's much prettier, and much more quiet these days. Neighborhoods have lives - they constantly grow and change.
Thirty years is also a long time in any one person's life. While I'm thrilled to report that people in their late twenties/early thirties have come in with small children and told me Joie was their favorite store as a child (!!) - I'm sad to note that there are customers who have eventually - disappeared. People who were 60 when I opened would be 90 now, and if they're still around, they generally aren't out and about shopping. There was one couple who came in every Christmas to shop. They lived out of town and always made a day of it, buying lots of presents, going to lunch next door. I knew all about their families, and I watched as every year they became a little more creaky - and a little bit cranky. Then, they never came again.
Of course we lose customers who move as well - though our (another change) website helps some of them keep in touch. And it's funny - people will come in and say, "I haven't been here in such a long time - I moved." When I ask where to the answer is just as likely to be Jamaica Plain or Central Square as it is London or California. We have customers who now live far away that we see almost as often as some of our busy in-town gang. Happily, one thing has definitely stayed the same - the wonderful mix of people walking in the door - from young kids to grandparents, lots of students, visitors from all over the world - the people who come in are and always have been and still what makes our working day interesting. And speaking of customers - you can always count on the youngest ones to say the greatest things - just recently, a four year old girl described one of our toys as "it looks like a bubble and a jellyfish had a baby!"
Another change: the mix of stores in the neighborhood. We sometimes play a game called "list all the stores that have been on this block in the last thirty years." Four of us have been here the entire time, while so many others have come and gone that it's hard to remember them all. We had a frame shop, a flower store, a new age store, a gypsy clothing store, an Italian ceramic store, and a candy shop, just to name a few on this block, including that first Indian restaurant, where I learned to love shrimp biriyani and chicken tikka masala. (Now there are many many more fine dining establishments and general restaurants than there were in the past - not good for the wallet or waistline - but - yum!) A few blocks away there were antique stores (where I purchased the dining room table I'm typing this on), a real witch store, Irwin's old fashioned toy shop, a fabric store, a discount clothing store, a beautiful children's clothing store and there were two small drugstores in the neighborhood. Back then, "drugstores" did not sell English muffins, toys and everything under the sun either, just candy bars, newspapers, bandaids, aspirin and the like.
So yet another change - the beginning of the end of the specialized store. We do still have shoe stores, or a store that sells only jewelry, but the "impulse item" is now found everywhere; the hardware store, the drug store, the bookstore. They have all added gifts over the years in the struggle to survive the giant chains and Amazon.com. Joie de Vivre has not done the opposite though - no garbage bags or potato chips found here - or not yet, anyway. Our only bandaids look like bacon or have Shakespeare quotes. But we've gotten some pretty odd requests over the years - pizza, harem pants, saxophones, etc. I think this all reflects the biggest change in retail - the arrival of the on line shopping world. Our devices have made it incredibly easy to buy pretty much anything from the comfort of home - and many people have found that to be their preferred way to shop. Especially since somehow, we all seem to suffer from the “busy disease” today much more than was common years ago.
I’ve thought about this a fair amount and I can honestly say that in my personal life, technology has had little to no effect on my own happiness, or really improved my life in any significant way. But it has brought both good and bad changes for the store. A good one? Back in the "old days" we used to have to call Master Card or Visa to authorize every sale over $20; read the card number, get a code, enter it. It was time consuming, especially on a busy day. Now this happens quietly and instantly with a swipe of the card through our own little terminal. However, charge sales were a much smaller part of our business too - cash and checks were still in common use. But today we give many thousands of dollars a year to Master Card, Visa and American Express, and people pull out a credit card to buy a couple of postcards; the cashless society is close! And who really profits? No surprise there - big corporations.
Then there's email - which has certainly made communication with Europe easier. It used to be so expensive to call - (I will always remember my $85 phone call to Denmark to deal with some xylophone problem!) Letters took a week or more. So email is a definite plus for that. But then, email has made communication with everyone much easier - a mixed blessing at times. Companies who used to mail the occasional informative update didn't do it too often when they had to pay for postage and printing - now they can send you ten email blasts a week - with nothing much to say. And they do it. My email in box at Joie is now often filled with emails I don't really need to see. And that same problem affects our customers, some of whom have requested to be taken off the email list we use just once a month - because they simply get too many emails.
Email also hastened the demise of the ringing telephone. Thirty years ago we didn't even have a fax machine, let alone a computer, and the telephone was our lifeline. I often placed orders over the phone and it was nice, I got to know in some small way the person on the other end of the line. Who typically remembered me because of our unusual name, one they were often afraid to try to say out loud. In our early years, the phone rang constantly - sometimes too constantly. But I kind of miss it now that on the increasingly rare occasion that it does ring - it's most frequently either a robot - or a robotic sounding call center human. Now everyone carries their telephones with them, and I think that effects us here more than any other thing.
People often walk into the store now, looking down at their phones. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really here, sitting at the desk. In the beginning of the cell phone era, we heard everything from mind-numbingly mundane conversations to excruciatingly inappropriate intense discussions. Today people are mostly texting, not talking, so for all we know they might be checking the price of a given item on Amazon. (soon, with the help of the new Amazon phone, they will be able to do that in seconds). And I find that people find it much more difficult to make decisions when they have a phone. They feel they should call someone, as opposed to taking a risk on something they think someone else would like. Call it shopping by crowdsourcing. But they are much less likely to want our input, which is kind of what we used to specialize in. We don't really enjoy competing with a hand held device! But though we occasionally feel superfluous, we still do have customers who come in looking for something for a 60th birthday, a 12 year old boy, or their "awful brother-in-law." Or they need a camel item, or a hedgehog, or even mermaid tears (yes, we came up with something!) - and ask us to help - that is what we are here for, and what we love to do - help!
To conclude my technology discussion on an upbeat "note" - I will say that for listening to music it has improved life at Joie de Vivre 100%! Pandora and internet radio allows us to have a hundred radio stations of our own devising, and to switch between them at the drop of a hat - well - to be more accurate, the click of an ipod. We used to get so tired of our CDs - now we can have a hundred stations and when an inappropriate or disliked song comes on - one touch and it's gone. This has really made a huge difference to our daily in store happiness.
Anyway, these are just somewhat random thoughts that I've put on paper for our 30th. I could write more, but I'm resolved to have mercy on the reading public, as well as to actually have something to put on the table, so to speak. And maybe entice you to read the whole story if I ever finish it. So finally, to conclude this piece, I would like to say that the things I love most about this business are exactly the same as they were 30 years ago. Actually, now that I think of it, so are some of the items we sell, for example the dancing ballerina, the magic garden or the penguin race. But I love discovering the new items too - going to gift shows without the slightest idea what I will find. Who really expects the yodeling pickle or the rapping hamster - or the handblown glass jellyfish or the elegant rubber chicken handbag? I love the relationships I've made with my vendors and have wound up calling some of them very good friends. Unlike some buyers I know who complain about the time and trouble involved, I love going to shows. And I love the other side of the business just as much. I love showing what I've found to our customers - and introducing them to things they didn't know existed. It's a lot of fun, and incredibly rewarding and many customers and staff have become lifelong (I hope!) friends.
I stumbled into this business in a sense, and feel I was lucky that I found something that really worked for me. I’ve gotten to share my enthusiasms with a wide range of people, from my love of kaleidoscopes, to the slightly surreal cat paw, to the classic wind up jumping mouse. I've won awards, and I've been on television (in Japan as well as here!) And my personal joie seems to have resonated with many others as well - you who have made it possible for this business to both thrive - and then in a difficult environment, survive. So, I will end these reflections with love and appreciation for all of you - staff, suppliers, and customers, friends, and family too, who have been an essential part of putting the Joie into Joie de Vivre.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!