UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS AT THE BEAD STORE
One of the first times I noticed that some people were treated differently than others had to do with Miss Divinity Daughtry — an heiress. I was in elementary school at the time. Miss Daughtry had an estate across the Raritan River from my Dad’s pharmacy. She had been in our store a couple of times, but mostly she stayed on the estate.
She had just killed — that is, allegedly, just killed — another boy friend. In the same way as the first. Car accident. Hit the wrong pedal, or gas pedal stuck, something like that. Man dead. She walked away without a scratch. Poor thing. Bored with her man. Disposed of the best way she knew how — allegedly.
Her estate was very large. She had given some of it over to local communities to use as a park. I spent many-a-day at Island Park — hiking, swimming at the dam, playing on the swings, picnicking. Beautiful park. They held the July 4th fire works there. The land was flat and wooded — flood plain. The ponds attracted many ducks and geese. People loved that park. Though they didn’t necessarily love Miss Daughtry. Few knew her, but all knew of her.
The local police never arrested Miss Daughtry or charged her with a crime. Accident, they said. Convenient accident, everyone else said. No investigation, no trial, no examination of the car. The accidents both took place on Miss Daughtry’s estate. On her driveways. Fast enough to kill the passengers, but not the driver. In the same way. Almost in the same spot. An act of God. An act with God’s blessing. Poor little rich girl. If there’s a boy friend of yours you’d like to get rid of, you might want to try this at your home, and see if it works for you.
It was clear to all that money bought extra understanding, a bigger dose of empathy, a larger amount of believability, more room for magnanimity, and a two-faced measure of justice. Like the drama masks, a tragedy if you looked at the situation from one angle, and a comedy, if you looked at it from another. The rules, the culture, the daily behaviors of life — all work differently for different folks for different measures of wealth.
Whether you’re a Dodge or a Helmsley, leaving $100 million or $50 million to your dog, when you pass away, there’s a certain disconnect you often find based on class and income. What’s important to one class, is not to the other. What are appropriate behaviors to one class, are not to the other. What are measures of success to one class, are not necessarily understood in the same way by the other, or are not necessarily achievable in one generation. Economic classes can be very distinct, and each class creates many social and linguistic behaviors which serve to maintain these distinctions.
So, when Miss Daughtry, again, for the third time, yes, Third Time, had a car accident, while she was driving, with her new boy-friend as a passenger in the car, on her estate, as before, near the same spot, she was again not questioned by the police, or had her car examined. In fact, she left New Jersey to spend time on another one of her estates, I think in Hawaii. Her boy friend was hurt, but not critically so. Miss Daughtry, this time, suffered a fractured bone in her leg. Her driving skills were obviously declining with age. They should at least have forced her to give up her drivers license.
Miss Daughtry died at 81 years of age. One day, she collapsed on the floor, gasping for breath. Her butler watched her choke on food or medicine and did not call for help. She passed away. He was obviously ready to receive her fortune — all of it which she left to him. Although he was eventually put on trial for murder, the jury found him innocent. This was as they should have. When someone rich mistakes the money-grubbing of a butler for loyalty and devotion, society has no other choice, though this innocence is not necessarily as the rich of society would see it. Her obituary told of all her philanthropic works. I remembered her in a different way.
As far as I know, Miss Daughtry didn’t bead or make jewelry or any crafts. Her main hobbies were sexual exploits and mystical explorations. But had she beaded, she would have found beading, as a hobby, to be very expensive, and as a social endeavor, to raise many interesting societal questions related to income and class. Beading, with its upstairs/downstairs implications, mystical and sexual connotations, the potential dangers and thrilling possibilities that come with needle, and scissors, and torch, might have been something she may have enjoyed.
While beading attracts people of all income classes, often there are funny, and not-so-funny, “Upstairs/Downstairs” qualities where beadwork and jewelry are made, where beads and jewelry are bought, and where beads and jewelry are sold. You might assume that this doesn’t concern jewelry makers, but it does. You bead and make jewelry in a social context, and Upstairs/Downstairs tensions are very much among the kinds of things you must manage, to be successful.
So when Nancy, who is middle class, was riding in a car with Letitia, who is upper class, on their way to a beading workshop in the mountains, Letitia complained and complained about having less money, now that her husband was retired. She had to edit down her European tour, cutting out 3 days and 4 countries. She had to change landscaping companies for a less expensive one. Her husband wanted to sit down and come up with a weekly budget. Which meant she’d have to cut back her spending on beads — running about $150–200.00 each week. She’d probably have to cut this down to about $100.00 per week.
Nancy was counting down the minutes — minute by minute — hoping their trip would end soon. Nancy’s husband recently lost his job. Her family was overextended financially. And she probably spent less than $100.00 a month on beads. All Letitia’s talk was making Nancy feel more and more uncomfortable. Nancy was ready to push Letitia out the window. “How will I survive the drive back?” Nancy thought to herself. They stopped to get gas, and Letitia asked Nancy if she wanted to split the cost of a soda.
Crissa points to a staff member at the shop. “Hey, you,” Crissa shouts, then snaps her fingers. “Over here,” she orders. “Get these trays out for me,” she continues. I witness part of this, but it isn’t the first time. I don’t think anyone on my staff likes to be finger-snapped at. All too often, some customers treat staff as servants. They aren’t servants. They don’t want to be. It’s very difficult to maintain a sense of dignity if people treat you that way.
And staff do respond passive-aggressively. “Here?” they say, pointing to trays not even close where to Crissa was looking. “Here?” again feigning interest and concern. When they arrive at the correct trays, they take them out one-by-one, very slowly. They don’t open up the lids. They take their time writing down what Crissa selects. And play as dumb and dumb-founded as they can. They will make Crissa wait and struggle and get frustrated. And delight in this.
Ernesta was another customer who was very haughty with staff. Her husband had been a special American ambassador to Japan. They had spent 15 years living a life of privilege in Japan. When they returned home, she picked up beading as a hobby to fill her time. She missed the people, the parties, the conversations she had had routinely in Japan. Nothing similar was to be had in Nashville, particularly since her husband had now retired. Beading would fill the void.
She came in weekly and, each time, spent hundreds of dollars on beads. She finger-snapped at staff. She asked questions which clearly showed her superiority, and staff inferiority. It came to a point where no one on staff wanted to wait on her. When she entered the shop, everyone found a place to busy themselves and hide. Several years later, her husband died. He left her nothing in his will. Nothing. She had little money of her own. But she had accumulated a bead stash worth thousands of dollars. One day she came into the store, and quietly, meekly, with pleading in her voice, she asked if she could bring back the beads a little at a time for money. Without hesitation, I said she could. But it’s unbelievably awkward each time she comes in. The thoughts going through my head, and what I imagine the thoughts going through her head — a lot to contemplate.
Neva loves to bead. She spends most of her time each week beading. She beads while she does the laundry. She beads while she prepares dinner for her husband and three children. She beads incessantly. Her husband works full-time some weeks and part-time in others. When he works, he gets some decent pay, but it’s never steady, and never enough. Neva works part time as a store clerk to support her beading habit. But she also has supported her beading habit with over $20,000 of credit card debt.
Beading and jewelry making are Neva’s ticket out of poverty. It’s a fantasy ticket to a fantasy island with fantasy riches. But at the same time, she gets to socialize with women who are upper class, who take the classes she takes and joins the bead society she belongs to and attends the same bead shows she does. She visits their homes for beading sessions, or meetings, or special dinners. She travels with them. She meets their friends. She shares their stories, their experiences, their excitement that only money can buy. Occasionally they buy her gifts, or give her hand-me-downs, which in Neva’s hands, are prize possessions. She gets to sell some of her jewelry at prices she could never afford herself. She feels she’s among friends. Among equals.
Sally lives in the wealthiest neighborhood in town. It’s not a stretch for her and her husband. It’s a place they feel they belong, and can easily afford. Sally discovered that she liked to design and sell jewelry. Marketing to her friends, however, has proven a challenge. First, she has to explain to them that, yes, you can make a piece a jewelry. A finished piece doesn’t magically appear that way on a store shelf. Then, she has to explain what “make” means. They assume that “make” means you fly to New York and buy it. Then she tackles the meaning of “design”. “Is that something that you can do?” they ask, implying that really no one makes jewelry, except a few designers whose names they can remember. And she dare not come across as if she has to make jewelry to bring in extra money. While money is not her motivator here, she has to subtly convey to others that she makes and sells for fun, not because she needs to.
Her potential customers in her neighborhood want jewelry. They just can’t make the connection between Sally, designing/making jewelry, and how a piece of jewelry would end up coming to them. Talk about hard sell! And Sally, bless her heart, when someone agrees to let her design something for them, she feels she needs to follow through, no matter what the request. Getting these people to make a request is so fraught with complications of life and meanings, she dare not say No! Even when many requests are unreal. Of course, they would be. Otherwise, they would just fly to New York and pick up what they need.
One woman asked Sally to make something that she could wear, when accepting an award for her horsewomanship. The jewelry had to match the horse’s colors — apparently, show horses have assigned colors — which she described as the pink-rose color in a famous rose given to Queen Elizabeth, the navy blue of an insignia at the local Club, and white. She wanted the necklace to look rich and elegant, and complement both she and her horse. Aside from the fact that making something that is pink and navy and white is difficult, especially if you want it to be rich-looking, we had to find that pink-rose color, and match it with beads.
Google IMAGES came in very handy. We found the Queen and her rose and matching beads. We used blue goldstone for the navy, minimized the white, and brainstormed a great design. Sally was not only making a necklace to go with a dress. She had to learn a lot about horses, horse colors, horse awards, and what kinds of statements her client wanted to make, when wearing the piece.
“Do you carry plastic?” People inquire over and over again. “No,” we say, “There’s a Michael’s craft store across the street. They carry plastic.” I don’t personally want to carry plastic beads. Yet, everytime I say No and Michael’s across the street, I feel a twinge of class consciousness.
Often a customer will say something like, “Are you familiar with the clothing line — ‘Lily’?” And may continue with a related comment like, “Is your dog Lily named after this clothing line?” I sometimes wonder why they would ask such questions? Is she trying to establish that she is somehow above everyone who has never heard of the line? Is she more superior because she is familiar with the line, and others are not? Does the line, and its brand name, relate in anyway to the types of jewelry she intends or make, or the particular beads and findings she wants to buy? Does she think she deserves special attention or more attention, because somehow she is more “in” than “out” than the staff and other customers around her?
Or you will hear the questions, “Are you going to Bead & Button?” or “Are you going to Tucson?”, or “Are you going to take that class with So-and-So?” Each trip involves a great expense, a big time commitment, and shows that the “go-er” has big bucks to spend on beads and related materials, or instruction. And the answer “No,” to each question shows that the “not-go-er” can’t afford the expense, doesn’t have that kind of time, nor does she have a lot of extra cash on hand to spend on things or instruction. The responses to these questions range from, “I have too many beads in my stash already,” or, “I have to work,” or “I can’t afford it right now,” or “I’ve bought her book”. And one person feels superior, and the other inferior.
Class distinctions, even class warfare, is not an acceptable topic of conversation in America. It makes people feel uncomfortable. They feel such discussion is dangerous and divisive. They feel that any beader and jewelry designer, if their work is great, the doors will open. They don’t want to see how class status offers advantages, or even disadvantages. They think that design is design is design, no matter what the income and class situations.
Rather than pretend that class distinctions have very little impact on beading and jewelry making, the good designer should be sensitive to impacts of class, and how to leverage this understanding in the jewelry design process, as well as the business promotion process.
A Revealing Tax Cut
I remember in the early 2000’s, President Bush convinced Congress to pass a massive tax cut. The taxes of the top 10% of the population accounted for 90% of the total tax cut amount. Very Republican. Republicans believe in “trickle-down” economics, and this was the first time in my life that I truly witnessed and slowly experienced a totally trickle-down policy.
Now, as I wrote before, Beading is an expensive hobby. Our customer base is definitely skewed to the up-scale, but we serve people of all economic backgrounds. Before these massive tax cuts, the economy had been faltering. Severely. People were scared. They were cutting back a lot.
In the bead store, we experienced this in a strange way. The first thing we noticed is that our Saturday business dropped to near nothing. Saturdays overall are the busiest days of the week. We serve three or more times as many customers, and usually have the strongest or second strongest dollar-day of the week, on Saturdays. So, what was happening on Saturdays was very surprising and very disturbing.
The next thing that began to waver was our late afternoon business during the week. We would always have a rush after 3pm and through closing each day. Now it was very quiet during the week-day afternoons. And getting more disturbing.
This left us living on the weekday morning business. And we had been living on this for about a year. Before President Bush’s tax cut, this weekday morning business was beginning to weaken, as well. God, how disturbing can things get?
I was forced to cut out the equivalent of 1.5 F.T.E’s — one and a half (thus 60 work hours) full time equivalents, which meant three staff were either out of a job, or had fewer hours. Over the year, I reduced our inventory by over $10,000. I let a lot of things not get done, like the cleaning of our floors, or the replacement of broken light fixtures.
Our usual daily ebbs and flows were breaking down. In the mornings during the week, our wealthiest customers were disappearing. In the late afternoons during the week, our customers on their way home from work passed us by. And on Saturdays, our mix of customers, people who don’t work or don’t make a lot of money, were no where to be seen.
Then came the tax cut. And Trickle-Down Economics. Within weeks, weekday mornings started to get very busy. It took several months, but all of a sudden, our weekday afternoon business started to kick in again. And after about a year and a few months, Saturdays slowly got stronger, and began justifying what I had to pay our Saturday staff.
But Saturday business never returned to its heights for many, many years.
The tax-cut moneys never could quite trickle down to everyone on the bottom.
Like the Colorado River.
On the map, it reaches the Gulf of California.
In real life, it rarely does. The river beds goes all the way to the Gulf. The water often doesn’t. Residents and towns and farmers use up more water than the river carries, and it often doesn’t reach the sea.
The economy, the tax cuts, trickle down, the impacts and effects — — these all made sharper the class distinctions among our customers.
The upstairs/downstairs dynamic shows itself over and over again in the bead business. Think about Jewelry. People wear jewelry to show wealth, status, importance. People get competitive with jewelry — Who wears more, nicer, pricier? Who sells more? To whom? Which stores, located in which parts of town, show-case your jewelry?
People in different income groups shop at different times. Not often crossing paths. They shop for different kinds of products. They make different kinds of projects. They treat staff differently. And they treat each other differently.
Dressing For Success
I was shopping in Green Hills the other day, one of the better parts of town, and dropped off some packages at the local post office branch. I was standing in line, waiting my turn, and noticed how so many of the women, also in line, dressed in a similar way. And I began trying to analyze and categorize all this — it’s so boring to have to stand in line waiting, waiting, waiting. What better thing to do?
And I came up with the idea that richer people, when they dress, emphasize the horizontal. And, with further thought, I began to visualize how working class people, in contrast, when they dress, emphasize the vertical. Classes operate and dress themselves on different planes. Whether this is learned or genetic or any kind of universal mathematical fact, I don’t really know. But look around you.
Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that wealthier people wear boxier cloths. They emphasize the shoulder-to-shoulder, and de-emphasize their breasts. Their pants line up with the lines going hip-to-hip, and de-emphasize as much as possible, the crack-to-crotch. Shoulders are puffy or padded. If big hair, it’s some variation of left-to-right or side-to-side, like that of Princess Laia and her “ear-muffs”. And if not, it is straight and close to the head. The necklace contour line is a gradual curve, from side to side, as it moves around the neck. The whole profile is as if they were presenting a door for you to knock on. Doors seem all-too-alike, plain, flat, and do not unduly call for your attention. Unthreatening. Accommodating. Asexual.
The whole profile of working class people, on the other hand, and I hope I’m not stretching the metaphors too far for everyone — humor me — is like a sharp knife coming right out at you. The breasts are pointy and pulled together. Hair long and narrow — pony tail, mullet, or Mohawk. The necklace contour line forms a “V”, often long, with large focal point. Pants tight and creased. Pants draw your eye to a tight upside down “V” from waste to either ankle. Sharp. Aggressive. Sexy.
It’s like staring down at a compass. If you were looking straight down onto the compass, that class of people who shower before work would take up the great East-West plane. On the other hand, that class of people who shower after work would run up and down the sharp vertical line running from North to South. Each class would reinforce their compass positions through style choices about clothes, jewelry, hair-style, and accessories.
There’s definitely a different body form emphasis in the way each social class dresses. You see it in the construction of the clothes. You see it in the use of point, line, shape and silhouette in the jewelry. So, it should come as no surprise that class consciousness, even class wars, should enter your local bead store or society.
Luckily for us, class distinctions in America are as much behavioral as economic. You can dress-up as-if, and dress-up anyone else, to fit in. You just have to pick up the subtle clues which show the boundaries between one class and another. That Great Chain of Social Being, connecting the low with the high and the lowly with the sophisticated in America, is not person-specific. It’s situational specific.
Income Class Competition
I have to listen to this several times a week.
“Why is she so successful?”
“Her stuff is Ugly!”
“She doesn’t even make it herself. She hires people to make it.”
“How did she get into that trunk show?”
“She buys all these things, and has all these things manufactured for her, and she doesn’t charge a full price!”
The “She” here is always someone very wealthy, has access to the “right” and “better” people in town, and probably owns a business and sells jewelry as much for status, as for making money. The title of “designer”, the fact of “owner”, and the visibility of the jewelry design business have as much currency for her (or her or her or her) as making a real profit, or creating truly well-designed and appealing pieces.
And my employee bemoans the fact that she works very hard at creating jewelry, but doesn’t get ahead. Her jewelry is prettier and better made. But everyone seems to want to buy “the other Her’s” jewelry. Her jewelry is for sale in several stores throughout town, but not the best stores as “the other Her’s” jewelry is. She spends days researching opportunities to sell her pieces, when opportunities seem to find “the other Her”, without effort. And my employee has to mark up her pieces so that she actually makes money at this endeavor, and “the other Her” does not. Or worse, “the other Her” has her jewelry marked up many times more than it’s worth, and it sells, because of the particular stores who display it — stores who do not accept just anyone’s jewelry, just those of wealthy women who live in the same part of town as the store owner does.
It is easier to compete with yourself, on your own terms, than with others. The jewelry business, with all its money, status and wealth implications and connections, offers different people different kinds of opportunities. There will be many people who won’t have the resources with which to compete. Realize that, accept it, and move on. Work with the resources you have and can afford. In America, it’s relatively easy to move in and out of situations with different income-class characteristics. But don’t get competitive by class status. Compete against yourself.
This doesn’t mean, if you are not rich, that you have to consign yourself to a second-status role in jewelry design. The sky’s the limit. Smart design, smart planning, smart management, smart marketing will take you wherever you want to go. But don’t waste a lot of time trying to tame the shrew in others. It’s a waste of energy. Stay self-focused.
The Great Equalizers
Although our wealthier customers might be very familiar with the 4 C’s — cut, color, carat, and clarity — they are generally clueless about most jewelry making materials, and even more clueless about the skills, techniques and strategies for assembling pieces of jewelry. And these are the Great Equalizers — Materials and Techniques.
There are no class distinctions when it comes to knowing what “gold-filled” is — few know. Or the differences between A+ and AB quality gemstones — few know. Or which stringing materials are appropriate for which situations — few know. Or which stitch works best with which beads — again, few people know.
So, Beading, because it is an art and requires learning a bag of specialized ideas and tricks, it has certain communal powers and undertones. People become dependent upon one another, no matter their economic class, in order to select materials, learn construction, and create beaded objects d’art, including jewelry.
No matter what the contradictions. No matter what the conflict. No matter what the class warfare. No matter what the personal conviction.
The Beads always win.
And that’s reassuring.
Other Articles of Interest by Warren Feld:
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