Flashback: Retail Therapy

June 22, 2012

The following column appeared in the St.  Helena Star newspaper on March 10, 2011.  My Napa Valley retail store has since closed, although it exists as an online store, and I still carry the scars — and sweet memories — of my days as a shopgirl.

People often ask me why I decided to buy a retail store. These questions usually begin with phrases like: “Whatever possessed you…” or “Why in heaven’s name would you even think of…” uttered in concerned tones. My friends from my lawyer days assume I’ve had some sort of brain episode, or that I’m doing community service pursuant to a parole agreement. My theater pals are in awe of my continued ability to find creative ways to lose money. My girlfriends suspect that I’m trying to snag a rich husband by positioning myself as a walking tax loss in heels. The truth is more sinister.

I never wanted to be a retailer;  I wanted to own an art gallery. I was introduced to IWolk Gallery owner Ira Wolk, and we spent some months dancing around the possibility of my buying his gallery. We lunched. We talked. We drank wine. But eventually I discovered that there was one impediment to my plan to buy the gallery from Ira: He didn’t want to sell it.

The truth was that Ira really loved having the gallery. He loved working with artists, he loved his clients, he loved his staff; he complained about all of them but couldn’t let them go. I finally concluded that getting him to give up the gallery would be like asking Oprah or Larry King to give up their talk shows. And so we parted as friends, and I moved on to purchase what Ira liked to call, “That little shop where I could buy a gingerbread-scented candle if I ever wanted one.”

He often stopped by the shop just to rib me, once selecting a greeting card then refusing to buy it, complaining loudly that he considered the sticker price simply outrageous.

Ira understood that my dreams of art gallery ownership and its glittering clientele, which I imagined would run the gamut from visiting royalty to George Clooney’s decorator, would be denied because of a local prohibition against the further proliferation of these dens of artsy-ness.

“We don’t want to become Carmel,” sang the Planning Commission and City Council in harmony, ignoring the fact that we lack both Clint Eastwood and a proper golf course (I am informed that nine holes don’t constitute a quorum), nor can we boast an atmosphere tinged with the pungent aroma of saltwater (except at the Go Fish sushi bar).

So I plotted to buy a retail store that already included a fair amount of art, and then gallery it up. But before long, my visions of art-world glamour were dashed as I developed a full-blown case of the Tchotchke Syndrome. I surrounded myself with stuff that made people say, “Oooh … cute.”

I ordered patchouli-scented candles that smelled like the back of my high school boyfriend’s VW bus. I stocked gold-lame purses shaped like Chihuahuas, and argued with the prior owners about who ordered the ceramic chickens with hats. I split my pants loading a giant metal rooster made from recycled oil drums into a customer’s trunk. I suspected another store of spy-versus-spy chicanery when its window featured the same stuffed corduroy dachshund we carried.

Eventually I gained the perspective that only comes from losing large amounts of money while having large amounts of fun. I discovered that for all its ridiculousness, owning a shop provided one undeniable benefit that even the art gallery might not have: I got to meet The People, up close.

Let me just say this about The People: They are not uniformly attractive. They can be demanding, fickle and downright rude, particularly when drunk. As children, they tend to be sticky, grabby and unsupervised. Parents often employ bizarre methods to corral their kids in retail stores, my favorite of which was the lady who told her children to observe “the one-finger rule,” which meant that the kids could do anything in the store so long as they did it with one finger. I don’t need to tell you which finger I longed to use as her darlings toppled breakables with the flick of a digit.

On the other hand, The People can be incredibly kind, charming and fiercely loyal. On vacation, they can be relaxed, silly and downright generous, particularly when drunk. In other words, The People may not be the perfectly polished specimens one might find in a Carmel art gallery, but I suspect they are infinitely more enjoyable. I’d still like to meet George Clooney’s decorator, though.

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