Earlier this morning, I volunteered at our school’s grandparents’ day breakfast. The coordinator (a.k.a. head honcho) warned me that the food for this buffet-style breakfast would be gobbled up quickly, and that she would set up the tables the night before because adults would be “hovering” over her if she set up in the morning. Thinking she was exaggerating, I nevertheless baked eight dozen mini muffins and prepared two huge fruit trays.
She wasn’t exaggerating.
I arrived at 7:20, before our start time of 7:30. Parents and grandparents had started arriving at seven o’clock that morning.
They were hovering over us as we set out food, serving themselves fruit before we’d set out forks to eat it with, and grabbing up all the Chick-fil-A chicken minis. As servers, we held back over half the food because there was no way it would’ve lasted until nine o’clock.
From those eight dozen muffins I baked, only seven are left. (Besides the ones I baked for my family, of course.) There’s about two smallish spoonfuls of fruit on the tray. That’s it. From the food the other women brought (bagels, muffins, etc.), there was little left.
You’d think these folks hadn’t been fed in a week. Astounding? Disgusting? I’m uncertain.
I didn’t work the book fair this year, but I had a similar experience there and at the annual Southern Tradition fundraiser. The amount of money people are willing to spend on worthless trinkets (always aplenty at book fairs) and brain candy books is incredible.
(Full disclosure: Both years, my younger daughter has bought Magic Tree House books there. Last year’s was about the time-travelling sibling duo meeting Abraham Lincoln; this year, it was Alexander the Great. I’ve purchased two books, both by Theodore Gray: The Elements and The Molecules. These books intrigue and dazzle even chemistry-shy me.)
Last year, one father walked into the fair, his young daughter grabbing his hand and showing him her “must-have” item, a set of highlighters in the shape of a cell phone. The father looked at the price, then at me.
“Five bucks for this crap?”
You’d have thought that I’d set the price myself. After a few minutes, he pulled out his wallet.
Wait, who’s the adult here? I thought. You don’t have to buy it.
But he did.
Also last year, I worked as a salesperson at the Southern Tradition fundraiser, selling upcycled furniture, artwork, and other items. Many times a woman would look at a piece of furniture, sigh, and say,
“Oh, my husband’s just going to kill me if I purchase one more thing. We just don’t have room! Here’s my credit card.”
These pieces weren’t cheap, either. And while the “hubby’s gonna kill me” line was obviously an exaggeration, it still chaffed at me, even while I smiled and rang up the purchase of yet another shabby chic-style cabinet or table.
Two things warred inside me.
These sales benefit the school. That upcycled junk brought in $90,000 in one day. The book fair made over $2000 for the school library. The breakfast, while not a sale per se, set a gracious tone for the school as (potential) donors came into the building with their grandchildren.
These products weren’t necessary. Most buyers didn’t need $500 cabinets or buffets. The kids didn’t need to read junk books, buy erasers shaped like chocolate bars, drop five dollars on a pack of highlighters. And most of the eaters weren’t really hungry, more than likely.
They didn’t buy out of need. They bought out of desire.
I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with sales. It’s difficult for me to imagine asking people to buy one of my novels, for example. Those two ideas war inside me, even though I am far from being published.
I believe in my product. (Cringe. I hate referring to a book or piece of art as a “product” for consumption.) If I manage to get that far in publishing, then, yes, I should be paid, as should the others who have helped produce my book. The agent. The editors. The cover designer. The sales people. All those people are working and trying to make a living from their work in publishing.
It’s hard for me to ask people to spend money on something that doesn’t have a tangible benefit. A book doesn’t give sustenance to the body. A book doesn’t keep a body warm at night, or cover its naked flesh, or protect from the elements. A book doesn’t keep someone healthy or cure diseases or keep a heart beating.
The value is metaphysical, and it is real. I enjoy that. But it also makes it difficult for me to ask someone to hand over hard-earned money for it, especially if I wrote it.
Aren’t I simply fueling our natural consumerist impulses if I ask people to buy a product that they don’t need? Am I taking money away from bills or the food budget or health care? Probably not. But . . .
Here’s my question: How does a writer or artist reconcile these two dueling ideas? How do you come to terms with the consumerism (and greed) involved in the sale of any luxury item? How do you do so without losing the very thing that makes you a creative person, an artist?
P.S.: Maybe my issue is with selling my own writing more than other people’s work, because now I’m going to mention that Ruminate magazine is holding a 50% off sale on all back issues. (Yours truly has been reading the fiction submissions for less than a year. I’m a volunteer.) If you’re curious about Ruminate, this is a great opportunity to check out what we publish. They offer contests, too: short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and art. Hurry! The sale only lasts until October 4, 2015. (End of sales pitch. Whew.)