Saturday, July 10, 2010

Creative destruction

As I was leaving the Random House building on Broadway the other day -- I still go there every oncet while to attend sales meetings and measure the depths of depression -- I ran into M. hanging out by the curb waiting for Murph the Surf. They had plans to go sippin. As Quist used to say, "It's better to drown your sorrows than to dote on 'em, poot." M. used to work for Barnes & Noble at a fairly high level job in the merchandising department. He's sharp, opinionated, a cultural contrarian, and hyper-verbal: in short, a real book guy. He got laid off last year. Unceremoniously dumped is more like it, having been a loyal employee for more than fifteen years, partly responsible for the phenomenal growth of B & N's superstores, but -- hey, who gives a shite? That was then, this is now. He hasn't found anything yet except the extent of his own bitterness.

He said that Fred Bass was coming over to his apartment to make a bid on the library. "I gotta get rid of my books. I gotta give up the apartment." He has a daughter living in London. On more than one occasion he's mentioned moving in with her, a gag at first, now seriously. "I could go live with her. At least they've got socialized medicine over there."

I first met M. some twenty years ago, down in Atlanta, when he was working at Oxford, an impressively big bookstore in a repurposed car showroom on Pharr Road. It used to be the center of Atlanta's book culture, but by the mid-nineties, it was getting clobbered by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstore competition and its own burdensome loan structure. In 1997 the business was liquidated. So, like many of us in this effin industry, M. has witnessed the ups and downs of the so-called food chain, having worked for both predator and prey. It gives one a permanent sense of impermanence, knowing full well that the knife-blade is always poised above one's neck.
Creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism, poot. Yeah, but what about uncreative destruction? Where does that get you?

Who gives a hoot if thousands of guys are standing out in the street, holding up lampposts, shaking their fists at the system, having to sell off their libraries so they can buy some canned soup? We've got the mass merchants and price clubs with their deep discounting, the internet with its unbeatable selection and ease-of-use, and digital downloads and e-readers so you can get a book instantly. Hell, ain't nobody gonna stop the march of progress. People will get mad at you if they think you can't adapt.

I wanna tell M., listen, there are those inside the air-conditioned building conducting their endless meetings, collecting their paychecks, and those on the sweltering street, with their unwanted expertise and unemployment about to run out. I've been in both places and they're both killers. Inside, you lie to yourself about the value of what you're doing and your spirit withers and dies. Outside, your life falls apart and the very real necessities of daily existence -- food, shelter, clean clothes -- obsess you, then crush you. From where I stand now, working for a small company with a clear ethical stance toward the marketplace, dedicated to quality work, I wonder which was worse -- the years I spent in the corporate rat-race, or the scary times when I had no job, and no money coming in. I honestly don't know, because the psychological pain in both cases was so much the same. But I can't tell that to M. He won't believe me till he gets a job.

1 comment:

  1. No doubt, no job or “blow” job are nightmares.

    Sounds like you are happy at a small company. I did small company gigs three times and was happy at all three ---for a while.

    Small companies can be heaven or hell. They are heaven when everyone is aligned with the "clear ethical stance" and “common purpose.” Nothing beats the teamwork and camaraderie, particularly when the company is growing.

    However, I also experienced three out of the four worst things that CAN transform small companies from heaven to hell:
    1. They attempt to behave like big companies when it is not appropriate.
    2. They actually become big companies and transform into bureaucracies , forgetting what made them grow in the first place.
    3. Few buffers exist to diffuse the raw emotion when strong differences of opinion among among the principals become irreconcilable.

    After experiencing option 3 at my last company, my current big company felt like a safe haven for a while. I now try to operate like a small company within a big one to distance myself from the bureaucracy as much as possible.

    The fourth bad thing is when small companies go belly up or become marginal.

    If companies remain small and dynamic, they can still be great if
    1) the ethics remain intact,
    2) they provide a decent living, and
    3) camaraderie/purpose with colleagues persists.

    In the software industry, I often see the best ones (with these three conditions intact) behave like corks in a rough ocean. Given all the uncertainty out there, it is a wild ride but they don’t sink.