alternately titled: “Be Careful, She Might Have a Blog.”
Today somebody walked up to my table at the market, picked up a jar of my spices, said, “That’s too expensive,” and banged it back down onto the table. This was the first time that somebody has been that abrupt about it in three years, and I was shocked.It’s one of the things that craftspeople live in fear of: Being told that your work isn’t worth it. “Everything in Cape Breton is too expensive,” he continued. “I could get far more spices than that in Vancouver for half the price.” (In fact, this is sort of true: I purchase my ingredients wholesale. It is a much cheaper way of getting spices. So is the bulk food store. But they are not the same spices in these jars; I am not just reselling those spices, I actually have a set of “products” that I spent several months taste-testing and developing. I cannot sell at cost.)
“Well, Cape Breton is in the middle of nowhere,” I said, trying not to get too upset.
“No, it’s not.” (Given that it is a 5 hour drive to the next urban centre of any size, and another 10 hours to find a million people in one place, I stand by my claim.)
I started out with my normal ‘spiel,’ but you can see how I might have sounded a little defensive by this point. “Well, they’re organic, and fair-trade, and I mix them in batches of 3 – 4 jars at a time so that they are always fresh.”
“Who cares about that? I’m just saying that I could get an enormous quantity of spices for $65 in Vancouver, and from you I would only be able to get 10 jars.”
“Well, I have to pay myself for my time.”
“Why? Why should I pay you for your time?”
He kept going like this for another 15 minutes. I swear to god, every single bit of knowledge I had, every bit of self-respect I carry drained right out of my feet and into the floor. My time was worthless, my knowledge was useless, I was stupid for not knowing that in a capitalist society I should just go out and get a job, buy stuff at Walmart because they had done more for the organic movement than any little upstart cottage industry producer ever could think of… at one point I interjected with the fact that I only was actually making about $2 an hour at these prices, and he told me, in so many words, that I should give up doing something so stupid and go get a minimum wage job instead of starting a business that was overpriced, couldn’t compete in a global economy, and didn’t add any value to the world as well as only paying me $2 an hour. “Don’t you watch Dragon’s Den? You’re not being consistent. You don’t have a consistent story. Why are you concerned about making a job for yourself that will eventually pay minimum wage rather than just going and taking a minimum wage job at Walmart right now?”
I tried. I don’t know why, but I tried. “Walmart can only look like a reasonable business model because every move that they make is subsidized by the fact that they aren’t required to pay a living wage, and society makes up the difference. Besides that, they only can keep their prices so low in the continued presence of cheap oil that allows them to outsource production to the other side of the world, because shipping things around the globe (sometimes several times) is less expensive than actually paying somebody enough to live on. Or even NOT enough to live on.” I talked about the need to re-establish local and regional economies, the incredible risk we are living with when we live on an island with no primary production, the moral and practical difficulties with relying on a global economy in which we only maintain our superior position by taking advantage of people too poor to protect themselves.
What was I thinking? Why did I engage, other than the fact that I was trapped in a corner behind a table, somewhere that the customer has the upper hand?
Partly I wanted to reiterate it for myself, because that Ayn Rand-Fountainhead – nobody is responsible for anybody but themselves – who the hell do you think you are to try and do something for the greater good, you stupid, stupid woman – oh, it’s nothing personal – bullshit can be pretty compelling when you’ve been trying to make a go of it and failing for three years. Throw in the towel and get a job like the rest of us, you idiot.
But mostly, I was just trying not to scream, “Why the hell are you even in a farmers market??? Just go wherever these mythical cheap spices are and leave me alone. Order your own fucking wholesale products. Just don’t come and attack me, and my work, and my product, and my values, and the mission statement I just helped to write for the market you are standing in to prove your intellectual and moral superiority, you miserable, CHEAP bastard!” Because that probably wouldn’t contribute to the conversation… not that we were having one.