Make a Living, Make a Life: John Evans
by John Evans, Oct 17, 2007
Even in this world of computers and the global economy people still make dinner for their friends, have children, walk on the beach at sunset, share stories, start businesses. (If the truth be told, the global economy is more like an empire where everyone does what they have always done but with a little less money, and more of our money goes to fewer and fewer people.)
People start businesses for basically two reasons: to make money or to make a living. Money is one of the most confusing creations that we have ever gotten tangled up in. Most people need it, some people crave it, many people have a love/hate thing with it. Because we aren't clear about money, we aren’t clear in how we talk about money. Equally true: because we don't speak clearly about money, we don't understand it clearly. Let's say you make a killing in the stock market. Is this making a living? You will live off that money for the rest of your life. Life, living, making, killing—how can such simple things be so slippery?
The profit motive, making a killing, money as a great motivator have nothing to do with making a living. In a similar way, we are consumers when what we are doing is consuming things. Is dinner with friends consuming? We are told that making money and consuming things is what we do. Is this the same as making a living and eating with friends?
We started DIESEL, A Bookstore, as a way of making a living doing what we loved. We knew from the start that there was no money in it. Bookstores rarely make money, but they make it possible for the people to work there to make a living, hopefully.
Making a decent workplace was first on our list. That means a place where you can work hard—thirty-plus hours a week, in a pleasant environment, cultivating mutual respect—get paid enough to live on, have the flexibility to integrate your life, travel, etc.. The next idea was to create a place where readers can congregate, where mutual respect can be integrated into a more public life, where ideas and experiences can be openly discussed, and friendly civil communication can be encouraged. This makes for a better workplace and creates a more fulfilling place.
So making a living is all of this and also doing something you care about, enjoy, or are passionate about (or all of the above). Books are in the blood, for some people. In my case, I love the physicality of books, their variety, shape, smell, heft, flex. I love the possibilities of design, the surprise of style, the undiscovered experiences, the insight, and the sociability of books. I also love the work. I enjoy shelving for hours on end, buying used books from the people who read them, alphabetizing, receiving new titles never before seen, helping people find books that will delight them or change their lives, pulling the returns that go back to the publishers. I am not sentimental about books but very emotional about them.
At a recent seminar, sponsored by that activist organization known as the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, Louis Patler was discussing the changes in the global economy, the shifts in the book industry, and the place of independent bookstores in the culture. He said that it was important for booksellers to know what their focus and function were.
So, a bookseller asked him afterward what he thought a bookstore's function is. He said something like" This may sound strange to you but I think a bookstore's main function is to provide an aesthetic presence in its neighborhood." I understand that completely.
Wake up and smell the flowers! Look in your cup of coffee! Cultivate and appreciate the keen beauty around you, discerningly. So the bookstore is also a theater, a street theater presenting strikingly beautiful and moving stories of the world. It is a reminder that there is more to social life than money exchanging hands, even while money exchanges hands. The Greek god Hermes is the god of commerce and communication. Money is not just greed, that’s inflation; money is just exchange—a practical, simple form of communication, like turn signals.
In the early nineteenth century, after the revolutionary freeing of Haiti, here in California the buttons from French Haitian military uniforms were temporarily used as currency. The buttons each had a phoenix imprinted on them and the words, in French, “I rise from my own ashes.” Money burns through your pocket, and military uniforms have a way of returning to use. Make a living, make a life.
John Evans is an independent bookstore owner. Diesel Books --with stores in Oakland, Larkspur, Malibu and Brentwood, all in California