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GP 12 December 2007: The Art of Gifting; Tis the Season to Be Jolly

”I hate the giving of the hand unless the whole man accompanies it.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

UnSalomon-Like Behavior.  Jimmy Swift knew how to dazzle a crowd. He had a string of lumber lots and building supply stores throughout the Southwest.  When it was time to give out bonuses, he would assemble all the people who worked for him right out in the open air.  An Elmer Gantry, his passion rippled through the crowd as he praised the assembled.  When each employee came forward for his or her thin bonus envelope (and the cash rewards were very small!), each and every heart quivered with excitement.  Those who witnessed these evangelical ceremonies in the out-of-the-way towns of Texas swear that the congregation literally wept as Jimmy laid his eyes and his bonus on his devotees.

When Salomon Brothers ruled Wall Street, we had the pleasure of advising one of its underwriting departments.  Visiting one day in the cramped office of one of its partners, another Jimmy as we remember, we circled with him the question of how to make some of the junior associates more productive.  Ten minutes in, he excused himself for five minutes.  We learned then he was quickly passing out a couple of million dollars in bonuses, which was big money back then.  He got that task out of the way as quickly as possible—no longer than it would take to go to the lavatory—and then came back to resume our chat.  He was much too busy to do his job except in fits and starts.  Right then we knew that Salomon would have big troubles someday, though we never guessed how far that Humpty Dumpty would fall.

Good Giving.  Gifting requires graciousness, fervor, character.  It does not come easily to fat cats, for it requires great personal commitment, but very little of one’s purse.  In this regard, we have learned a great deal from Letitia Baldrige, America’s First Lady of Manners, as well as from her brother Malcolm Baldrige, who was a kindly man much renowned for teaching American business about quality.  Ms. Baldrige collaborated with us on a project involving a Chinese company called Zindart for which she authored an essay, “The Skilled, Compassionate Gifter.”  She advised: “When the gifter’s personal touch is apparent, the recipient will be really grateful.”  “A gift should be nicely presented.”  For a gift to have meaning, the giver must get totally invested: nothing less will suffice.  One must rouse the spirits; mere showboating will not do.

The Architecture of Giving.  Some American Indians believed that their houses and artifacts were inhabited by the spirits of those who made them.  That is the challenge of giving.  To put enough of oneself into the gift and the giving that you and the recipient know that your whole being has infused the process.  Any worthwhile architect, incidentally, feels that a proper house is infused with the spirit of the patron, architect, builder, landscaper, neighbor.  As we move from the age of mass consumption to highly segmented craft-driven products, the goal is to stamp the well-made object with a local, human touch such that there is no question of making it 15,000 miles away.  Our new 21st century task is to imbue work and product with a sense of place (terroir as the winies call it) and with a fervor that is unmistakable.  Good things come from somewhere, not everywhere.  In fact, if we can get gifting right, we will be on our way to learning the right economic model for success in the 21st century.

Billy Crystal remarks in the movie Analyze That, “Grieving: It’s a process.”  He could have said, “Gifting: It’s a process.”  It is not a transaction, not one of those short spasmodic events  to which those one-minute managers are dedicated.  It is a connection between two (and sometimes more) human beings.

Where to Look.  The mall shops we are often obliged to patronize lack all of this.  They are costly, the shopping is a wearing experience, the products are pure commodities, and the human stamp is quite lacking.  It’s a bit of a stretch for you to find a quality experience there.  Here is yet another reason why the malls are doomed, an apocalypse predicted by the shopping futurist Paco Underhill

We are not above recommending our own Global Province Network as a place to get started.  The purveyors there—merchants and an occasional charity—are people we know and can vouch for.  There’s a pleasure to what they do and how they do it.  Along the line, we have told you that we even advise one or two, such as Rick Field.  Rick’s Picks , a New York pickle merchant, seems to soar when spicing up vegetables.  You might get started with his phat beets (pickled beets), which Martha Stewart likes a great deal.  In fact, you can find a demonstration where Rick shows off—on her website—as well as the recipe—just in case you have time to make your own.   Artificial colorings are a no-no; very fresh spices and very fresh vegetables are the secret.

Other sources for gifts will often let you down.  The magazines and newspapers usually disappoint in this regard.  Their reporters do not have enough sense of what is great and what the world wants.  The ad people at the publications push products that please advertisers—lots of high tech stuff—but merchandise that doesn’t have a great deal to do with your Christmas stocking.  Oddly enough, the Wall Street Journal has done a few good gift columns during its last waning days of independence in its personal and week end sections, even as it slides into the octopus arms of Rupert Murdoch: this is the last hurrah for that newspaper.  The New Yorker, in its On and Off The Avenue columns, can demonstrate some taste and originality, but the reader should be warned to get the paper edition, since the New Yorker’s website is a horror, the business side of the magazine never quite running right.

Catalogs have become overwhelming and unproductive.  They’re fatter this year, and one may receive as many as 5 mailings from some merchants.  Reader Peter Kindlmann and others have written us about catalog madness—some 19 billion a year now being mailed to American consumers.  He much recommends that we use Catalog Choice to stop those we don’t want—not only to cut the clutter in our life but to do our environmental duty.  That said, catalog shopping does eliminate the agonies of the mall, and one should look for the catalogs that offer the useful (such as L.L. Bean) or at least the catalogs that are attractive.  The Global Province has started to catalog which catalogs you might find edifying.

In Search of Modesty.  As we have said, there’s a need now to put the soul back in gifting, and to take out some of the over-the-top, fatuous gorging.  To give the thoughtful and the modest. “Easier said than done,” you will say.  But, as far as we know, Leonard Lee’s Lee Valley Tools still carries his zester (or grater), a kitchen implement for grating lemons—and other fruits and vegetalbles—when you are after small bits for a recipe.  Lee is a most interesting man, with a consummate interest in tools, who has passed Lee Valley onto his son, having gone on to start a medical instruments company.

But if that is not to your liking, we can also endorse the folks at Try Me Coffee Mills down in New Orleans, who weathered Katrina and have proven there is life after death.  We met the matriarch eons ago when she was delivering to a New Orleans restaurant.  We asked if her blend was any good: she said, “Yes,” and we were off to the races.  Now one can order the expensive stuff which ranges up to $6.00 or so, but we go for the chicory which is $4.76.  This is not coffee for the faint hearted:  we simply call it High Test.

For Bookish Types.  Should you be giving to one of those people over 45 who is still reading, there are all sorts of modest, wonderful things you can do.  First off, you should find out if the eyes of your recipient are failing, but from normal causes.  If so, he could use drugstore reading glasses which are perfectly healthy for normal, tired eyes.  Trouble is, the drugstores are now charging too much for crummy glasses.  Search the Internet: you can get 5 or 6 pairs for $6 apiece which will mean your giftee will not have to remember where he or she put the glasses.  A pair will be found all about the home and office.

A week or so ago we said Alan Bennett’s Uncommon Reader is the gem of the year.  To get people into the spirit of the season, you may want to give Jock Elliott’s Inventing Christmas:  How Our Christmas Came to Be. The second chairman of Oglivy and Mather, he was a heady broth of a man who, all his life, loved Christmas and, in fact, had a magnificent collection of Christmas memorabilia.  Then again, Letitia Baldrige’s Taste: Acquiring What Money Can’t Buy might be the right thing for you or your best friend. Ms. Baldrige understands that taste has nothing to do with being snooty: the snooty, in fact, rarely have taste.

Wine and Cheese.  It’s been a pleasure this year to return to French wines and to find that they all do not command an arm and a leg.  The reds of the Loire, for instance, aided by unseasonably hot weather, are affordable and distinctive: we have been using Chinon as a table wine.  Probably the gift-giver should consider something closer to Bordeaux.  We just recently consumed a 1995 Chateau Pipeau, which is just 3 kilometers outside of St. Emilon.  Parker rated at least one vintage as a great and neglected value.  The vineyards are planted with 80% Merlot, the balance Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon.  This vineyard remains in the esteemed Mestreguilhem family, and we are in touch with  Ms. Brigitte about the ’95. Again, we find that the Pipeaus are not too dear, not at all as taxing on the pocket as the nearby Bordeaux.

Just as it is best to get off the beaten path for your wines, you must range afar to do better oncheeses.  Our friendThomas Karlsson (below), award-winning cheesemonger at the renowned NK Department Store inStockholm, recently brought us a pleasurable Vasterbotten from the north Sweden region of the same name.  It is sort of a Pamesan plus, with side notes that render it more interesting that its Italian step-cousin.  It is a complement to any fulsome red wine.

Somewhat Exotic.  It is fun to give gifts that nobody would ever think about or know about.  Perhaps something drawn from difficult out of the way places.  Our companion site SpiceLines recently visited the best spice shop on earth which is blessed with the purest saffron available.  We would suggest that you stop at Goumanyat in Paris, which itself is a kasbah penetrated by few.  Monsieur Jean Marie Thiercelin controls his own special sources of supply for saffron in the recesses of Iran. His shop has been been written about by some major American food publications, but none of them have grasped how special it is.

Grotto.  Then again, maybe the right gift for 2007 is the offering that makes everybody forget the trials of the world around us.  Such is Quince.  It is a nicely decorated, well-crafted restaurant in San Francisco that attracts a very pleasant crowd, surrounding food with an easy ambience.  It’s often hard to get into, so you must reserve ahead.  But, to our theme, the reservation requires such great effort that the person you honor with a night there will thoroughly understand you have tried to make his or her life transcendent.  The cordial and intimate atmosphere is more important than the food itself.

Tell A Story.  The Marcus family of Dallas has always known about presents and giving, and they form the beginning and the end of any celebration of gifting.  The wonderful Niemann Marcus of Dallas was founded by Herman Marcus, brought to its zenith by his son the quintessential Stanley Marcus, and shepherded in its lastgreat years by grandson Richard, who even in this day pursues his deep interest in global merchandising and retail product innovation.

With them a fine gift could be sent anytime.  We carried on an extensive correspondence with Stanley Marcus towards the end of his life.  (He thrived for 92 years).  Probably it should have been no surprise to us that a finely grained letter opener arrived one day, a reminder from him, we are sure, for us to get finer stationery.

Richard writes:  “I like giving gifts which have good stories about their creators and how they came to be.”  He cites, for instance, William Stout Architectural Books in San Francisco, for which we also share a fondness.  All the best things crop up when you can put a face to them, visualizing the proprietor.  This is all the more reason national governments should have special policies that favor family enterprise.

P.S.  Putting the soul back in things is a challenge worth tackling.  As all organizations have grown too large and the networks connecting us have become so complicated and cumbersome, the human touch has been eradicated.  Just go to your bank ATM or try to deal with the phone company.  Organized religions—almost all of them—have lost human scale and personal warmth.  Some of us wonder why we are polarized in modern life, never asking whether our very forms of organization distance us from one another.

P.P.S.  The late Gordon Lippincott, the brains behind Lippincott and Marguiles, the grandfather of all the branding firms, once was asked by a consultant how he should name his firm.  The tendency has been to pick something that sounds very corporate or to give oneself a New Age name.  Lippincott would have none of it. “Just use your own name,” said Lippincott.  “That’s what everybody is buying.”  Firms named after a specific person are often pretty good, and they begin to go downhill as the suits change it, fix, it, torture it.  Even if the name is generic, it’s better if it means something, rather than nothing.  General Electric, for instance, was an infinitely better name than GE.  Lippincott virtually invented the field of corporate identity, an achievement forgotten by marketing firms in the present day who are expert in corporate anonymity.

P.P.P.S.  There’s another reason for modest presents and modest demeanors in 2007.  We’re in for rough times—economically and in other ways.  Hyperbole does not become us.

P.P.P.P.S. Michael Lewis wrote amusingly of the Salomon culture in Liar’s PokerHe put in time there as an aspiring banker, but thought better of it and has gone on to write a string of fine books.  But Salomon’s excesses were no different than those in the rest of Wall Street—just grander and more gaudy.  When a USA Today reporter called us when Salomon came unglued, she reported to us that she could only find one firm on the whole of Wall Street that had a code of ethics.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Warner Lambert got its start as the company that knew how to sugar coat pills. Now it’s time to hold a wake for its final passing.  What happened is that its laboratories out in Michigan conjured up Lipitor, the biggest blockbuster drug of them all, and the dragon lady Pfizer, whose labs have never been fecund, grabbed Warner Lambert in an unfriendly takeover in 2000, one sign that all the sweetness was going out of drugs as we wandered into the new century.  The barren Pfizer has proved unable to run the Ann Arbor labs that came up with the anti-cholesterol drug, and it is shutting them down, a horde of lab workers having gotten pink slips as their Christmas gift. And that was that for what little remained of Warner Lambert. Another great family name has bitten the dust, just as we are beginning our wake for Dow Jones.



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