Monday, February 15, 2010

The Letter Writers Alliance Makes Me Wish I Was Still in Retail

I don't know how it's possible I didn't know about the Letter Writers Alliance until today; Miss Edith is, truly, ashamed of herself. What's more, if I were still in a position to stock retail shelves with lovely cards for people to send to friends and loved ones, I would not only be placing a huge order with my beloved Saturn Press, but I would be placing a second, equally huge order with

These people are great. The Letter Writers Alliance is a wonderful idea. For those of us who still have fountain pens; for those of us whose hearts beat faster when we check the mail not because we're afraid of facing the bills but because we do, in fact, receive real mail from time to time; for those of us who pride ourselves on our penmanship -- The Letter Writers Alliance. Thank you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Atticus Bookstore and their language policy and why all this crap in the news is such baloney.

Below, please find, courtesy of yours truly, an article relating to Miss Edith's former place of employment, Atticus Bookstore Cafe. Sorry to get all serious on you all, but.... This from the New Haven Advocate.

Political correctness
The Last Word: On the so-called Atticus controversy

NEW HAVEN — The flap in the news about the language policy at Atticus Bookstore and Café has me very upset. The language policy itself does not. I worked at Atticus in the late 1980s and I worked there again from 2004 to 2006. I don’t know owner Charlie Negaro well, but I know him enough to say I’ve had my share of disagreements with him. He’s a complicated and often hard-to-deal with character. It might be an understatement to say that we didn’t get along all that well. However: Negaro is not bigoted, racist or likely to engage in discriminatory behavior.

Negaro is a businessman, down to the bone, and Negaro does what he thinks is best for his business and best for the community he serves. In all the time I worked for Negaro, he and his managers (and I worked under three different general managers, including the current manager, Jean Recapet) have always hired staff entirely without regard to country of origin or ethnic background. What mattered was whether a person would show up for work and do the work well. It never mattered what an employee’s native language was.

The staff of Atticus should not suffer a boycott of the store because of a rash of PC silliness. Negaro and Recapet have done absolutely nothing offensive in posting a policy that English should be spoken at the counters. I assume that the memo was written under stressful conditions borne out of one customer’s complaint, and that Recapet wrote it quickly, doing his best to be both diplomatic and stern so that the staff would get the point and pay attention. Perhaps the policy was not presented as perfectly as one would like; I don’t know, because to be honest I have not read the policy. But I know what it means to work for Negaro.

He’s not the easiest person to work for. But he inspires in some people tremendous loyalty. Those hard workers who put up not only with the crappier aspects of working in the bookstore or the café, but with doing it for Negaro — not an easy proposition — created a work environment in which some employees may come and go. This is always how it is in the bookstore and restaurant businesses. But the core staffers stay and stay and stay. They are loyal to their employer, yes, but really, in the end, they are loyal to the customers and to the business.

Eloi Lira, who has worked at Atticus for more than a decade, is an excellent example of this. He has worked for Negaro so long not because Negaro is a saint, but because Negaro is the owner of a business where Lira has been comfortable working and where he has thrived in many ways since coming to America. This is a credit to Lira, and it is a credit to Negaro. Lira came here from Tlaxcala, Mexico, where he’d been a semi-professional body builder. (Anyone who’s seen Lira lift huge boxes of anything you can imagine will not be surprised to read that: he is astoundingly strong, Lira is.) Lira could have moved on from Atticus a long time ago: He is reliable, he is trustworthy, he’s sharp, he works incredibly hard. He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

But he has stayed on Negaro’s payroll, I think, not because he lacked opportunities in New Haven, but because in the end he’s become part of a community on Chapel Street, which is, simply, a good feeling, and he appreciates it.

Lira doesn’t speak the English of William F. Buckley, but I don’t care, and neither did anyone else who worked with him. I don’t think his customers care. Lira is good at what he does, and that is what matters. I am sure that Negaro appreciates Lira and the job he does. If Negaro doesn’t appreciate Lira, he’s got bigger problems than this nonsense about the “English-at-the-counter, please” language policy.
Those who condemn Negaro for the language policy at Atticus, if I may be so frank, have their heads up their asses. One can want to attack Negaro for any number of reasons, I’m sure, but accusing him of discriminating against Spanish speakers is not one of them. The New Haven Workers Association is, as far as I can tell, a non-entity; poking around online, I kept thinking, “This group was invented solely to make a stink about this language policy, and they’re attacking to drum up publicity for themselves.” Yes, I tend toward ugly thoughts, and I am cynical, but — God help me, I’ve been around this town for years and I’ve never heard of this group. (Though, in typical New Haven fashion, it turns out that its spokeswoman, Deb Malatesta, and I have six mutual friends on Facebook.) And that they’re launching a campaign against Negaro and Atticus now, just a couple of weeks after a New Haven Magazine article about what a sweetheart Negaro is, how community-minded he is? Negaro was, literally, minding his own business when this group attacked, wrongheadedly, relying on the PC-obsessed population of New Haven to back them. The New Haven Workers Association probably meant well, here, at some level, but I think they’ve made a mistake.

In the 1980s, many of the café staff were recent arrivals in the U.S.; I could be wrong but I seem to recall staffers from Ethiopia and Malaysia as well as various South American countries. Over the years, the café staff became overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking. I admit that I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, and that when I worked at Atticus as the book buyer (a job I took in 2004), I often was frustrated by my inability to communicate as well as I liked. But I viewed the failing as mine; and I was fortunate to work with people who’d translate for me. One bookstore staffer who worked with me, and eventually became my superior as bookstore manager, was from Chile, and he was always happy translate for me or anyone else who needed help. Occasionally this came up when trying to plan a special event — a party, a book signing, an off-site event that the bookstore and café were both supporting — but on the whole I did not have trouble working alongside the café staff because of language issues, and it did not trouble me excessively when the staff spoke Spanish to each another.

It is true that sometimes I wondered what was being said about me. I’m sure what was said was often unflattering or unkind. There is a divide between the bookstore staff and the café staff, and sometimes it could turn somewhat antagonistic. This was not because of anyone’s choice of spoken language. It was because we were all working hard for not a lot of money and because we were all under tremendous pressure from Negaro and managers to improve sales in a time when bookstores, and bookstore/cafés, are a dying breed. The bookstore and the café support one another at Atticus. Without the café, the bookstore would be dead; but without the bookstore, Atticus Café would be just another place to buy expensive coffee and sandwiches. The two operations function separately in ways that I don’t think the general public fully understands; for starters, bookstore staff do not work in the café, and café staffers never serve as bookstore clerks. But both operations, and both staffs, need each other, and I think that historically the people working at the café and bookstore have always understood that.

Atticus serves the New Haven and Yale communities in ways that I think go unappreciated. Were Atticus to close, even people who never go there would mourn, I think, not because it’s the best of the best in any category, but because it is one of the few establishments downtown where town and gown really do sit side by side at the counter.

As did the Yankee Doodle (R.I.P.) and the Daily Caffe (also R.I.P.), Atticus welcomes everyone. Distinguished professors, local lawyers, noted actors and playwrights, local eccentrics, young mothers dandling their babies and waiting for naptime, and travelers from all over the world have always been welcome to hang out at Atticus, and they do, in droves.

They would not do that if Charlie Negaro were pushing for an environment in which people felt fundamentally unwelcome. All of us have our flaws, and Negaro is no exception to that. But he is being accused of terrible things that he is not guilty of, and no one is more shocked than I am that I am sitting to write in his defense. The fact is Negaro posted a policy designed not to harass his staffers, to whom he is generally loyal, and whom he supports in surprising ways, but to make customers feel comfortable. He can hardly be blamed for that. In an era when businesses make life more difficult for patrons, Negaro is doing the opposite. —Eva Geertz