In the summer of 2004, Francisco and I found ourselves in an awkward and unexpected situation.
Earlier that year, we had both left our non-lucrative but stable jobs in the social work field–he as a counselor for men about to be released from prison; me as the assistant director of an adult day treatment center–to, of all things, start an art gallery specializing in Latin American and Caribbean art.
The reasons why we did this were varied–we lived in a neighborhood that was being called “the next SoHo”; we had an incredible space that lent itself to showing art; and we liked art. We also liked the idea of being able to channel the altruistic aspects of ourselves that had led us into social work, into helping emerging and early-career artists become more established and self-sufficient.
We did not, however, establish the gallery because we had a profound knowledge of art.
That would come later.
Our vision for the gallery evolved quickly, tempered, as so many new businesses are, by the realities of our setting, the market, and our prospective customers. We’d originally intended to mount full exhibits (which we did), but we also realized that many of our neighbors either didn’t have the money to purchase art; had the money but didn’t use their discretionary income to buy art; or were itinerant neighbors, living in the area because they were on a short assignment with the United Nations or a consulate or embassy, who did not invest in items that connoted a permanent lifestyle. Given these variables, we realized we needed to diversify our offerings, mixing the pricier pieces of art with smaller ticket handcrafts and practical items.
So the timing seemed right, then, when a man I’ll call Stefan entered our life. Stefan was the husband of an acquaintance; a former military official in a South American country, he was busying himself during retirement by salvaging wood and metal from colonial-era haciendas and churches that had, he told us, been abandoned, and turning these into custom furniture pieces, the likes of which the US hasn’t seen in decades.
Stefan’s furniture was gorgeous, and from what we could tell, he was running a legitimate business, treating his workers fairly, and generating jobs in smaller towns in his country. He was reportedly doing a brisk trade in Miami, and he was eager to tap the New York market. His problem was, he wasn’t sure how or where to gain entry to that market, as it functioned differently than Miami. Plus, he didn’t speak English, so the introduction to us seemed fortuitous for everyone: We would exhibit and sell Stefan’s smaller items–jewelry boxes, mirrors, picture frames– on consignment. He would be able to say he was selling in New York and, hopefully, use his relationship with us as his first clients to drum up some more business.
Though the gallery was ample in size, we made it clear to Stefan that we wanted a very limited “muestra” of his smaller items. Our business was decidedly notbrisk, and we didn’t want to take on more items than we thought we might be able to sell. We certainly didn’t want king sized bed frames or armoires, which we were fairly certain we couldn’t sell.
And then the container arrived.
There were jewelry boxes and picture frames, all right. But there were also wine cabinets, dinner tables with chairs for 12, wardrobes, and an assortment of mid-sized furniture we weren’t even sure we’d be able to accommodate. And as a “bonus,” Stefan threw in dozens of religious paintings, dust collectors, junk jewelry, and an assortment of small items he’d been accumulating to diversify his export business.
We were horrified.
The container had been shipped from South America to the port of New York and here was Stefan, bringing us “just a part” of the container in a U-Haul truck. Telling him to take it back didn’t feel like an option, though we were clear that business was slow… really, really slow. Stefan didn’t seem to mind; he said he–and by extension, we– had “the whole summer” to move the inventory, and he was confident we’d be able to do that. He’d set the price he wanted; we could mark it up if we wanted to; and he would pay us a commission. We would retain the contacts we acquired, and would not be required to disclose them. We shook over a pisco sour Stefan directed Francisco to make in our blender.
By the way, did we have an extra bedroom? Stefan was sticking around to supervise, but had neglected to make arrangements for accommodations.
Thus, Stefan moved into our guest bedroom for the summer, and watched TV in the air-conditioned bliss of our home for six weeks, grazing through our fridge, while Francisco and I busted our asses not only trying to turnover the inventory in the gallery, but to hit the streets with our very own trunk show of Stefan’s goods.
Barely a year into our relationship, Francisco and I learned a lot about each other that summer. I discovered how utterly generous and uncomplaining he is–so generous with Stefan that we nearly broke up– and he discovered how fiercely I protect my home space. I learned how well he can generate a sale, largely by talking and listening to people, and he realized how resourceful and observant I am and how well I knew New York, suggesting a dozen places where we could start hustling this furniture that we needed to move.
We made a fantastic team.
The work was hard core: long, hot, humid days, made more intense by the anxiety of this burden. The gallery, which was already sputtering along, was shuttered for most of the day as we went to meet with furniture buyers for ABC, Bloomingdales, and vendors in the New York Design and Decorators Center… which we shouldn’t have even been allowed into in the first place. Most days were characterized by complete disappointment and deflation, but on some days, we had the dumbest luck that we’d laugh for an hour straight, sure that the tide was about to turn. We were about to sell this stuff and move on.
Usually, though, the luck was just that: a chance encounter that was briefly adrenaline inducing, but ultimately went nowhere.
Until we talked ourselves right into a full-fledged deal.
We had learned a lot about furniture that summer, teaching ourselves all there was to know about the construction of desks, tables, chairs, and bed frames: tongue and groove joints, dovetail joints, framing, finishing, distressing, caning…. Eventually, I suppose, our knowledge base was actually deep enough that our elevator speech was convincing, rather than the transparently ignorant chit chat that must have characterized our novice efforts during our first days in the trenches. Plus, the furniture really was good, and the quality spoke for itself. The aesthetic wasn’t one that was popular in New York at the time, but we finally found the right prospective buyer. “I’ll buy the whole container,” he said, after consulting the inventory of goods. “And I’ll buy it for $500,000.”
I don’t remember what Francisco and I did when we went back out into the blinding, withering sun that afternoon, but I suspect it involved spending money we didn’t have but were sure was (now) coming soon on a bottle of wine. We were thrilled and relieved… we’d done it. We’d taken on a task that we hadn’t even really been obligated to take on and we’d absolutely, totally killed it. We’d tell Stefan that we’d sold the container, we’d hand the check over to him, and he’d give us our commission.
And then Stefan had a melt-down.
Rather than be thrilled that none of us needed to worry about a full container of huge pieces of furniture sitting in a port, incurring daily storage fees, Stefan had decided $500,000 wasn’t enough. He also wanted the name and contact information of the buyer, which we were unwilling to give. We had specifically agreed–albeit verbally– that any sale would be that: our sale. In other words, we’d keep our contacts and would have no obligation to pass them on to him.
The sale had so buoyed our confidence, that Francisco and I actually thought we might expand upon our handshake and smile deal with Stefan and formalize a long-term relationship. By that time, we were confident in our knowledge and in Francisco’s selling skills that we were pretty sure we could help Stefan achieve his market penetration goals in New York City. We’d also become genuinely interested in furniture. And we had learned–in a way that Stefan couldn’t because he didn’t speak English and because he was holed up in our deliciously cool apartment all day– what buyers in New York wanted and what they avoided. It seemed like a mutually beneficial business relationship.
When Stefan asked for the buyer’s name and contact information, we refused. He said he would make the sale impossible, refusing to actually release the goods, which we expected was a bluff; how would he possibly pass up the money, continue to accrue expenses on the container’s storage, and miss the opportunity to establish himself in New York? We stood our ground. And he stood his. Finally, he did it. He called off the deal. And with no furniture, we obviously could not make good on our agreement with Bob.
We had to inform him that the seller had changed his mind.
We knew that the same kind of opportunity–the chance to sell half a million worth of niche furniture in a competitive, specific market like New York–probably wouldn’t come again. Nor, probably, would the opportunity for us to make so much money in a single deal. And we were in fairly desperate financial straits, so the commission we’d make was significant to us. But as we talked about whether we were going to do it– hand Stefan the contact and the deal we’d busted our asses all summer to make–we realized that it was easier to walk away from the money than it was to let him change the rules by which we’d all agreed to abide, and that relationships of any sort that are based on greed and the mistrust that arises out of treating others unfairly are never going to benefit us. We committed to each other that we’d stand on our principles.
Even if it meant walking away from half a million dollars.
Nearly 10 years later, do I regret that decision?
Not for a second.
In fact, though our relationship with Stefan ended immediately (as did his leisurely summer in our home), it would not be the last time one or both of us would face a similar dilemma, that of deciding whether to stick to our principles or to let someone else dictate the terms by which we’d live or do business. I’m not talking, here, of sheer stubbornness (though we’re both as hard-headed as mules). I’m talking of taking an articulated, specific stand when someone wants to take advantage of a situation for their own sole benefit, rather than for the shared good.
I’ve recently been confronted with a few situations where these kinds of decisions have had to be made, and each time, the angry red face of Stefan has flickered across my mental viewfinder. I’ve needed the money (and, as a parent, the stakes of needing money seem to be a hell of a lot higher than they were a decade ago, when we didn’t have a child), I’ve wanted the career advancement that an opportunity has seemed to present, and I’ve felt that I brought a lot to the table that made a partnership mutually beneficial. But when I’ve developed and shared a business model or component of one and then had it appropriated, miscredited (or not credited at all), and then watched as a supposed business partner threatened (or did) walk away with a deal or money, or both, I’ve realized that as much as I wanted that deal–and as much as the early signs seemed to suggest the timing was right for a partnership to be established– I never wanted it so much that I’d make a pact to get anything less than I deserved or would agree to terms that were unfair for myself or for anyone else.
And I hope sharing this will encourage you to stand up for yourself in the same way.