What The Market Will Bear

Cynic: A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

A few months ago, in the course of fulfilling some social obligation or another, I was introduced as a "published author" to another fellow.

"Really?" the guy said. "What’s your book about?"

"It’s about building bamboo fly rods," I replied. This can be a tricky part of the conversation, because ninety percent of the people I’m introduced to have no idea what a bamboo fly rod is, let alone why you’d need a book about building one. Outside the fly fishing fraternity, as soon as you say "bamboo," most people flash to an image of Huck Finn dangling a cane pole off a raft. "Hey, my Uncle Clyde likes to fish," they say. "Maybe I should get him your book." Maybe, but I feel compelled to explain that not everyone who likes to fish is a flyfisher (flyfishing is the kind where you wave the line back and forth), and not everyone who flyfishes would want a bamboo rod, and not everyone who might want a bamboo rod has any interest in building one. It’s a pretty small niche, as my publisher could tell you.

"Yeah, I guess Uncle Clyde mostly throws his lures in the water and tows them behind his boat," the person will say. "But I’m sure your book is interesting. How DO you make a bamboo fish pole?"

"Fly rod. Certainly I find making bamboo rods interesting, but not everyone does, and it’s a lengthy process that takes a few minutes to describe even briefly, so stop me anytime. You see, there nearly fifteen hundred varieties of bamboo in the world, and out of those, only one variety is usable for fly rods. This variety is called Arundinaria Amabilis, which means The Lovely Reed, which happens to be the title of my book. It grows in China, where it is used for everthing from chopsticks to furniture to scaffolding – sometimes it’s called "the two-by-four of China." I buy it from an importer, and it comes as poles that are twelve feet long and over two inches in diameter. Bamboo is very tough and springy, but it splits easily, so to make a rod first I split the pole, which is called a culm, into six strips . . . "

At this point, my audience is either in it for the long haul or spots a long-lost friend over my shoulder. If he makes it past node straightening into planing forms and binding machines he’ll probably make it to the end, but I have a low, droning voice that has been known to put 911 operators to sleep, so if his eyes start to roll back in his head, I try to spot a long-lost friend over his shoulder.
Like I said, it’s tricky. You don’t want to snub a genuine curiosity, but you don’t want to go through the whole spiel for someone who won’t remember anything other than what a bamboo rod can cost. My audience this particular night showed little interest in the number of varieties of bamboo in the world, and cut right to the chase.

"Didja ever sell ‘em?"

"Well, yes," I replied, "I have sold them in the past, but not very many. I can’t really afford to make more than five or six a year right now, because otherwise I wouldn’t have time to make a living."

"How much do you charge?"

Uh-oh. I’ve been down this road before, too. It’s kind of like when someone asks what I get paid for being a musician – people who have the gall to ask are usually evenly split between those who are surprised at how much I get paid for "playing" and those who are surprised that I get paid at all.

"Well," I said, "It depends on the rod. There are things that can make a rod fancier and more work to build, and corners you can cut if you have to save time, but I guess a ballpark figure these days would be fourteen or fifteen hundred bucks."

"Fifteen hundred bucks?!" the guy screeched. "How do you get people to pay fifteen hundred bucks for a fish pole?"

"Fly rod. Yeah, it’s a great racket," I said. "It only takes sixty hours of your life and a couple hundred bucks worth of materials to make one. That's after you've either made or bought a bunch of tools and machines and paid for your shop space, heat, and electricity, and after you've made enough rods for free that you've learned how to make goods ones that have earned a reputation and created enough demand to justify your price. Figure at least a couple of years for that. You could probably do it yourself. Would you like to buy a book?"

"How much is the book?"

"Fifty bucks."

"FIFTY BUCKS?" he screeched.

"Well, it’s a big book."

"I still don’t understand why someone would pay so much for a fis . . . fly rod," he grumbled. "That’s a lotta dough to catch fish."

"It’s the tip of the iceberg," I said, scanning desperately for someone I could wink into posing as a long-lost friend. "But let me tell you a story . . ."

One of my best friends is a professional violist and avocational motorcyclist, though a casual observer could easily assume it’s the other way around. Dick is a blue-chip musician who has played in a major symphony for 30-something years, and is also one of the fastest, smoothest riders you’ll ever see anywhere. He is a talented person of strong emotions and vast enthusiasm, and I can’t say that I’ve ever known him to do anything halfway. Perhaps I should have known better, but a year or so I introduced him to home-roasting coffee. One of his stronger passions is for coffee. He buys roasted coffee wholesale from a company in New York and distributes it among friends and colleagues to the tune of 800 pounds or so a year, so when I started roasting my own, I thought he might be interested. You know, just to see what it’s like.

It wasn’t too much later that I walked into his kitchen and found him standing over his stove in more or less the same posture as a heron preparing to spear a fish, furiously cranking the handle of a stovetop popcorn popper, out of which was billowing smoke. A cookie sheet leaned over the stove on one side in an attempt to direct some of the smoke into the straining oven exhaust. On the other side, a hand saw was wedged between the stove and the cabinet with a work light clipped to it so that it shone into the popper, and there were jars and jars and plastic containers and more jars scattered about the kitchen, most of them full of coffee beans, some green, some roasted. If Dick hadn’t been staring so intently at the popper, I would have seen the mad gleam in his eyes.

"Goddamn you, this is your fault," Dick yelled at me as I slid onto a stool. "I needed this hobby like I needed another hole in my ass," he continued, grabbing a metal colander and pouring the reeking contents of the popper into it. Dashing out to his back porch, he poured the smoking beans back and forth from one colander into another, blowing across them in midair so that little brown husks separated from the beans fell like confetti. The steps, ground, and railing were covered with husks, and the smell of roasting coffee (which smells nothing like brewing coffee) filled the air. "Somebody called the fire department about an hour ago," he said.

Predictably, Dick hadn’t even paused on his way over the top. He roasted for hours at a time, bought green beans in batches of ten, twenty, fifty pounds and threw away any of his roasted beans that didn’t meet his exacting requirements. It was my fault, I suppose, but it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be done that way. The way I did it was to dump two cups of green beans into the Whirly-Pop on high heat, crank until the beans went past the soft, popcorn-like puffs of first crack into the dry, electric-spark snapping of second crack, dump the beans in my colander, blow off the husks, and that was it. That’s what I’d drink until it was gone, and if some roasts were better than others, well, that fit in with just about everything else in my life.

Dick had an elaborate ritual, watching temperature and time and color like a hawk, and wanted to get the absolute best out of every different variety of bean.
"Here, try this," Dick said, pouring coffee into my favorite mug, which says "Triumph Motorcycles" on one side and "Winter Sucks" on the other. "It’s one part light Columbian, one part Kenyan, one part Costa Rican and one part a darker-roast Columbian." It was wonderful: thick, rich, nutty, with the slightest hint of a dozen things. Good things. I looked over my mug at Dick, who was beaming. And I got it.

"Does this have anything to do with fly rods?" demanded my audience.
"Maybe not," I said, but I think you’ll find the next part interesting."

Pretty soon everybody in Dick’s and my circle of friends became aware of his virtuosity with a Whirly-Pop. He had always served a good cup of coffee, but now a visit to Dick’s would include coffee that could be so good and so different from the last cup of coffee that had blown your mind that it was a little psychedelic. Occasionally he would dole out samples of his roasted beans, and one day he gave some to Dave and Rebecca, architechts and motorcyclists, which they wound up serving to clients at a meeting. One thing led to another, as they say.

"Mr. Holland?" inquired the woman’s voice on the phone. "My husband had some of your coffee, and asked me to buy some from you for a party we’re hosting this weekend."

"No problem," said Dick. "I buy it wholesale from Schapira’s in New York. It costs six bucks a pound, but to get that price, you have to buy it in seven-pound bags. I usually have Columbian, Columbian decaf, French roast and Italian roast on hand, but if you want something else I may have to order it for you, which would put it out of reach for this weekend. Did your husband mention what he wanted?"

"I’m not sure, now," the woman said. "This doesn’t sound right. My husband said that you roast the coffee yourself."

"Ohhhhhhhhh, that," said Dick. "No no no no no. I’m sorry, that coffee isn’t for sale. It takes me a long time to roast it because I do it in very small batches, and besides, it’s different every time. I can’t sell something I can’t reproduce."

"I’ll tell my husband," the woman said.

"Mr. Holland?" inquired the man’s voice on the phone. "I’d like to talk to you about your coffee."

"You can’t afford it," said Dick.

"Perhaps you’ll let me be the judge of that," said the man. "How much is it?"

"Two hundred forty dollars a pound," said Dick.

Slight pause. "How do you figure?"

"Well," said Dick, "What I do is roast five ounces of green beans at a time in a popcorn popper on my stove. It takes me three to four hours to roast a whole pound. If you want to buy coffee, I have to put a value on my time. I work for a musical organization that is convinced that it can’t get me any cheaper than what they pay me. Two hundred forty bucks a pound is what my time is worth in roasted coffee. I don’t expect you to pay it, but I’ll be damned if I’ll work for less."

"That’s entirely reasonable," said the man. "I’ll be right over."

Half an hour later, a shiny black BMW 740i pulled up outside Dick’s house, and the man walked away with a pound of coffee and 240 fewer dollars. As an epilogue, the following Monday the man called Dick to say that the coffee had represented approximately three percent of the total cost of the party, and had by far made the greatest impression of any of the comestibles on his guests, none of whom knew what it cost, but all of whom were valued friends and associates.

"OK, so some rich idiot paid $240 for a pound of coffee," grunted my audience. "And some people will pay $1500 for a fish pole. So what?"

"Oh, nothing, I guess," I said, finally spotting a long-lost friend. "You just seemed interested in what things cost."

® 2002 by Jack Howell



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