Today I toured a former mint. The mint is in San Francisco, and hasn’t made any currency in almost 80 years, and it is not heated, and it’s January, and very cold, even here in sunny northern California. But the building is beautiful, ornate, raw and, for the most part, empty. So that’s why I’m here, with some friends and some city officials: we’re trying to take over the building, temporarily at least, and instead of making money, we’re hoping to make things that make money.
Let me explain.
About a year ago, I had an idea for something I called the Mid-Market Makers’ Mart. The idea was to create a space where people who make things, anything from clocks to surfboards to toys to jewellery, could both make their products and sell them directly to consumers. Most of these craftspeople can’t afford to open and run their own retail operations, and for an independent craftsperson, finding and dealing with retail outlets can be a full-time job in itself. So I envisioned a large space in which makers could lease smaller spaces, between 200 and 1,000 square feet, each booth a combination workspace and retail counter, the whole space open to the public. I figured it might be a way to celebrate small-manufacturing, a way for visitors to see how stuff is made, and an ideal place to buy locally-made goods directly from the people who make them.
Everyone knows these ideas – buy local food, support local farmers – have been revolutionising the food world for a decade now. In San Francisco, we have the Ferry Building, where dozens of local foodmakers are housed in one beautiful waterfront space. The concept works for everyone. The food purveyors share foot traffic – about 3m people a year – and locals and tourists have a great destination, where they can spend a few hours, eat lunch, and buy everything from wine made in Napa to cheese made in Mendocino.
So the Mid-Market Makers Mart would be the same thing, but for the makers of objects. This was my idea back in early 2012, an idea I pitched to small manufacturers, educators, city officials and developers. And every time I pitched it, I half-hoped someone would tell me it was a terrible or unworkable idea, because I have none of the concrete expertise – in small manufacturing, real estate, renovating former mints – necessary to make it happen.
But so far, no one’s told me what I wanted to hear. Instead, too many people have said yes. Erik Katz, who has vast experience as a maker and an organiser of makers, is aboard, as is Amy Cohen, who works at City Hall and tries to facilitate loony ideas like this. Now I’m hoping better-qualified people like this continue to refine the notion and make it real. Because the only thing that doesn’t make sense about the idea is why I’m involved at all.
I’ll jump ahead a few days, and try to explain.
I’m back in my home town, about 30 miles north of Chicago. I’m on a very short book tour, signing copies of my latest book, which has among its themes the decline of manufacturing in the US generally, and Chicago specifically. Researching this book, and lamenting the fact that so few things are made on American soil, prompted, to some extent, this whole MMMM drive. That and nostalgia, and the belief that something very human and specific is transferred from the maker to the object he or she makes, and thus how and where things are made – and by whom – these things matter.
I learnt this when I was 13, and am thinking about this as I drive past my old school, Deer Path Junior High. It looks exactly the same as it always did, but about 10 years ago they removed one of my favourite things about the school, the wood and metal shop. When I was at Deer Path, we had a choice between taking either home economics or taking what was called “shop”. I chose shop, and that meant I chose the longtime shop teacher, Mr Siden.
I had just spent the winter shovelling snow from neighbours’ driveways, at $8 a pop, to save up money for a new stereo, and was determined to build a home – a castle! – for that stereo. So from a catalogue, I got the dimensions of the stereo, measured my tapes and records, and then designed a three-storey cabinet that would hold and honour said stereo.
I took the sketch to Mr Siden, and he pointed out things I might not have thought of. Didn’t I need room above the record player so I could put the records on to the turntable? What about middle supports for the record-holding area? Then, after a few more sketches, each one more disciplined and detailed, he explained the process of translating the sketch into discrete pieces. We drew pictures of each piece of lumber I’d need, and when he was satisfied with the logic of every element, he instructed me how to go to the hardware store to purchase the wood. When I told him what kind of wood I wanted – walnut – he explained the difference between the cost of walnut and the cost of getting plywood covered in a walnut veneer. Given I was spending my snow-shovelling money, I opted for the veneer-covered ply. So my mom brought me to the lumber yard, I ordered the wood, brought it back to class, and cut it, using a massive table saw available to the students. We were 13.
Then Mr Siden guided me through the assembly of the cabinet, using dowels and wood glue and the occasional nail or wood screw, and when I was finished, the thing actually looked like a real cabinet. What Mr Siden got out of us kids, who some days could barely tie our shoes, was astonishing. Two weeks earlier, there had been no cabinet. Then it had been an idea. Then a sketch. Then a better sketch. Then a pile of wood. Then a pile of cut wood. Then an object that had real utility.
I took it home, inserted my new stereo – it fit so well – and then my records and tapes. The feeling of satisfaction was profound. And the thing held up! It lasted eight years, all through college, and before leaving Illinois, because it wouldn’t fit in my car, I gave it to some friends and left for California. I still miss that cabinet. It meant the world to me.
But the last time I saw Mr Siden, he told me that many years ago they’d removed shop class from the Deer Path curriculum. All those saws, sanders, soldering guns, glue and stain – all that planning and execution of three-dimensional things – that’s gone. Make way for more computers!
And I know I’m in the minority but I think that’s a shame. I’m not anti-computer – I’m typing on one – but it doesn’t all have to be keyboards and screens, does it?
Erik Katz and I are sitting, drinking beer after work and wondering aloud how this will all happen. Should we rent out the mint? Some other building? Maybe someone will buy us a building, we think. Will the idea take off? Does anyone care about who made what and where? Pressing questions, and I’ll be very curious to find out the answers. Just as long as those more able than I lead the way.
‘A Hologram for the King’ (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) by Dave Eggers, has just been published