Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Selling Houses In the HGTV Era

God save us from the current real estate market. We have just been through the purgatory of what those in the biz and, thanks to HGTV, millions of others now call "staging" a house for sale. If you've not had the pleasure, take it from me: it is the housing equivalent of girdle wearing--of squeezing your protesting, cellulite pocked, middle-aged ass into that pair of pants that were made for the version of you that was two sizes and two decades ago. Only in this case, you're actually doing everything you can to make things look BIGGER, and it's your stuff that's bloated and out of control instead of your gutbuttthigh corridor.

This past weekend was the yard sale on Saturday, frantic preparation Sat night, and an open house on Sunday. In preparation, we frantically removed all the trash from the trash cans, took down all the pictures from the walls, removed all traces of personal memorabilia (read, liquor bottles--that was all that was left from the last round of showings) from the house. We cut fresh flowers, carefully removed all evidence of pet habitation. We trimmed the hedges and weed-whacked. We lit candles and put on soft music. We baked cookies. Well, okay, WE didn't bake cookies, but the realtor manning the open house did. In the end, I couldn't tell if we were trying to seduce the people, or sell them a house. I guess it was a little of both.

This is what people have come to expect. They want fresh paint and curb appeal. They want spacious bedrooms, grandiose baths, amenities, pristine yards, quiet neighborhoods, home warranties. They want guarantees. They want instant access on multiple occasions to see how the light looks in the living room. They want to shop around, and then shop around some more and then come back to the places they originally visited to compare notes. As exhausting as it is to get up every morning and make the bed, pick up all the dog toys that have been strewn about the living room, keep the dishes washed and the clothes put away and the shades at that precise angle that allows the most light to penetrate--as tiresome as it is to have to remember to hide the sweaty workout clothes and keep the cat litter and dog hair swept up, it must be that much more so for the poor realtors. It's like having Leona Helmsley as a client, every time. They are wanted, they have power, and they know they can afford to be high maintenance. HGTV has created a generation of real estate monsters, and some of them will be looking at the house this weekend.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Still Gullible, After All These Years

File this one under the category of I can't believe I didn't know better. Apparently, the scam du jour in Petersburg is to make the rounds of the local businesses, telling the proprietors a sob story of the teller's recent release from incarceration out of state. Of the recent, lonely, dusty bus trip down as far south as he could afford, to The Burg to make a new start. Stop me if you've heard this one.

A young fellow came by the other day and gave me his version. It was actually the second recently incarcerated story I'd heard, which should have sounded some warning bells. But he was clean cut, neat, well-spoken, normal looking. He introduced himself with a handshake, came in and looked around for a minute, then left without buying anything or making any demands. I took him at face value, thinking that Petersburg, with its double the state's unemployment rate, was one heck of a place to pick to make a new start, but whatever. I wished him well, and he went on his way. A couple of weeks later, right after I opened that morning, he was back. He was trying to get on his feet and, cue the foot shuffling embarrassment, he hated to have to ask, but he had just gotten a job and a car, and lo and behold, he knew he shouldn't have parked it there, but, golly gee it was an honest mistake. It was towed. And he was short a very specific $17 to get it out of hock. He was exceptionally polite and earnest. He was deferential and respectful and willing to work for the money. He was also full of shit. I put him to work weed-eating in the mass of weeds that is my parking lot. Five minutes later, the weed whacker was conveniently out of string. I couldn't leave the store to go get more, so I told him he'd have to come back the next day. But he had to get his car out of impound today, he whined, or it was going to cost him an extra $25, which he, of course, wouldn't have. So I gave him $20, took and verified his phone number and told him to come back the next day to finish up. See it coming? It's like a horror movie. Groan now, and brace for gratuitous predictability. Of course, he didn't show up the next day, and he was unreachable by phone. I finally got ahold of him yesterday and told him I was bringing the weed whacker in today and expected him to come do his job. He showed up today, but because it had sprinkled a few drops and was threatening to rain more, begged off until tomorrow.

I had told this story earlier this week to my friend who is a fellow business owner here in Petersburg. Interestingly, she had already made the young man's acquaintance. He had insinuated himself into her business by asking to use the bathroom a couple of times, telling his prison story in the process. Today, she called me with a crazy happenstance. Mike came by and told her his car was towed again last night! He needed $18 from my friend to get it out of hock! Can you believe the coincidence? I can't. Especially since I've been in this downtown every day for over a year and have yet to see anything resembling parking violation enforcement.

So, shame on me. I've been all over the world and half of Georgia, and I still can't tell when I'm being had. But these kinds of incidents always lead me to wonder--is it better to be cynical and undupeable? Or is it better to trust and believe the best about our fellow humans, in spite of repeated incidents of evidence to the contrary? I have a theory called the Theory of Universal Justice. It states very simply that people DO get what they deserve, whether good or bad. We may not get to see it, but it happens every day. We don't get to be in charge of that, so we might as well not get our drawers in a wad about it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Sinatra Garden

As I've previously written, I plan to move the store to a more visible location as soon as I'm able to sell this building. So logic dictates that I don't spend a bunch of (okay, any) money on physical improvements at the store at the moment. This makes sense to me on a cerebral level. On a more visceral level, I decided a few days ago that I can no longer take driving up to the industrial wasteland of my storefront. I can live with the fact that there are bald spots around the door from my last ill-advised attempt at decorating (duct tape was involved). I can handle that the bathroom has all the monotone personality of Ben Stein. I can deal with the dust bowl of the adjacent parking lot...well, on most days. I cannot take the bland wilderness of white grass and weeds staring at me as I walk down the hill to start my day of bookselling. So this past week, I planted the Sinatra Memorial Garden in the front center flower bed. I call it that because, if those plants can make it there, they're gonna make it anywhere. In spite of a solid couple of months of strenuous preparation last summer, the bed remains a curious hodgepodge of dirt, rock, peat and old car parts. Couple this with my general tendency to mess up anything green that requires the remotest level of care, and we may have herbal homicide before the summer. The petunias are already looking mighty peaked. If they come back around, I'll post some pictures.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Subject of My Latest Rant: Piracy

Anyone who has been breathing air for the past couple of weeks now knows that there is an epidemic of modern-day piracy off the coast of Somalia. Anyone who has been there knows that this is not new. Pirates have been operating with impunity in the lawless waters off the Horn of Africa for many years. It's only with the seizure of the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama with its all-American crew that the problem has blipped onto our national radar scope. Cue the knee-jerk response, preferably one flavored with a gunslinger mentality more suited to the wild west. The sleeping giant of national righteous indignation has awakened and, boy, is he mad! He's slobbering, lashing out, ranting. I can't BELIEVE the most powerful Navy in the world can't stop a few third-rate thugs in dinghies with outboard motors. We've got Aegis missile destroyers on station, helicopters, large caliber guns, hundreds of sailors and special forces operators. They've got a couple of RPGs and machine guns in boats that are barely seaworthy, and we can't take 'em out? Jesus H. Christ. It makes me wish for George W. Bush. I may be putting a few words in his mouth.

Ironically, it was on Bush's watch that the problem grew to these proportions. That's not to say it's his fault. He certainly had more than enough on his plate to keep him busy. When the city is burning around them, most folks don't worry about what color to paint the living room. But now that we've had our attention grabbed: Piracy off the Horn of Africa is a multi-faceted problem that will require a multi-pronged approach to solve. I've talked with a lot of people recently who can't get their brains around why the U.S., in particular, can't do something about it. But here's the thing, Somalia's coast line is approximately the same length as the eastern seaboard of the United States. Unclassified source documentation has chronicled attacks over 300 nautical miles from the Somali coast. Do the multiplication, and you have several thousand square miles that would need to be patrolled consistently to even make a dent in the pirates' habits. Even if a merchant ship can get a call out to a patrolling warship on VHF radio, there are a couple of problems with that as well. 1) the warship would have to be within 20-30 miles to even hear the distress call and 2) they'd have to be considerably closer than that to do anything about it in a timely manner. Add all this to the chameleon acts of the pirates themselves (the same guys who were pirates on one outing may have been fishermen on the last one, and may well be fishermen again on the next one), and you have a real time-distance problem. Somalia is the end of the food chain logistically, so any military action is complicated by replenishment and basing issues. A couple of years ago, shipping authorities responded to the increased piracy threat by issuing warnings to stay at least 200 miles off the coast of Somalia. The pirates responded to this by working out a new tactic that enables them to reach ships further from the coast. Then there's the minor inconvenience that most of the ships that have been hijacked recently have been BOUND for Somalia, which also makes it difficult to stay well off the coast. All that to say this: If Iraq didn't teach us anything else, it should have taught us that military action is not the end all, be all. Without the creation of a strong central government, without proactive engagement on the land side, without an economic strategy that brings Somalis out of the abject poverty that makes piracy so attractive, nothing done on the sea will have much effect. It's a big problem that, so far, has not been deemed worth pursuing. A few million paid out by shipping companies to get their ships and crews back unharmed has been considered the price of sailing the seas off of Somalia. Now the ante has been upped. It will be interesting to see how, and indeed if, the new administration responds to the groggy giant of national consciousness.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Occupational Hazards

When I got out of the military and opened the bookstore, I thought my days of living dangerously were over. I reflected with gratitude that I had survived brushes with ebola, Hezbollah and Saddam Hussein to embrace the bookish, professorial lifestyle of a book maven. I thought the worst hazard of this job would be an occasional papercut. Oh, to have the halcyon days of pre-bookstore naivete back.
Last weekend, I cleaned up after my first toilet accident. I don't mean the toilet overflowed. If you've followed this blog from back in the Myspace days, you know we should be (knock on wood) immune from that for quite some time. I mean, yes, worst case scenario--activate the hazardous materials response team. Well, it just so happens that like most other titles associated with this business, I am also captain and sole member of the Hazmat response team. You might think that a bookstore is a strange place to have any need for a Hazmat response team. You might think this a more likely scenario in a bar, or even a restaurant. At 11 am last Saturday, I would have thought the same. At 12, I was dry heaving and cleaning up the big nasty. An elderly gentleman had apparently taken the military slang name for the trash can literally and relieved himself all over it and the surrounding area, and with a most unfortunate constitution to boot. I'm not telling this story to put his business out there. I know he didn't know what he was doing and, more than anything, I felt great empathy for him. But the younger woman who was with him, who went in there after him and made only a single swipe at the mess before heading for the hills, now she could have done a little better by the old KBster. As embarrassing as it would have been, if she didn't want to or couldn't clean it up herself, she might have at least told me and spared me the ten minutes of wandering around the shop, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from (and worrying in the back of my mind that, somehow, my sewer problems were back). Regardless, there I was, alone in the shop, and the buck stopped with me. So I worked through it. Unfortunately, I had also had a few drinks the night before, so it was doubly painful. I managed to avoid adding to the mess, but just barely. Fast forward a week...

This morning, I came in early to sweep and mop the store. Because I'm situated next to the Dust Bowl (the tattoo parlor parking lot is unpaved--a combination of gravel, dirt and trash), this is a fairly frequent occurrence that I've pretty much gotten down to a science. So I finished that up in short order and went out on my deck that juts out over the creek out back to give it some much needed attention. I noticed that I had some impressive weeds growing from the wall at one end, an eyesore my patrons surely did not need to see as they sat out and enjoyed their coffee and the sound of running water. Tree hugger that I am, I dismissed the idea of coming inside and grabbing my herbicidal sprayer. I congratulated myself on my environmental stewardship, crouched down to reach through my wrought iron railing and commenced to pulling weeds. First one, no problem. Second one, cool. Third one, oh my God, is that a snake? I won't keep you in suspense. It was. A little juvenile SOMETHING coiled up tight under what had formerly been its private green room. My mind always goes to worst case scenario, so naturally whatever it actually was became the meanest individual of a poisonous species lying in wait. So the strange blend of National Geographic, Man vs Wild and the Crocodile Hunter started playing in my head. Yep, the juveniles, they're always the meanest ones too. Blimey! He's a beaut! Their venom is concentrated because they don't know how to control the dosage. He has a small mouth, but he could bite me in the space between my fingers and kill me! Oh Lord, what to do? I don't want to hurt him--he's a beaut aint he?--but one wrong move and... So I ended up taking an ashtray off a nearby table and carefully raking him into the creek below. I watched him swim off before shakily retreating to the store to retrieve my herbicide sprayer. I love all of nature but, hell, it ain't worth DYING over.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Here's My Sign

One of the more tedious aspects to my current situation is that everyone who reads the gaudy For Sale sign out front with the Business Relocating attachment comes in and asks the obvious question of where the business is relocating TO. Well-intentioned people who aren't satisfied with my stock answer of shrug/"Don't know yet" will ask further questions that proceed inevitably down the same line, and I invariably give up little chunks on information at a time, until I run through the same spiel several times a day of, "Well, I have to sell this building first and then see what's available. I can't afford to pay a mortgage and rent at the same time. I'm looking for a place out toward the main drag, where I can have better visibility and some foot traffic. Probably somewhere on Sycamore St." After several dozen cycles of lather, rinse, repeat, this has almost become verbatim phraseology...and a Pavlovian response. I hear chimes (like the ones that jangle when someone opens my door) and automatically launch into it. I'm thinking of recording it and just hitting play when someone walks in. Or posting a sign on the door. Or wearing one around my neck like the little bus-shaped signs the kindergarten teacher hung around your neck with yarn that reminded you of which bus to get on, in case you forgot. I'm brainstorming here.
Not that I'm complaining. Okay, yes I am. But I at least recognize that I shouldn't be complaining. That counts for something, right? What is a blog, really, except a personal electronic bully pulpit? If I really wanted to complain about something, I should raise hell about the fact that, with the warmer spring weather, has come a return of Crap Alley. I picked up one fresh pile not four feet away from my Dog Relief Station the other, only to step in another fresh pile buried in a pile of weeds. I finished weedeating, left that pair of shoes on top of my trunk to air out, forgot them and only remembered when I looked up to see only one of the pair in my rearview mirror. I retrieved the other one from the middle of Sycamore Street. But I digress. I wish I could say the question and answer scenario plays out several hundred times a day, because that would mean several hundred people are walking in the door (or that I'm on reality television). But the fact that I haven't yet had to make a sign is further testament to the fact that I need to relocate.