Mike, an old friend, sent me an email that had me spinning back in time. He wrote, “I am sure there is a story here. Awhile back, we brought a mobile piece of equipment to an engineer’s office for them to examine. In the hallway were all these buckets of binders, headed for recycling.”
Mike attached a photo of this to his email. The buckets were thick with fat binders. They looked sad and confused, like old people on a bus trip who knew they were going someplace, but not sure where.
“When I started working for reps,” Mike continued, “they expected me to travel to engineers’ offices, reconnect, meet and greet, engage, inform and update their product knowledge. Online access to all things, and an incessant need for continuing education credits, has changed this routine forever. On top of this, many engineering firms are run like law firms with billable hours nowadays. It’s tougher to chat with these people.
“I suppose this presents new opportunities for those who can adapt, but I’m not sure if it’s better than what we once had.”
So back in time I spun. When I worked for the rep, we had a classy woman named Gerda who lived in Manhattan and called on New York City mechanical engineers, of which there are many. Her purpose was to keep their catalogs up to date and she did a fine job of that.
The folks we represented were forever upgrading and adding products, tweaking performance specs, and making the product literature look slicker and more modern. Gerda would taxi all over Manhattan with her big cloth bag filled with expensive, glossy paper. The engineers were always happy to see her because she brought them news and kept them up to date. Those days are gone.
We had a special room called the Library, but it wasn’t a library in the classic sense. No books to borrow. Our library housed an honest-to-goodness Xerox machine that was as large as a desk and gobbled this nasty powdered ink that came in quart-sized bottles. We had to pour that black powder into the bowels of this noisy, jamming beast and lean way back as we did so.
The clattering mailing machine we used to send out a monthly contractor newsletter I wrote called “The Problem Solver” was located in the Library. I spent weeks in public libraries throughout the metro New York City area, handwriting the names and addresses of about 5,000 heating contractors from the local Yellow Pages. That’s how we built our mailing list.
We had those names and addresses stamped onto metal plates that sat in steel drawers. We fed those drawers into the noisy machine, which grabbed each plate and stamped the information onto the paper newsletters. Again and again and again.
The Library also contained shelf after shelf of our product catalogs, each 3-in. thick. The woman who worked in our office put these together. During the summers, the staff’s young sons and daughters would show up as part-timers to help with this task. Their goal was to fill the shelves. When done, it looked like the Rockettes were up there and all ready to go. Contractors who were receiving “The Problem Solver” newsletter would call and ask for a catalog. Whoopee!
There was a problem, though.
The cost of connecting
“I’m going to visit some contractors on Long Island and I’d like to bring them some new catalogs,” I’d say. “They’re asking for them.”
“Who are these contractors?” the Lady in Charge asked me. I mentioned their names. “Do they buy our products?” she asked.
“Well, I think they would if they knew more about what we had to offer. That’s why I want to bring them the catalogs.”
“Do you know how much work goes into putting those catalogs together?” the Lady in Charge asked me. “Do you have any idea what each one costs?”
“I know it takes you and the kids a long time,” I said. “I don’t know what it costs.”
“Yes, it does take a long time, and it is expensive, and we finally have all the shelves in the Library filled.”
“I can see that. It looks great. May I have some to give out?”
“I’ll have to let you know,” the Lady in Charge said.
I was thinking that nobody in the Library was going to give us an order but that didn’t seem to make a difference. The Lady in Charge was thinking her job was to make binders until the shelves were filled and then to keep those shelves filled. I was messing that up.
Binders mattered a lot in those days.
A contractor was retiring. He sent an email saying, “Dan, I’m going to Florida and I don’t want to throw out all these old binders I’ve saved throughout the years. You want them?”
Of course I did. And they arrived like those funky-smelling old guys on the bus. They ambled up onto my shelves and told me stories about all the places they had been, all the things they had seen, what the business was like when they were young and in better shape. These were the binders that tied the past to the present.
Print catalogs are dear. They always have been. It used to be something you could give away as a gift. The other person could lay hands on it, turn pages, read it and smell it. It could join the other catalogs in their own library and become a part of a place where people gathered to learn.
But humans are odd at times, and often self-centered. The people who assembled the catalogs worked hard at their task. If a piece of literature was delayed in arriving from the factory, it became the weak link in the catalog chain. The incomplete books slowly gestated in this long, accordion-like device that stretched across the Library table. Nothing gets put into a binder until the collection is complete.
People got annoyed along the way, and when the missing literature link finally showed up, the completed catalogs rose like eaglets up onto their shelves. Lined up like that, they were tangible proof that people had worked hard and finished their job. They were like bricks in a wall.
“May I have those catalogs for the contractors?”
“I’ll have to let you know.”
“Do you know when you’ll let me know?”
They were just too lovely to let go. And no one in our own office was ever going to give me an order.
People are funny.
Someone told me years ago that we were heading toward a paperless society, but it doesn’t seem to be happening as quickly as predicted. Just about everything technical today is available online, but I keep thinking about Gerda and how she used to ride the taxis to the engineers’ offices and spend time with them. The engineers never had to wonder if their information was out of date. Gerda had their backs, as did my friend Mike. There was wonderful human contact in all this. There was conversation. Gerda and Mike, and so many others brought knowledge on paper and a smile. It was tangible. You could hold it in your hands, flip the pages. It smelled new and it looked good.
I’m not a Luddite by any means, but I think we lost something when we dumped those binders into the trash bin and started to focus more on instant answers through clicks. The catalogs forced us to get up off our butts, walk to the Library and look, to flip through pages, to consider other things along the way, to be sent on delicious tangents, to think better. The journey to the answer had its own value, and its own reward and the people who brought the paper to us made us better at our jobs. Nothing beats a good conversation.
I miss that.