Bicycle Culture in the District

I've been lately neglecting my blogging here; however, check out my latest post on the new Huffington Post DC site. To complement it, I started this Tumblr to track all the bikes I've been seeing around the District. 


The Guilt of Defacing Graffiti

I defaced graffiti the other day, I am loath to admit. While passing through a crosswalk near the W Hotel, I noticed a fresh “stikman” on the street, and as traffic bore down upon me, I plucked it up and moved along quickly. I carried the illicit art all the way home, half thinking (half wanting) someone to accuse me of being behind these street installations. No one did.

If you are not familiar with stikman, he is the subject of an anonymous street artist who has made this figure well known throughout DC and numerous other cities, from Los Angeles to Boston.

Stikman resides mostly in crosswalks—a reflective vinyl robot staring blankly upward. He comes in several colors, and as traffic and weather run over him, his permanence is solidified by conditions that simultaneously disintegrate him entirely—like a traumatic event seared as a memory but faded overtime, from fixture to abstraction to amorphous reminiscence, and then gone altogether.

I’ve snapped photos of him before, but have never acquired one. I’ve only ever enjoyed his place in the urban landscape—a simple, humorless figure who looks up and says, “Hey, you’re walking on me.” I smile and move on. In hand, though, I sought to learn more.

Aside from many photos, I found a Washington Post article by Stephen Lowman from 2008, in which he wrote about his own exploration of stikman:

I Googled him, half expecting to find out that stikman was part of a viral marketing campaign to get me to the theater on Halloween to see a robot slasher flick. Instead, I found other admirers sharing their fondness for this mysterious figure whose creator was anonymous.

Oh woe for the artist whose work is mistaken for marketing! Is this not the nature of art though? Look at Shepard Fairey’s now ubiquitous “Hope” portrait of President Obama. It may offend the artist to have his or her methods adopted for commercial or political purposes, (Fairey, notably, was an Obama supporter), but I would take it as a compliment that you’re contributing to the expansion of how we can communicate with one another. The tenuous relationship between art and commerce may never be resolved.

With stikman, however, I just feel guilty. I have denied the masses exposure to this simple figure. In art, meaning is derived from context; and with street art, every piece is site-specific. I have in a sense robbed some life from this particular piece. Nor do I feel right replacing it, now that I’ve removed it. Like a baby bird held by human hands, it may not be accepted back into its nest, its stickiness gone. It would then be sweet justice if I was arrested for littering or defacing property in an effort to restore him.

So here I am in my office trying to mash stikman into the carpet—the only sensible way I think he can be displayed. On the wall won’t cut it. I only fear the cleaning people may remove him.

Full disclosure: A modified version has been posted on my company's blog.


Finding the Future of Bookstores at the Bottom of the Market

Small of entrance and obscure from the street, Shakespeare & Company is tough to locate, so you have to work to find it. As I wandered the back streets of the Latin Quarter, I kept running into others just as lost as me. Yet there it was, right on the Seine, hiding in plain sight. Ironically, this is a place you go not because you know what you’re looking for, but rather because you never know what you’re going to find.

It has the feeling of an ancient tomb, musty and sacred. Three rambling floors of titles and tomes—piled up on the floor, falling off makeshift shelves, arranged using no traditional scheme. They populate narrow stairs and tiny rooms. It is bookstore as destination—as much a feast for the mind as for the senses. And I believe, I hope, this relic of Paris can provide some understanding of what the future holds for bookstores.

The demise of the big booksellers is hardly a new story. In Washington, DC, one of the most educated, literate and wealthy communities in the country, Borders has shuttered almost all of its locations. The reasons are obvious—competition from online vendors and ebooks has combined with a decrease in disposable income as a result of the economic recession. Sales dry up, business is business.

It is as true here as it is throughout the world. Just this week, Australian Minister for Small Businesses Nick Sherry even made a bold declaration about the death of the bookstore: “I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a bookstore. They will cease to exist because of what’s happening with Internet-based, Web-based distribution.... What’s occurring now is an exponential take-off—we’ve reached a tipping point.”

In my opinion…maybe. There’s no doubt consolidation will continue to take place. What exists, though, is an opportunity for large booksellers to reinvent how they market themselves—to rethink their approach to the Thinking Class. And it has everything to do with the experience they present.

Barnes & Noble, Borders and the others had in recent decades become a sterile alternative to the convenience found on the Internet, providing little reason to wander in and make a purchase. It is the same with Starbucks, entirely lifeless in presentation; yet, caffeine can be a rather powerful influence when it comes to purchasing decisions. Few people claim to be addicted to literature.

The question then becomes anthropological. Do books possess an inherent nature that appeals to humans? Or, is our desire to be around them rooted more in nostalgia or to be associated with something intellectual? While it is difficult to say, demand does still exist for bookstores, and there are ways large booksellers can retool their marketing to cultivate demand and re-grow sales:

  • Commit to an Experience: Shakespeare & Company is but one example of the type of experience a store can offer—old world and unpretentious. The Strand in New York City is just as special, but almost exactly the opposite—a labyrinth of metal shelves. There’s Red Emma’s in Baltimore, a socialist enclave of considerable character. San Francisco offers a number of funky places in the Mission off Valencia. I go out of my way to check these places out. Without becoming some themed hell, like a Clyde’s Restaurant, the big stores can embrace the local or regional aesthetic and culture and create an experience that would be authentic and bring people in the door.
  • Curate to the Community: Bookstores are, yes, about books. One of the best examples is right here in Washington, DC: Politics & Prose. It is not much of a place to visit, though does have some folksy charm; however, the staff does an exceptional job selecting books relevant to their readers and holding events that people want to attend. Again, the large booksellers can use their considerable catalogs to craft finely tuned collections that speak to the local audience, all while offering the convenience of a broader selection.
  • Become Distribution Points: Apple is all about the Internet…but it still has stores. There are a number of reasons why—immediate gratification, tech support and the opportunity to kick the wheels of products before buying. Bookstores should adopt a similar model, bridging the gap between the online and offline world. Kindles and iPads are not going away. It will be important to find ways of becoming relevant in this new world. For example, book retailers should work with publishers and authors to create destination-specific products. Ubiquity is a product of the web. We need more ways to offer uniqueness and something special.

Old-line companies need to take risks and dive into the demand that still exists. It is a turbulent time for justifying costs and growing the bottom line; however, innovative marketing and creative communications—combined with smart business decisions—can do a lot to create new business. 

Full disclosure: I posted this on my company's blog as well


Come Home Less Tamely

A hundred feet above the tree tops a fiddler’s tune made its way up to me on a warm summer breeze. I sat alone on a bench of granite, setting up an anchor to belay my friends far below. I jostled aluminum bolts and cams. I flicked away flies to untangle and tie my knots. I worked methodically in silence. Slowly my breathing found a rhythm. The sweat accrued from the climb up dried off my brow. And upon the wind notes hinted, like a ghost whishing about the trees’ leaves and rock wall. I looked up to think about the person scratching out this gentle song, and I saw a dozen miles out into the blue—a roll of mountains, groves of pines, ancient farms, and the bend of a river that cut through it all.

Hours earlier, I had sat down there in the morning sun, drinking coffee on a farmhouse porch. There was music there too: the murmuring of voices in a house; gravel crunching under a car’s tires; the snap and clap of a screen door. These are all the sounds of summer in New England—empty notes…that fill the spaces between the waist high grass, that tip over the rock walls, that gurgle and boil in the streams, that evoke my childhood scrambles through the woods. And here I am still, decades on, with my same friend, clambering about the wilderness in search of such songs on the wind—faint scratchings that serve as the score for man's place amidst the wild beauty and dangers of nature, whether today or two hundred years ago. To a climber on a wall, a violinist on a river is a beautiful thing indeed. 

“Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character."


Dining Alone in Dubai

What I should have said was, “Are you dining alone? Yes—then let’s eat together, because I am as well.” What I did say was…nothing.

And so we sat, two business travelers in our hotel restaurant—a fairly elegant place: white linen table clothes, a chef overly taken with reductionism (but thoughtful in presentation) and fine service.

Whereas I’m normally outgoing with respect to engaging people while traveling, I’m fairly tired at the moment. Lots of running around and long days. So when the waiter brought my wine, it went straight to my head—fatigue compounded by not having had a drop in a week because I was in dry Kuwait. The inclination to chat up the young woman seated across from me appeared for a moment, and then vanished.  

I could tell she was unprepared for solo dining, having put on a lovely dress, looking quite cheerful and lacking any distractions whatsoever. I had on a t-shirt and khakis, with iPad in tow. I knew to have myself seated by a window, facing away from the majority of the restaurant. She obviously let the staff seat her—to watch everyone else in the packed place eat, including me…who she looked at directly.

The awkwardness between us—because I could play Scrabble on my iPad and she could only stare across the room at the side of my head—was accentuated by an inverse sort of awkwardness nearby: a group of traveling coworkers.

Polite jokes among a mixed table of eight. Laughter too loud, followed by silences in the conversation. Tepid discussion of sports and careful conversation of non-present colleagues. A hotter hell I cannot imagine.

But the young woman by herself remained cheerful. She made a few phone calls to bide her time, but didn’t get through. She left messages describing her trip, from Ireland to Australia and how this was her first time in Dubai. I could hear it all—said to no one but voicemail. When once her phone did ring, it was a salesperson she tersely dismissed. And then on she looked, contemplating the contemporary flatware and rolling the legs of her wine.

I finished my desert and departed.

When traveling, the inclination is to make the most of every moment—as it is rare to be in a different place that offers exposure to different experiences and different people. Sometimes, though, it is just nice to act like you belong exactly where you are and passively absorb all that's around you. I think I'm having one of those trips.