Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mil Muros




I’ve been trying to write a post about the store for some time now, but I haven’t been able to get much traction.  This is partly because the store is such a complicated subject that it doesn’t lend itself to easy summary, it is also because the store itself is so all-consuming that I don’t have many blocks of time that lend themselves to writing posts.  I have one now, sort of, so I’ll give it another whack.

So: the store.  Mil Muros.  Three years in, almost, and I haven’t gone out of business.  At least not yet.   For those of you who don’t know what my store is about, I have the only graffiti shop in Salvador, specializing in spray paint and the specialized caps you need to paint graffiti.  Every graffiti shop also sells markers, usually big ink and paint markers to write tags on the street, but also smaller markers and sketch books.  I have become The Source for such markers in the city.  I also have some clothes and stuff - most graffiti shops need to sell material that allows for a higher markup than spray paint, and many store sell clothing and/or sneakers and such, but I don’t know much about fashion so I’ve extended my offerings to more traditional art supplies, gradually trying to transform the place into the alt art store in Salvador.  This process is ongoing, but I've had an increasing number of clients with no interest in spray paint.  They are very welcome.

 I was thinking about it and if I had to sum up my relationship is to the store in one word, that word would be: hustling.

I am hustling, big time, to keep the store going.  It is more work than one person can do, but not enough for two - at least, it’s not taking in enough to maintain a second person full time - I tried that and it didn’t really work out.  But between the paying of bills and the stocking of shelves and the purchasing of merchandise and the waiting on the customers I have an eternal list of things-I-can’t-quite-get-to that, you know, just sits there and waits.  Because I can't get to it.  I figure we all have these lists, I have at least one more that has nothing to do with the store.  At least two.  Probably more.  Prefer not to think about it.

But as I analyze things three years in I must say that I am cautiously optimistic about how it’s going.  Like I said, I’m not bankrupt, and by one measure I am almost “breaking even.”  By that I mean that if I had just gone out and spent all the money I invested in the business it would be about the same amount that I have taken out in profit over the last three years.  If things keep going as they have, in a couple months I will reach this magical threshold in my mind, which means that everything I have in the store will be the return on my investment, at least what is paid for at that time.  Did that make sense?

By a separate measure I probably have another year to go to break even, but I’m not going to get into that measure.  I would prefer to keep focused on my current goal, thank you very much.  And it probably should be said that without other supplemental streams of income the store would have folded some time ago, but I hustle, so I have separate income streams (thank you Airbnb).

So I said I was hustling - part of what I mean by that is that I have a stack of bills that I am constantly maneuvering to pay, most of my purchases are broken into several payments over a month or two and I have all my bills ordered by date to see what I have to pay today, or tomorrow, or what’s coming up next week.  Cash comes in in waves, as anyone who works in retail will tell you, and a lot of my payments require a good deal of patience.  A lot of my credit card sales work just like the payments I have to make, because here in Brazil a client has the option to pay in parcelas, or installments, on their credit card.  This means, for example, that if they buy 600 reais worth of goods, and divvy it into three parcelas, that I will get 200 reais a month for the next three months.  But I have to wait a month to get the first 200 reais.  Patience!  Debit card payments are received the next day, which is why many store owners offer a discount for debit.  And/or cash.  If I sell something on the internet, my payment processor makes me wait three weeks to receive the payment for whatever I sold, to make sure it arrives at its destination without mishap.  So I spend a lot of time waiting for money to be released to me.  It’s part of the hustle, checking to see if I can get the cash in in time to make the next big payment.  This morning I received 900 reais for a big internet sale, but now I have to wait three business days for the money to be transferred to my bank account.  Patience!!

One of the nice things about the credit card sales is that, since I can't (don't)  keep track of when the payments are coming in, sometimes I check my balance and get a very pleasant surprise.  And the more credit card sales I make, the more money is in the system, and the more pleasant surprises I will receive.

One of the problems I face as a small business owner in Brazil is that I am mildly insane.  Everyone knows that you have to be nuts to open a small business in Brazil.  However, being mildly insane, I am well equipped for the challenge.  Actually, that wasn’t what I was going to say, although I did enjoy the diversion.  One of the problems I face is that borrowing here, for small businesses, is reserved for the stupid.  Or possibly the insane.  Thankfully my own personal insanity doesn’t run in the borrowing direction, or as I have mentioned before, the store would have closed some time ago.  For some reason interest rates here in Brazil are mind numbingly high, usuriously high, stupidly, insultingly, high, to the point where any money I could hope to earn by borrowing would be instantly consumed by the loan shark… I mean the bank… that so graciously made me the loan.

This leads to another aspect of the hustle.  Since I can’t really borrow money, and I have limited money to invest (but then again, who doesn’t?) in the business, I am constantly making tough decisions about what to buy, and how much to buy of it.  Mostly I buy black spray paint, and black markers.  Black outsells everything else.  By a wide margin.  I dream of the day when I can buy a surplus of the material I really need, but for now I have to pick and choose, decide what colors I will buy this month, and leave the other colors for the next purchase in two or three months.  I have a long list of material that I should have in the store, but I just can’t afford to buy it.  Yet.

But here’s the good news - I think I might finally be getting ahead of things.  Lately I’ve found that I already have enough cash in my account to pay relatively large bills without having to borrow from other sources.  Some art teachers at the local universities have been recommending my store to their students to buy their art supplies, and I finally have most of what they are asking for.  My location is lousy - in the basement of an undistinguished building that doesn’t even have a name (most places are known by names here), but it occurred to me that the store is something that I would have loved back when I was in college - literally an underground hidden treasure that few people know about.  Lots of my customers gaze around and sigh and tell me they wish they could buy everything in the place.  Others tell me they shouldn’t come in because they blow all their cash in there.  The graffiti crowd has provided a base, the other art supplies are beginning to provide some real income.  Underground is good, I like being hip and cool, but I also dream of a better, more visible location and more customers.

Another thing that works in my favor: the other art store in town, which happens to be right around the corner, is run by assholes.  They are extremely overpriced, and have a reputation for being rude to customers and completely inflexible.  I also discovered that if a customer walks in there and asks where Mil Muros is, they won’t tell them.  Having worked in customer service previously, and coming from a country that values quality service highly, it seems unconscionable that my competition could act the way they do and get away with it.  But lacking an alternative, not only have they been able to get away with it, they have flourished.  The artists in town are hungry for another option.  And I’m providing it to them.  Twice this week alone I had customers describe themselves as "hostages" to the other art store, and my hope is that they will no longer be so.

The other photos in this post I took this morning - the store in its most recent incarnation, including the ongoing collaboration I have with my clients on the walls.  Below is a photo I prepared two years ago, contrasting what the place looked like just after I opened it to its then-current incarnation.  As you can see, things have continued to evolve.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

This Box


Ahhh, this box.



This.  Box.



This @#$%, %^&*, ^%#@* box.



This not-terribly-impressive-looking and rather-out-of-focus box is pictured at the end of a journey that took it from Leverett, Massachusetts, USA, to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil and almost back again.  This journey lasted six months and one day.  At several points along the way I was sure I would never see this box.  Or rather: see it again, as it was I who so lovingly prepared it for its journey.

But it made it.

I have been waiting to write this post for a long time, and now that I finally am, I find myself so emotionally drained from recent events, including what happened to my car and trying to get our house painted in time for the World Cup, that I lack the incredulous indignation I expected to infuse this post with.

But so be it.  If I don't write this now it will never get written, like so many other would-be posts.

I'm not sure this is a really interesting story, and just in case, I'll spare you most of the details so you won't get bored and stop reading.

Brazil, which has a very protectionist economy and an immense bureaucracy... scratch that - I think it actually has many immense bureaucracies... makes it extremely difficult and expensive to import things.  This is unfortunate for me, as most of what I sell at my store is imported.  Generally I let other people do the importing and then buy the stuff from them, but they don't necessarily have everything I want and it would be great to import stuff on my own.  It would be even greater if it was easy to do.

Enter 'Importa Fácil,' or 'Easy Import,' a service of the Brazilian Post Office which in this context is one of the most absurd oxymorons ever devised.   It is not 'Easy' in any sense of the word, unless it is easy in the traditional Brazilian sense, which means you know someone who works at Easy Import and they grease the wheels for you.  For schmucks like me, who want to do the right thing and actually try to follow the rules, you get... bad results.

To use Importa Fácil, you generally spend several hours preparing documentation. I have only used it in an experimental capacity, testing to see how it works and what they will let me get away with.  You have to detail every item in a shipment: what it is, where it came from, what type of object it is, how much it costs, etc, and you also need to include a commercial invoice and bill of lading.  All of this information needs to be logged on the Importa Fácil website, which has a tendency to time out for no apparent reason, resulting in lost data entry and much invective directed at the computer.

Then you mail it.  Or in my case, you have your mother mail it, because you couldn't get all the documentation finished before you went back to Brazil.  I don't expect she will repeat the favor, but then again, I'm not sure I'll ever use this blasted service ever again.  My box was mailed Priority Mail if I remember correctly, which means you pay extra so it will arrive in a week or so (hahahahahahhahaaaaaaa).  The US Postal Service used to offer cheaper, slower, options but apparently they aren't available anymore.  Slow being a given, a cheaper, slower option would have been my preference.

Next, be prepared to wait.  In my case, the wait lasted several months as the box sat doing absolutely nothing in the Importa Fácil facility.

Then, providing they get around to your box (I have another one shipped in December that they haven't gotten around to, probably gone for good), be prepared to pay a lot of money.  They tax you 60% of everything in the box, as well as the shipping and the insurance.  Then they charge you a value added tax that for my state is 17%, making it clear that they don't shy away from double taxation - I paid 17% of the 60% that had already been levied.  Then they smack you with a fee that amounts to about 70 US dollars.  My final calculation was that, all told, with shipping and the rest, I paid an additional 168% of the value of every item in the box.

After I paid up the box was finally released and sent on its way to Salvador.  And that's when things really started to go wrong.

I was pretty excited at this point, back at the end of March - I had about 2000 reais (900 dollars) invested in this small box by now, and I was eager to get selling and recoup my investment.  The box got shipped to Salvador, and then it got stuck again.  According to the online tracking, one attempt at delivery was made, and nobody was home.  Then it languished for another two weeks, after which two more attempts at delivery were made, and it was then determined that the address was wrong, and the box was marked 'Return to Sender.'

I.E. back to the U.S.

After five months of waiting.

And they wasted no time hustling my box out of Salvador, in spite of all the work I'd invested in getting it here.  In less than two days it was on its way back to São Paulo.  I figure that after traveling thousands of miles, it probably got within a hundred yards of its destination.  I found out later that the guy who regularly delivers packages in my neighborhood, who knows my name and will deliver things at my store if no-one is at my house and vice-versa, was on vacation at this time, otherwise this most likely never would have happened.

I went pretty much ballistic at this point, although it's hard to recall the depth of my emotion in my current lethargic state.  I had made several complaints to the postal service already and I made one more, asking such pertinent questions as: What the hell is going on?  Why didn't anyone try to contact me before returning this box?  What was the address you tried to ship it to?  Do you have any idea how much time and energy I've invested in this box?  Do you realize how absurd it is to call your service 'Easy Import'?  The person who took my call was quite sympathetic and I think he may be the real reason the box is now in my possession.  I tracked the box online as it went to São Paulo, then to Rio, in preparation to return to the U.S.A.

And then,

miraculously,

unbelievably,

astonishingly,

breathtakingly,

it turned around

and came back

towards Salvador.

Then for no good reason it took a detour through Belo Horizonte, a city in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, but no worries: still more or less in the right direction.

And then it was back in Salvador.

And then it got shipped to another location in Salvador.

And then another.

At about this time a 70 pound ball of concrete fell from the sky onto my car, and my world got turned around a bit.  Painters had been making what should have been a relatively straightforward job of painting my house into an immense time-consuming nightmare, one of our sources of income had seasonally dried up, and my kid brought home an abysmally lousy report card.  I needed some good news.  Badly.

So I checked the online tracking

and it told me the package had been delivered

but

it

hadn't

at least not to me.

I arrived at a state approaching despair at this point, which is pretty silly, all things considered.  I couldn't believe this was actually happening to me.  Who had signed for my box?  Where the hell was it?  Was I going to have any recourse in case the box was gone for good?  After all, the post office was telling me it had been delivered to the person it was addressed to.

The next day I bugged all my neighbors in the galeria where I have my store to see if they'd received my box.  I made another complaint to the postal service, and I questioned the local mailwoman.  I began casting a wider net, asking at neighboring buildings if they'd signed for my box.  "No," was the answer.  "No, we have not."

And then I saw the yellow mail van.  The same one I had already pestered regarding my Holy-Grail-box-from-the-United-States.  They listened to my oft-repeated inquiry.

And they ushered me around to the side of the van.

And they opened the door.

And there

on the floor

of the van

was the box.

I imagine I clutched it to my chest and scurried off, Gollum style, although I don't quite remember.  I do remember that when I got it back to the store and began unpacking it that I was amazed at how little was actually in there - in my mind it had blown up into a much larger, more substantial quantity of merchandise.  Attached to the outside was perhaps the most important item: the documentation stating that I'd dotted my I's and crossed my T's: 32 cents of this tax and 27 cents of this tax paid for this item, 84 cents tax and 1.23 paid for this item.  It amounted to a packet as thick as my finger: probably fifty pages.

And they insist on calling it Easy Import.

And now, I'm happy to say, I have already sold some of the contents - working towards the goal of paying off my investment.

Here's what I got:








And here is the tracking information for the infernal thing, note that right at the top it says it was delivered twice (entrega efetuada):


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Oops


I've always tried to "be a nice guy" and "do the right thing" whenever possible, because I like things 'to be fair' and "that's how I'd want other people to treat me too."  At one time I considered these to be positive character traits, although I've come to suspect that they are actually serious character flaws.

I had a fair amount of time to think about this after I dumped about half a gallon of paint on the car pictured above.  Well, I didn't actually dump it on there, but I did put the bucket on the ladder that got blown over by the wind while I was chasing a cat away from our front door.  One reaps what one sows, doesn't one?

My immediate inclination to take full responsibility for my actions as I was dashing for buckets of water and cleaning implements faded somewhat as I started to play out scenarios about the potential owner of the car and his or her possible tendencies to fits of ballistic rage.  My fears subsided somewhat as I was able to get pretty much all of the paint off, and I toyed with the idea of not saying anything at all.  If the car hadn't been parked right in front of my house I would have just driven away and forgotten about it.

Finally the owner did show up, and I of course "did the right thing" and told her what had happened (although I did play down the amount of paint spilled, and did NOT show her the above photo).  I told her I was concerned there was paint inside the doors and indeed there was a huge goober of paint inside the rear door.  She was quite mellow about it actually, but it was already dark and she was in a bit of a rush.  I gave her my number and told her if she wanted to get it professionally cleaned I would take care of it.  Why do I do these things?

If I'd just kept my mouth shut she would have driven off and never noticed.