Author Archives: Emily Halgrimson

Swarfcast Ep. 9 – Russell Ethridge Small Business Lawyer

By Lloyd Graff

Scroll down to listen to the podcast with Russell Ethridge.

Today Brett Kavanaugh is being interrogated in hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee as he attempts to thread the political needle to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

In today’s podcast I interviewed Russell Ethridge, a solo practitioner lawyer in Detroit, who also listens to cases as a judge two days a month for the humongous sum of $15,000 a year. He believes the legal system must work for the guy accused of drunk driving for the second time and the secretary in the local real estate firm accused of embezzling $65,000.

Russ has been Graff-Pinkert’s lawyer for 25 years. I got to know him when he was spending a stint in Jamestown, New York, representing a French multi-national called Valeo. He sold Graff-Pinkert 13 Wickman multi-spindle screw machines for more money than I wanted to pay. Good negotiator.

Russell Ethridge

Ethridge has a knack for quickly assessing the nub of the issue in a potential legal hassle and pointing to a way out with the least aggravation possible. Many lawyers like to milk a case for the billable hours. Russ thinks the opposite way, always looking for the smartest, most efficient resolution of the problem.

Russ’s Dad was the Editor of the Detroit Free Press in its heyday in the late 1960s and ’70s. In Russ’s younger days he worked as a reporter for a tiny paper in West Virginia close to where his grandfather practiced law for 60 years.

Russ’s grandfather had a one man retail legal practice, which to some degree was a model for Russ. In the podcast Russ discusses the impact his grandfather’s funeral had on him when he observed the huge cross section of people who talked about how his grandfather had helped them over the years. Russell Ethridge—lawyer, judge, one man band—continues his legacy.

Question 1: Is our legal system rigged against the little guy?

Question 2: Would you prefer to pay a lawyer by the hour or by the job?

Share this post

The Machinist Gig

By Lloyd Graff

How much would you pay for a bottle of clean water if you were thirsty and could not find drinkable water? How much would you pay for a room if you had no place to sleep?

How much would you pay for a programmer for your CNC machines if they were down there was nobody to hire?

We are apparently in a period, or on the cusp of one, in which there are almost no skilled machinists available. In such an environment the logical thing to expect is that men and women with skills that the market demands will begin to auction their expertise to those who will pay the most. We may be entering the “gig economy” for machining people with quantifiable expertise. Smart entrepreneurs will develop websites that sell manufacturing skills by the hour or by the day. Businesses have employed freelance specialists for many years, but today’s Google economy is empowering more individuals than ever before.

The machining world has thrived in the land of the reliable and predictable—long-term clients, machinery that lasts for decades, dedicated employees who spend a career with one firm. It has worked pretty well for both employers and employees in a period of employment stasis.

Ten years ago, some companies in the machining world would have extra workers paint the floors when there was no production work. They had core people who they believed in and who believed in them. Today, life is quite different. Skilled people who dutifully worked loyally for humane owners have retired or died in many cases.

Private equity firms with professional managers own many medium sized manufacturing firms and are acquiring more every day. Their mission is to pay off debt, build equity and sell the businesses to the next firm in line. They have a short-term horizon which affects their view of employees. I would think that they would buy into the idea of a gig economy where employees auction their services, if that was necessary.

Traveling Knife Sharpener in Paris.

I think the gig economy has plenty of negatives for both employers and workers. I write this as somebody who has hired many gig workers for both Graff-Pinkert and Today’s Machining World. Paying for hotels and rental cars for the pricier freelancers can bite.

For workers, shifting to new work environments is scary and can wreak havoc with family life and relationships. Stable businesses with long-term employees develop community and rapport. Gig people are often not accepted easily in that milieu.

I think we have a real predicament in the machining world in late 2018. There’s lots of business, but not enough skilled people in the wings to hire. Owners and managers have a logical reluctance to upset the status quo by hiring new people for $10-$50/hour more than steady, loyal current workers. Meanwhile, they see contracts for the plucking or projects running late or unfulfilled.

Silicon Valley has lived with this dilemma for a long time. Workers have been drawn to the riches of the Valley, but the side effect has been sky-high housing prices and cost of living. The buses on Highway 280 and 101 are filled with folks who commute long distances for the wages in Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Most of the manufacturing in the Bay Area has moved to Nevada, which is causing a similar mini-inflation in Reno and Vegas.

For the moment, I expect a significant bump up in wages in the machining world. It will be hard to stomach for employers, who are dealing with tariffs and escalating metal prices. The result may be more work heading to Mexico and possibly China and Europe. But American manufacturers are extremely resourceful. They have weathered 20 years of headwinds. They will train young people, get by with fewer workers and hire the pricey experts when absolutely necessary. We will see the machinist as entrepreneur in isolated situations, but I doubt it will become the norm in the near future.

Question: In the future will more skilled machinists quit full time jobs to become freelancers?

Share this post

Trump’s First IMTS

By Lloyd Graff

Today, a blog about America—the politics and economics—as we head toward IMTS and Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), which start on the same day in September.

Business in the machining world is thriving, though automotive is having just a little heartburn—not worthy of a Nexium, just a couple of Tums. The tariffs are barely biting yet, but the smell of them is screwing up the metals market that was smokin’ before President Trump shocked everybody by choosing to pick on aluminum and steel in order to wake up China and push a NAFTA deal through. Couldn’t he instead have chosen to penalize something like pickles and wrapping paper to make the point that America has been too nice for 25 years, and “we’re not going to take it anymore”?

Tariffs will cause a bit of a stink at IMTS 2018, but nobody, including Trump, knows if they will be a factor a year from now. The Chinese want to finesse it until Xi meets The Donald in November, and a new leader in Mexico may want to get off to an upbeat start in his tenure by negotiating a NAFTA compromise. With midterm elections in November and a bitter Supreme Court fight coming Trump could use a victory lap on his tariff gambit.

A word about the Brett Kavanaugh pick for the High Court. I don’t think the President truly cares if Kavanaugh is confirmed by the midterms. Trump paid his dues this time to the anti-abortion team by picking a strong Catholic with a Jesuit school education. His Gorsuch pick was the crucial one for him so he chose a pleasant, get-along, political guy who could smile his way through the Senate confirmation. Kavanaugh is another shrewd charmer, but the Democrats are totally dug in against him, and I doubt Republican Senators Collins of Maine and Murkowski of Alaska will vote for him even if he has soap in his mouth when questioned on his published opinions reflecting his views on Roe vs. Wade. If they vote against confirmation and Senator McCain abstains or votes against Trump’s pick, Kavanaugh is toast. This would allow Trump to pick somebody like Gorsuch who cannot be as easily categorized as Kavanaugh. I am making the assumption that the Republicans will hold the Senate in November. It is quite possible the Dems take back the House, however, from what I read.

The Democrats have a ton of money pouring into the House races, and a lot of old Republicans have walked away. The Dems have an enthusiasm edge and probably can overcome the gerrymandered districts they face.  It’s what we call democracy.

******

Getting back to business, the country and Trump have been lucky and smart in his first two years. The economy had some momentum eight years after the deep recession had devastated the country. President Obama fortunately was such an ineffective leader during his second term that he could only slow the economy down, not derail it.

Trump has been so quixotic and disinterested in Congress that he was unable throw out Obama Care. By losing the fight and being shrewdly disinterested in health care politics he was able to focus on getting a giant tax cut passed, with big positives for business. To the Democrats’ dismay the economy has roared since its passage. The economy has stunned the growth doubters by showing 3.9% unemployment and 4% growth last quarter. These are numbers many folks on the Left and Right thought we would never see again. Reducing government regulation and pooh-poohing the climate change fanatics without much push-back from the real people in both parties has shown mainstream politicians that environmental causes have little national traction, while economic well-being does.

Low unemployment makes strange bedfellows. The Dems portray Trump as a racist, yet Black unemployment, even in the worst areas, is shrinking. People getting out of jail can actually find jobs. The real minimum wage is rising rapidly even without legislation because companies will pay up if they need workers. Home sales growth is slowing in some areas because fewer folks are moving to find work, though the prices of existing homes are still being pushed up because family formation is finally rising again. Money is pouring into the United States with the repatriation of corporate profits that have been stuck overseas by repressive American taxation. The Fed is trying to push up interest rates, but the 10-year bond which dictates home mortgages continues to resist 3% because the world wants to buy the U.S. 10-year.

Most people think Trump is a scoundrel, personally. I think the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt even though it is demonstrating quite vividly that politics is a very dirty business with a lot of scummy folks. Is that news? If Mueller could nail Trump we probably would already know it.

Personally, I think Trump’s immigration policy is deplorable and bad politics. It appears that Attorney General Sessions is a nut on the topic of keeping America as much like his image of his idyllic Alabama as possible. I wonder if the Administration’s goofy anti-foreigner stance is an effort by Trump to keep Sessions on the reservation. A President always wants to keep the Attorney General on his team.

You probably disagree with some of these opinions. I’d love to read your comments and hope to see you in Chicago for IMTS. It’s going to be a lively one!

Question: Has Trump hurt you or helped you economically?

Share this post

So You Want to Buy a House?

By Lloyd Graff

I heard a National Public Radio piece recently on the shortage of homes on the market. The reporter, Ben Marcus, was reporting from Denver on his local market, which is seeing prices skyrocket. He focused on the rehab boom. Rehabs on bathrooms, kitchens and basements, along with home additions are going nuts in the Mile-High City. The parallel phenomenon is that very few new or used homes are coming on the market despite ferocious demand. A partial explanation Marcus honed in on was the large number of homes bought during the recession which were converted to rentals. The fat and happy owners are now unwilling to sell units because they are making such a sweet return renting them out. If they sold them they would owe capital gains taxes and be faced with a difficult task of replacing their rising investment with a comparable or better one.

*****

I look over my own front yard and see several lovely suburban homes that my neighbors can’t give away. I see well-manicured single-family dwellings mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s—some ranch style, some two story—on 12,000 to 20,000-square-foot lots.

Kitchen renovation

The area is quiet, well policed and modestly taxed by Chicago (Cook County) standards. Average family income is over $100,000. So why is this a housing desert? The easy answer, and everyone knows it, is RACE. The neighborhood is 70% African American and 30% White with a smattering of Asians, Latinos and maybe a stray Inuit or Apache.

In my day job, I am a used machinery dealer who spends his days assessing the values of machine tools, looking for mispriced lathes and mills.

I’m also a huge baseball fan and I love to analyze Major League Baseball trades, looking for the next Justin Verlander deal that locks up a pennant for Houston while leaving Detroit with three very young prospects, a jockstrap and a pair of used socks.

If a house sells for $800,000 in a fairly White suburb 28 miles north or west of downtown Chicago but sells for $200,000 next door to me in the south, when if ever, will the price disparity begin to narrow?

I am an “expert,” I think, in pricing anomalies, but this emotional one defies my reasoning. I do not know the algorithm of race. I have spent many years trying to nail it down in an analytical way, but I cannot get my arms around it.

What I observe in my area is that the older White people are dying or moving to sterile institutions that cater to their needs. The wealthiest ones are moving to downtown Chicago, Florida or Arizona, or where their kids live if they like one another.

Some African Americans from Chicago or other cities do buy into my neighborhood, but lenders may not see the area as particularly attractive for appreciation. Young Whites seemingly are afraid to be pioneers. So, the enormous price differential continues, even in good economic times despite rising home prices all over.

Racial fear, animosity, naiveté and stereotyping are all at play, yet racial intermarriage is on the rise and Barack Obama was a two term President not long ago.

Things are “a changing”? Well, maybe. But when the spread narrows $100,000 between my home and a comparable one in the the North or West Chicago suburbs I will begin to believe it’s happening

Question: Is it stupid to buy a home?

Share this post

Junk or Treasure?

By Lloyd Graff

David Killen is an art dealer in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. He is also a treasure hunter of the modern variety, a profession a humble used machinery dealer like myself connects with.

David is the kind of guy who frequents flea markets and auctions, not just because he needs inventory for his own bi-monthly auctions of prints and Tchotchkes, but because he loves the hunt. He’s 59 now and has been schlepping around art fairs and Swap-O-Ramas for 50 years. He thought that one day he might find an overlooked stash of value. It looks like he finally did.

Late last year at an estate sale in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, Killen bought the contents of a locker in a warehouse. The property had been owned by Susanne Schnitzer, who was the partner of Orrin Riley, a prominent art restorer who had restored several paintings by the Dutch painter Willem de Kooning. Riley died in 1986, and Schnitzer was run over by a garbage truck in New York City in 2009.

Schnitzer’s friends from New Jersey were her executors and they ultimately tired of paying the warehouse fees on the odds and ends in the locker. They had an auction house peruse the contents before they sold it, and it was pronounced “junk.” A bunch of prints of little value.

Killen lives for times like this. The rules of the game in situations of this nature are that the bidders get a glimpse of the contents but cannot analyze the goods in depth.

It’s a lot like bidding on a warehouse crammed with the flotsam and jetsam of 50 years of screw machining.  ACMEs, Davenports and New Britains caked with chips, clotted oil and crud, chip conveyors and stock reels askew, making for an obstacle course tougher than an an American Ninja Warrior challenge. I’ve seen men fall into the base of 8-spindle ACMEs, never to be heard from again.

Untitled XXXI, Willem de Kooning, Painted 1977. $21,165,000 at Auction.

David Killen knew the locker’s contents had the “junk” judgement by the fancy auction house, but he also knew the history of Orrin Riley being a confidante of de Kooning back in the 1970s when nobody knew his name. A guy like Killen develops a nose for value over 50 years. Did he have special inside knowledge about the locker? No. I can say this confidently because he hauled the contents out last December in his own truck and didn’t even check everything out immediately. It was just another collection of dusty goodies that he would auction off in his sweet time.

But then he saw the wooden boxes that said de Kooning printed on the outside. Maybe these weren’t prints. He had suspected there could be some gold in the locker when he bought it, or he would not have paid $15,000. He knew the background of Orrin Riley, who had done restoration work on de Kooning and begun the restoration department for the Guggenheim Museum. Riley was “big time.” David Killen’s nose for treasure smelled something sweet.

Last week Killen made an announcement to the press that he owned six authentic, but unsigned de Kooning paintings. They were authenticated by Lawrence Castagna, an art restoration authority who had worked both for Riley and as a studio assistant for de Kooning. Castagna feels confident that six of the paintings are the real thing. Willim de Kooning died in 1997, and his foundation in Manhattan does not authenticate works by the artist.

Killen also found a painting by Paul Klee, the famous Swiss painter.

The most recent comps on the seven original works of art, though the de Koonings are unsigned, would indicate a value of around $100 million for the group. What a haul for a struggling art dealer who deals mostly in nice prints.

As a lifelong treasure hunter who has never found a de Kooning myself, I love this story. I am not jealous of David Killen. I am thrilled for him.

His story is about the chase, not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I could have done a lot of other things in my career, but the machinery treasure hunt and all of the fascinating folks I’ve met along the way has kept me passionately in the game. I love it as much as ever, probably more, because I am acutely aware of the time limits we all have.

I really hope the de Koonings are the real thing, but honestly, I don’t think it will change David Killen much either way. At least I hope not.

Question: Have you ever discovered hidden treasure?

Share this post

Pull the Goalie

By Lloyd Graff

Malcolm Gladwell recently put out a brilliant episode in his “Revisionist History” podcast series about his Number One rule for living — “Pull the Goalie.” (Click here to listen)

Gladwell interviews two of his buddies, Clifford Asness and Aaron Brown, successful Wall Street money strategists. They analyze everything. It’s what they do for a living and just for the heck of it. They test their offbeat theories with mathematical precision, looking for the absurd that carries the germ of truth. They love being “disagreeable,” espousing truth that defies the conventional wisdom and makes “normal” folks feel extremely uncomfortable.

They recently published a paper in which they argued that the hockey strategy of pulling the goalie to add an extra attacker when down by one goal with only one minute left on the clock was stupid. They argue that the goalie should be pulled with 5 minutes and 40 seconds left if a team needs to tie the score and force overtime. If the leading team scores on the unguarded net, so what, you would have almost surely lost anyway with the time worn strategy of pulling the goalie with only a minute left. If you end up losing the game by two or three goals instead of one, who cares. At least you gave yourself the best possibility of winning. They claim their calculations prove the “pull the goalie” strategy handily.

It makes exquisite sense if you think about it—in hockey and in life. The conservative “follow the conventional rule” approach is a recipe for failure and mediocrity. Innovative intelligent risk pays.

Courtesy of www.theglobeandmail.com

In sports, we see numerous examples of conventional wisdom being overturned today. The move to 3-point shooting, in some cases more than 50% of the time, has changed the NBA game radically. It is not uncommon to start a fast break and then pitch the ball to the corner for an open 24-footer, rather than rush to a contested goal near the basket.

In baseball the starting pitcher is now expected to go a maximum of six innings because “stuff” often starts to fade as the hurler reaches 100 pitches. Also, Major League hitters slug significantly better against pitchers they have already seen twice in a game.

In football the Philadelphia Eagles demonstrated that going for it on 4th down is often a better strategy than punting or attempting a long field goal.

But aside from sports, the “pull the goalie” approach is useful in business. I think people are too fearful about changing jobs and careers, and bosses are too careful about firing people. The comfortable path is to stick with the same company, the same team, the predictable career path, the boss you know. But if you think pulling the goalie is your rule for life, then making a shift before the conventional wisdom or your buddies tell you to do it might well be the right course.

Malcolm Gladwell uses another “pull the goalie” example in the podcast by bringing up horror film plots where a mother and two young children fall victim to a home invasion by a psychopath. When it becomes obvious to the Mom that she can’t protect her family from the intruder and her only chance at saving them is to flee the scene to go get help, what should she do?

Society as well as natural parental instinct would say that a mother should NEVER leave her kids when a predator is in the house.

But theoretically she should “pull the goalie,” do the unthinkable, the thing for which she might second guess herself forever. Otherwise, everybody dies instead of trying that one last chance to save the day.

The life lesson is to consider the odds, accept being uncomfortable, ignore the ostracism of your peers. Doing what’s easy, going with the crowd, might get you killed.

Question: When would you pull the goalie?

Share this post

Amazin Opportunity

By Lloyd Graff

Take a flyer with me today. This is a blog about change, race, real estate values and the chance to make a fortune if my left field projections are actually correct.

Amazon will make its decision shortly about where to build its new headquarters. It’s original home office will remain in Seattle, but its second home will be built somewhere else in America. Chicago is one of the finalists.

Consider the other likely candidates such as Boston, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington DC and Chicago. Chicago is only a 4-5 hour plane ride from Seattle, making it a strong candidate. Chicago has another big advantage. It’s offering Amazon a huge clean site that the city acquired following the financial collapse 20 years ago, the former Michael Reese Hospital. The site can be expanded to 100 acres. The beauty of it—is the beauty of it. It is adjacent to Lake Michigan near McCormick Place, I-55 and outer Lakeshore Drive. It is located on several rail arteries and accessible to downtown on lakefront bike paths. It is within biking distance of the University of Chicago, Northwestern’s Downtown campus, University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and Illinois Institute of Technology. Loyola and DePaul Universities are easily accessible too.

The Amazon Headquarters would mean eventually 14 million square feet of buildings plus the amenities and service businesses that go with it. A conservative estimate is 50,000 jobs will be spawned.

Amazon choosing the Michael Reese site would be a fascinating scenario because of the primarily African-American population that borders it on the south side of the city. Would the most valuable company in the world, Amazon, locate its $50 billion gem in a Black area of Chicago? I think so, because 100 acres flat against the beautiful lakefront land in Chicago trumps other considerations. Amazon will build its own neighborhood.

Chicago’s Former Michael Reese Hospital Site. Courtesy of The Chicago Tribune

America has changed enormously since I grew up a few miles south of the Michael Reese site. (Incidentally, I was born at Michael Reese Hospital.)

The racism that infected my childhood and colored the way I have looked at the world ever since is much different today. Barack Obama was President for eight years and his library will be built 15 minutes south of the Michael Reese site. I live in a southern Chicago suburb that’s more black than white. The Starbucks where I’m writing this blog has a 50-60% African American customer base.

Most of the Jewish people who once filled the four synagogues in the area I live in have died or moved away. Yet I am very confident that a new wave of Jews and other white people, even with children, will soon be moving back into my area, which is a 25-minute commute to the 100-acre Michael Reese site. This is going to happen even in the unlikely event Amazon does not opt for Michael Reese.

Apple will be building its own 50,000 employee second headquarters in a few years. One of the key factors a company like Amazon or Apple considers when building a new site is the availability of affordable housing in an urban area. Chicago ranks high in the nation on accessible affordable housing for potential younger employees.

Chicago’s Southside and the South Suburbs have available housing, lots of land, plenty of water, excellent transportation and infrastructure, and a desire to take advantage of it.

My old friends whose children have all left the area laugh at me when I outline my Amazon scenario, but the house flippers and real estate speculators are not laughing. They are buying right now. Better to be a little early than too late.

I make my living by identifying undervalued assets. Rarely have I seen an opportunity with such a big upside as the spin off housing of the Michael Reese development.

Question: Is racial makeup one of the first things you consider when buying property in a new neighborhood?

Share this post

Gratitude

By Lloyd Graff

Written June 19, 2018

This isn’t a blog I really want to write. But I feel like I can’t write anything else right now so I better just write it and get it out of the way. I’ll figure out whether I want to publish it later.

I am nearing the 10th anniversary of the heart attack that should have killed me just prior to Labor Day Weekend in 2008. I am a bit obsessed by the date. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Fortunately, I’m feeling pretty good physically, but the knowledge of the 10-year mark is driving me nuts. I know it is only a “date,” but 3,500 days since my friend and doctor Chris Costas wheeled me into the Emergency Room himself at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, IL makes me feel both grateful and vulnerable.

It is not like a “yahrzeit,” which in Judaism is an annual ritual of remembrance of a parent or sibling who has died. My case is marking my survival. There is a prayer in Judaism for that also—“the Shehecheyanu,” which is said to mark a special fortuitous event. You say it when a child is born, when the Cubs win the World Series, when you survive an accident or when you reach a milestone like living 10 good years following a heart attack. 

Gratitude

Tomorrow I have an appointment with my cardiologist, Dr. Matthew Sorrentino. It’s a routine long scheduled visit, but it is adding to the drama I’m feeling. I know doctors say they schedule appointments six months ahead to assuage the drama, to normalize the appointments that are built in to eliminate crises. I wish it always worked that easily for me, and this 10-year appointment which I feared might never come is now gratefully upon me.

I know I need to quickly move from fear to gratitude, but honestly I’m feeling those emotions sometimes simultaneously while other times alternating between them.

Writing this piece 22 hours ahead of my doctor appointment is therapeutic. It helps to identify my fear and massage it. I can’t make it vanish. I know that. I think of the events of 10 years ago every morning. Every day that I wake up and touch my wife Risa and identify a small tapestry on my wall eight feet away, I know I’m alive and get to experience another day. Doing 2,500 steps in 20 minutes on my elliptical energizes me further, and then taking a hot shower following it zonks me out. It’s a reflection of my life these days—up and down, gratitude and fear, the joy I feel about all the blessings I have, the knowledge that life is fleeting and health can be a vapor.

I appreciate somehow finding the strength to write this piece and your patience in reading about my daily struggle. I know I am not alone in experiencing these kinds of feelings.

I am fervently hoping to walk out of my cardiologist’s office tomorrow whispering the special prayer of gratitude and relief, the “Shehecheyanu,” with great feeling and a huge exhale.

(Fast forward to June 22.)

The appointment two days ago went great. My doctor at the University of Chicago said the 10-year mark is meaningless today with good diet, beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.

June 20 was a beautiful day.

Question: Name three things you are grateful for.

Share this post

It Spoke to Me

By Lloyd Graff

I bought a gorgeous piece of art last Saturday, a painting of an “L” Train clacking through an apartment jungle in Chicago. At least, that’s what it represented to me. Another person might see something different. That’s part of the beauty of art.

I didn’t expect to be buying a painting. On the spur of the moment after a workout with my trainer I was driving home, focusing on NOT stopping at Dairy Queen, when I remembered there was an art fair in downtown Homewood, Illinois. I spotted a parking spot at Starbucks, went in and bought a bottled water and asked if I could park for a half an hour or so. They were cool, and I walked over to the fair. I saw Charlie Celander who used to be the art director of Screw Machine World in the early days of the magazine. He was in a booth with his daughter Anna who was showing her work. The “L” piece immediately caught my eye. That’s the way it is with art. If it doesn’t speak to you, yell out to you, when you first experience it, who needs it. I talked to Anna, who remembered me from the magazine days, and she told me about her work as an art therapist. I wanted to buy it then but figured it was wise for my wife, Risa, to see it because we would have to negotiate wall space in the house, though I also had Graff-Pinkert as a fall back location. Risa was working out at the time, and we had a dinner engagement in a couple hours, but I figured I could get her to see it before the fair closed at 6:00 pm.

“L” Train Painting by Anna Celander.

Risa arrived around 5:30 and checked out some Peruvian fashions I liked (that she didn’t like). Then I led her over to the booth with the painting. But on the way over we met some old friends, Joel and Gayla Kahan, who were grazing at the fair. I told them about the painting, and they wanted to see Anna Celander’s work. Joel loved the “L” piece, too. Both wives were a little less enamored of it.

Joel wanted to buy it, which only increased my desire for it. I asked Anna for “her best price,” which I’m sure my son Noah would have said was a poor negotiating tactic, but I considered her asking price of $525 framed and covered with glass to be something I could afford anyway. She stammered and went down to $475. Then my friend Joel stepped up and indicated he really wanted it too.

Impulsively, I said to him, “why don’t we flip for it.” Anna was a bit taken aback by this twist of events because nobody had ever sought out her work like this before. She offered to do another piece or make a copy, but both of us were really only interested in this “one and only” original.

Fortunately, my “flip for it” gambit knocked Joel and Gayla off their game. Joel Kahan is a gastroenterologist, not a used machinery dealer. Competing for a material object of unknown value at an art fair was not exactly a colonoscopy, so he gracefully backed off, and I immediately handed my credit card to the grateful artist as her Dad began wrapping it up.

I felt good, not because I beat Joel out of the “L” painting, but because I was decisive about something that really spoke to me.

It harkened back to 13 years ago when I commissioned a college kid named Mike Eisenwasser to paint an original mural on the side of a 40-foot steel shipping container to flank the driveway of our office. I had liked his work that had been displayed on the walls of my local Starbucks so I proposed this crazy assignment for Graff-Pinkert. He was up for the project, but I made it clear to him that he had to finish it in three months from inception to completion. That’s a lot of paint.

Mural outside Graff-Pinkert in Oak Forest, IL. By Michael Eisenwasser.

Mike completed the mural right before he left to go back to the University of Illinois, and I loved it. He created a colorful city-like scene in which the buildings are shaped like screw machine parts and tooling all found in Graff-Pinkert’s shop.

But the evening before he left for school he realized he had forgotten to sign it, so he and his dad came back to Graff-Pinkert that night, dug the paint can out of the dumpster and put the finishing touches on in the dark

That mural brings me pleasure every day when I drive into the parking lot and when I look out my office window. When I came back after my heart attack 10 years ago I cried when I stared at Mike’s mural.

How much is art worth? That is in the eye of the beholder. But when I saw Anna Celander’s painting last Saturday afternoon I knew it would bring me great pleasure, hopefully for a long time.

Question: Which art pieces have spoken to you? Both famous and not famous.

Share this post

Taster’s Choice

By Noah Graff

Last week in Palo Alto my fiancé, Stephanie, and I went to a unique coffee shop called Philz. Philz distinguishes itself from other coffee chains because its stores only serve pour over coffee engineered for each customer. They don’t make espressos, lattes, macchiatos, cappuccinos or frappuccinos. They don’t even have standard drip coffee, though they do serve wonderful pastries and tea that is also made with the individual pour-over method.

For those unfamiliar, a pour over cup of coffee is made one cup at a time, by pouring hot water though an individual filter into the cup. At Philz the baristas grind the coffee beans for each individual cup right before pouring the water. Grinding the beans right before the cup is poured helps bring out the strong distinct flavors of the coffee.

I had been to a Philz several years ago, but Stephanie had never been before. When we arrived I immediately told our barista, Edward, that we were Philz virgins so we needed guidance to order our drinks. Edward was extremely friendly and informative and put us at ease. He asked what type of coffee we normally drank at a typical coffee place. I told them that I normally get a latte, perhaps with a flavor shot. We went over a few choices and he guided me to a coffee variety called Tesora, which was described on the store’s blackboard as a medium blend with aromas of Caramel, Nuts, and Butter. All of the 20 coffee varieties on the cafe’s blackboard had descriptions like that, with in-depth flavor descriptions resembling a how one would characterize wine or cheese.

Noah and Stephanie with barista Edward at Philz Coffee in Palo Alto, CA.

Edward told me my cup of coffee would taste similar to a caramel latte. He told me that he would first give it to me with only cream and no sugar added. I just about always take a bit of sugar in my coffee, but he told me that because the coffee was so freshly roasted and ground just before my cup was made it would be bursting with flavor and sweetened by the proper amount of cream he would add.

He was dead right. The coffee had a wonderful flavor, in fact it had a lot of flavors that were easy for even my novice palate to identify. The coffee didn’t taste bitter despite having no added sugar. I wanted it just a tad sweeter, so Edward added just the right amount of sugar for me to insure the coffee’s distinct flavors would not be drowned out.

As Stephanie and I left the cafe I noticed there was no table with cream or sugar for customers to add themselves. This gave the cafe a paternalistic feeling. The cafe evidently thought it could engineer the coffee I desired better than I could. No cream, no sugar, and I had only one choice for how my cup would be made. But I suppose it made sense. If I knew how to make better coffee than a professional barista then why should I pay one to make the first 90 percent of the drink? I didn’t prep the coffee beans, I didn’t operate the coffee making equipment, so why should I put the finishing touches on the drink?

If a producer is great, why should it give the customer freedom to screw up what it sells? To me the Philz formula is a great model. Listen to a customer. Help a customer obtain her vision, but don’t give the customer the ability to screw up a beautiful product.

Question: Do you prefer fewer menu choices when you go to a restaurant?

Share this post