Writings

Looking Forward to Monday Mornings
A series of essays on business, architecture, and the business of architecture.
Herb Cohen Was Right, Mostly
by Daniel Frisch
Posted February 3rd, 2020

In 1980, my ‘retired’ parents opened a bookstore in our adopted home town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their decision to open the store was a very personal one. I know they loved books, they seemed to have read most, if not all of them, but wouldn’t that occasion someone to visit a library or the mall with a chain bookstore? They didn’t need to open a bookstore, they might have continued their teaching careers, they might have stared down the barrels of more microscopes; they might have simply stayed at home and led girl-scout troops and coached baseball teams. But they didn’t, they would prefer to live in a city with an independent bookstore, and to be part of a vibrant Main Street. Their personal decision was anchored by their sense of civic duty and cultural leadership. As an adolescent, I had mixed feelings about this bookselling endeavor. Sure, my parents were academic, but book-learning is a long way from cool. My parents weren’t cool, at least not in the eyes of a teen obsessed with competitive sports, material consumption, and making new friends.

Having one’s parents own a bookstore wasn’t always great fun. I was expected to work when I might have preferred to play, and the continuing education aspect was very difficult to appreciate as a kid. Reflecting on it now, I can’t think of a route to a better education than coming of age as a bookseller’s kid. One of the perks of owning a bookstore was hosting authors who were traveling the country on book tours. Given that our bookstore was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this meant we were not likely to be visited by best selling authors like Pat Conroy or Stephen King. Yet, two particular authors you have probably never heard of made quite an impression on me, and are in fact the only two I can specifically recall. I still possess the original volumes some forty years later.

The first author was Joe Girard, who wrote a book (among others) titled How to Sell Yourself (Simon and Schuster 1979). At the time, Mr. Girard held the Guinness Book of World Records title for selling the most cars in a single year. His writing has not stayed with me the way Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Melville’s has, but I’ve never forgotten a story he told of a lost sale. By recollection, a woman came into the showroom and after considerable deliberation, kicking the tires so to speak, she settled on a particular model. While executing all of the customary paperwork, she became nervous and thought to have a cigarette. Confronting an empty pack, she asked Joe if she could have one of his. Unfortunately for the completion of the sale, Joe did not smoke the same brand. The woman excused herself, jumped in her jalopy, promising to be right back, and drove off to replenish her supply. Of course, she never returned. Joe Girard’s response was to go to the store himself and to buy one pack of every popular brand, and never to lose another sale that way.

The second author was Herb Cohen who had just penned a similar self-help book about negotiation, You Can Negotiate Anything (Lyle Stuart, Inc. 1980). I recall a number of stories from Mr. Cohen’s book, and recently I read the tome again to refresh my memory. I borrow a couple of stories from it frequently, and even after so many years, I occasionally recommend the book to friends and colleagues. My favorite memory of Mr. Cohen was his opinion that “if you don’t miss a plane, train, or bus once in a while, you are spending to much time in airports, train stations and bus stations.” I rely on this for my just-in-time but relaxed approach to getting to the airport. Unfortunately, last Friday, Mr. Cohen’s aphorism came rushing back to me as I missed an early morning flight. While Herb Cohen might have applauded the fact that I had missed a flight, the third I have missed during a life of travel, I think the reason for the snafu would have infuriated him. I arrived forty minutes before my flight, and the skycap told me it was too close to departure to accept my checked bag (golf clubs, of course). After going inside and getting rejected by both a self-check-in kiosk and an airline representative, it became clear that the airline has introduced a forty-five minute pre-flight deadline, which could not be overridden. While I was disappointed to miss the flight, I had no one to blame but myself – if I had left my apartment promptly at 5:30 AM as intended, rather than dawdling a bit, I would certainly have made the flight. Standing in line at the help desk instead of waiting at the gate to board, I began to wonder whether Herb Cohen might be right about missing a flight once in a while, even if not based on the narrow rationale of saving time for other important business needs. Instead of being angry at a stupid rule, or even with myself, I wondered if I could take advantage of having an unplanned two-hour break from rushing about (see Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late  also mentioned in my “Our Best Work” post).

After getting re-booked, I went through security. Since I was no longer in a hurry, I did not particularly mind that my TSA-Pre check status was not marked on my boarding pass. The line wasn’t too terribly long, and it really wasn’t too inconvenient to slip off my loafers and take my laptop out of my briefcase. Holding back any frustration, I wandered out to my gate, and my eyes alit upon one of the ubiquitous terminal retail spas with its rows of massage chairs fronting the concourse. I had two hours to kill, and it was 6:52 AM, not really five o’clock anywhere. I walked a little further into the store where I met a salesperson checking out the other customer in the store. Incidentally, she was paying a $250 tab for “services” – I didn’t ask how much time she was trying to kill, or with whom she might have been angry. I unplugged, and sat down for a thirty-minute chair massage, just as so many other travelers have done before. This gave me some time to think; to think about how long it had been since I had a massage; to think about how easy it is to be upset, and how hard it is to overcome inconvenience or frustration; to think about and remember my parents; to look forward to seeing some of my dearest friends; and how even so, I would miss my family over the weekend. Mostly, I tried to think about nothing, and to enjoy the success my masseuse was having at kneading away my stress. After the chair massage and paying the tab, I chatted for a bit with the masseuse about his background and his work. I believe he was thrilled to have someone show an interest. After settling the tab and bidding adieu, I sat in one of the mechanical massage chairs and thought some more, deciding to write this story.

It was then 8:00 AM, both the hour the concourse bar opens, and definitely five o’clock somewhere. I ordered a Bloody Mary, emailed my friends to tell them I would join them on the back-nine; opened my computer and began to write. I don’t believe Herb Cohen would ever have taken such pleasure in a missed flight; but I still credit him teaching me a laid back attitude when it comes to travel and the bumps along the way. At the end of the day, Herb Cohen was right, mostly.