Hunt for Steel
Preface & Reader Response
"I started to consider the lives of the people who made these objects that we consider works of art now."
LITTLE SHOPS OF HONOR
by Jerry Murley
I learned long ago that one creates or gets credit for creation, but rarely both. The wealthy buyer is not the creator, but he plays a role in the production and preservation of creation. The admiring collector is not to be dismissed as non-essential or manipulative, no matter his undeserved, applause-stealing supporting role in the creative process.
Frankly, I do not write much about New York City, partly because it seems pretentious to go on about distant life as if it outshone the one close at hand. Aggrandizement by reflected luminescence is neither praiseworthy nor a source of genuine inspiration. The other related reason is that I have long attributed the lack of progress in Tennessee to people, prominent and otherwise, who pine for the celebrity glow of places like New York City, Atlanta, London, and Paris, who are too neglectful of concerns and talents at home to effectively step-up to a role as patron of local economic and social development. The arts, as well as much else, suffer locally when attention is fixed on worship and undifferentiated mimicry of faraway examples.
Still, events do prompt me to comment on New York City now and then. One such event was an interview of a musical group one morning on National Public Radio.  Others pertain to trips my wife and I took to New York City between Thanksgiving 2007 and October of 2014, and particularly to a trip my wife took in February 2014.
The New York City that is the subject of this rumination is not the metropolis of glorious lights and tall buildings, the one of robust night life, the one of fabulously varied, excellent, and affordable restaurants, or the one of iconic museums. Rather, my focus is on the less glamorous core of New York City life that puts wanna-be cities to shame. It is related to extraordinary wealth, but only indirectly. The essence about which I speak lies in the cherished and preserved corners that in many ways are not wholly dissimilar to tiny pockets of life in Tennessee cities and towns.
This story, though associated with ideals and travels shared with my wife, is prompted by her impassioned recounting of her visit to New York City without me. She had been auditing, and doing extensive readings related to, an online course on the evolutionary history of humankind. A vast network of connections generated by what she was reading and observations in her everyday life set her and her conversation afire for weeks. She was nearly manic about the subject, an unusual fever based on her life-long, calm temperament. She has always admired small objects of superior workmanship and unusual and delicate style. She started seeing rare craftsmanship everywhere that she looked. And her notice of the work and its meaning was not clouded by prejudices regarding class or wealth or economic fairness. It was guided by pure wonder and appreciation of the progressive steps of humankind that made the objects possible.
When we went to New York City in the fall of 2007, we spent the whole of the visit roaming the environs of Greenwich Village. We were struck by the numerous narrow shops that were crammed with old and obscure merchandise. Even the chic stores and galleries retained refinished hardwood floors scored by activity in eras past. My wife was particularly struck by a wool shop on her visit. Her telling of the story surpasses mine, but I will tell it as I remember her telling it. She started the conversation talking about the Morgan Library.
During a stop at the Morgan Library, she was attracted to the old part where Pierpoint Morgan's study and library are.   The library houses his collection of books from all over the world, including two Gutenberg Bibles. Both rooms are richly decorated, the study in dark-red fabric and the library in dark-red wood, stained glass, and frescos. When my wife expressed an interest in exploring the rooms, one of her party said she wasn't interested in "rich people's stuff." That would seem to put an end to it, but it didn't: my wife was interested in the displays of smaller, intricately crafted objects for a particular reason.
She recounted to me that the study and library had been restored to how they looked when Morgan was alive. The craftsmanship that had gone into the making the books struck her. But there were other artifacts from ancient times. She was particularly captivated by tiny Mesopotamian cylinder seals carved in marble, used to roll over wax and make imprints indicating the origin and authenticity of documents. They are very delicate, she said. "I started to consider the lives of the people who made these objects that we consider works of art now. At the time they were just practical devices, but people spent days carving them. I contrasted the time employed making such objects with the time used to make fast food and plastic trinkets."
I asked why she was so interested in these small, delicate objects, things others generally ignored. I wanted to know if and how her recent engagement in anthropology connected. Was it mainly an interest in ingenious adaptations over time?
She referred to her area of informal study as being about how humankind behaved over time in changing conditions. "In New York City," she said, "I think of the modern people who live and work there – people from all over the world who bring something of their old lives to new circumstances."
A little wool shop in the East Village, after a stop at the Strand bookstore, was a sample experience that linked these interests in her mind. "We started up in a small cafe; it was empty except for us. Then we went looking for hats. When we walked into the wool shop, it was freezing outside and there was an old wooden screen door across the open entrance. There were wood floors. It was long and narrow inside. We said we were looking for hats. They responded that the hats weren't for sale – they were for selling wool. The shop seemed about eight feet wide, but it had tall ceilings. There was a long aisle with wooden shelves stretching high up with all this different wool in different colors with hats to show what could be done with the wool. There was this one perky woman who was there to help. She wore a knit cap that had ears. It was cute and she was cute. In the back there was the proprietress, who was involved doing something with wool, and there was a big, white dog sitting on the floor under a table. The young shopkeeper said that the dog had been there since the shop had – for over 14 years. That shop space had probably not changed much for a hundred years. I don't think they make much money. It's what they do every day. The wool was beautiful. It may be the type of place that people would come to regularly from all over to get wool."
* * *
I regret that I did not do more forty years ago to keep old adaptable buildings from being destroyed. I am ashamed for overlooking, and for making private dismissive judgments about, small trade and craft shops and their importance to city life. I say this knowing full well that I did much to save buildings in Memphis, and that ever since a summer in Italy, I have adored small, often moldy, trade and craft shops, while at the same time being amazed at how those establishments manage to survive.
Sometimes one does much that is big and magnificent by doing little. It is magnificent when craftsmen and trades people, eccentric intellectuals and artists, keep at their passions despite the near impossibly of lucrative success or notice, let alone high repute. I have held to my passions, but I did not hold to them to the exclusion of doing my duty toward my family and making sure we were secure. I don't apologize for my decisions and actions on that point; for me they were good ones. But I never lost sight of where I came from and my core interests beyond basic comfortable survival and showy equality with the proverbial Jones.
* * *
Christmas feels and smells of those little shops of honor, where minor daily actions reap major results for healthy social interaction and the whole of human culture. The treasure of tomorrow will likely come from those tiny corners of transcendence.
1. On NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, Scott Simon interviewed Guy Garvey of a musical group from Manchester, England, called Elbow. Scott asked about the song "New York Morning" [March 8, 2014]:
"SIMON: What did you see in New York that got to you?
GARVEY: I've come to realize that there's a fragility to New York and not just because of recent disasters it's suffered. I mean, the constant need to patch the infrastructure. And the whole place it seems to be held together with the hard work of decent, honest, hardworking New Yorkers and the sense of community on a city bus. I was quite ashamed that it doesn't exist in England in the way that it used to."
2. Here is a link to a photograph of Mr. Morgan's study.
3. Here is a link to a photograph of Mr. Morgan's library.