Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Essential Herbal - Looking back, looking ahead

As we roll over into a new year, it's hard not to look back just a little bit further. In the last third of my life, changes have occurred that have been so immense that it is difficult to comprehend sometimes. A huge portion of the population never knew a world that didn't include the internet, cell phones, cable tv, texts, email, or any of the other instant forms of communication. These things have changed our world in a way that makes it almost impossible to remember "before".


I used to marvel that my grandmother lived in a world that progressed from horses and carriages to rocket ships. I wondered how a person could be flexible enough to embrace that much change.
Scurrying around yesterday trying to tie up loose year-end tasks for The Essential Herbal magazine, I started thinking about how much the act of running a business has changed over the years.
My mother started a business when I was little. I can remember that she purchased a rubber stamp that she used to make postcards to send to prospective customers, since you couldn't just print something out in multiple copies. She had a paper cutter, and that made her pretty upscale. All bills and payments went through the mail, and she sent her deposits to the bank via the mail. It took a week or more for them to show up in her account, but that didn't matter too much because everything was slower.
Later, my sister and I started a business. It was a retail herb shop at a renaissance faire (later expanded to a full-time independent shop), and finding sources to stock our shop was a real challenge. We phoned or wrote letters (on company letterhead, if you please) to companies to ask if they wholesaled and if so, could we please have a catalog. We traveled to wholesale shows. We scoured trade magazines. People protected their sources with a zeal that is unimaginable these days. I remember another vendor at the faire who cut all identifying printing off boxes before putting them out for trash pick-up.
Records were kept on hand-written ledgers and totaled by hand with an adding machine that had long rolls of paper so you could check your work.
At first, people started getting the idea that email might be okay. It was fun to meet someone and ask, "do you have email?", and thrilling to find that sometimes they did, and it would be easy to stay in touch. Friendships that would have been a one time meeting turned into lifelong relationships. Websites started populating the world wide web, and within a few years people started to get comfortable ordering items online.
Everything has changed.
Some of us might remember the early days of listserves and forums, the free-for-alls when folks were trying to learn how to communicate with hundreds or thousands of unknown others, and sometimes failing miserable. Oh the flame wars of the early days, before people learned to filter and censor themselves! In some ways, I miss that raw and honest stuff. In other ways I am thankful that it evolved.
Now I'm watching how this instant communication is helping people to organize, start and run businesses at the drop of a hat, talk to anyone, anywhere with nary a thought to the sheer miracle that it really is.
I wonder how much more change is coming. Last night at dinner the conversation included discussion on artificial intelligence, and how many problems it could solve. Of course my 20th century sensibilities immediately hear, "I'm sorry Dave. I can't do that."
So here's to jumping into another year that will undoubtedly bring changes that I am unable to imagine. Let's hope they're good ones!

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