On Tradin

By Tom Word

One of the many pleasures of being a grandparent is watching our grandchildren discover the world and how it works.  And we long to pass on to them little bits of wisdom we think (perhaps foolishly) that living long has given us.  But we also hesitate to pontificate too early for fear our grandchildren will misinterpret our passed-on wisdom and that we will confuse or misguide them.  We know instinctively that some lessons are best learned by experience, perhaps experience that stings a little.  We all want to protect our loved ones from pain, but we know that depriving the young of struggle can ruin them.

As grandparents, we fear that we may die before we get to pass on bits of wisdom and our deeply felt affection to our grandchildren.  My friend Luke Weaver hedges his bets by writing letters to his grandchildren, to be read when they are old enough to understand the message and profit from it.  He called me yesterday to read one of these letters to his six-year-old granddaughter Ivy in whom he sees a clone of his daughter Laura in many pleasant traits.

The subject of Luke’s letter was the trading tradition of the Weaver family, honed at the cattle barns and mule markets of South Georgia.  Among the lessons Luke wanted to pass on was this one:

If you are a seller, don’t price your goods too low.  Sometimes there are buyers who mistake a high asking price for evidence of value, or a low asking price for a lack of it.  Luke cited the case of the sale-barn auctioneer who starts his plea for bids too low, then backs off and demands a much higher bid to get the bidding started.  The low ask brings silence from the bidders bench, but the high one starts a bidder who mistakes it for evidence of the quality he craves.

Thinking about this quirk of human nature, Luke recalled Jake Barrett, who long ago broke meat dogs for Bob Lamb.  A doctor came to the kennel to buy a gun dog.  Jake showed him a little white setter female that was sharp as a tack and priced at $175.

“Well, she’s a nice little dog, but I was looking to pay more than that,” the doctor said.

Jake took the setter back to the kennel and let her wallow in a mud puddle, thus altering her appearance.  After showing the doctor a couple of pointer prospects, he took the muddy setter back to show the doctor and had her point another bird, calling her by a different name and stating her asking price at $700.  The doctor happily paid it.  Whether true or apocryphal, it’s a good story.

Luke recalled receiving a call years ago from a doctor wanting to buy a “good big horse.”  Luke had one that was good, but didn’t quite suit him.  He was willing to sell it for $175 (he’d paid $150 a few years earlier).

“What are you looking to pay for a horse,“ Luke shrewdly asked the doctor.  “Oh, I’d pay $900 to $1,000 for the right one,” the doctor said.  Then he asked Luke if he’d bring the horse to an airstrip so he could fly his private plane in to inspect it.  Luke said, “Sure.”

Luke drove the horse to the county airfield in an open-bed cattle truck.  The doctor got out of his plane, walked to the truck, looked at the horse briefly, and paid Luke’s $1,000 asking price without even saddling the horse.  He was in a buying mood and had in mind what he wanted to pay, without a clue of current market prices.

I recalled an experience in 1955 when I left the farm for college at age seventeen with two thousand bales of alfalfa hay in the barn for my widowed mother to sell during the winter.  I told her she shouldn’t take less than 75¢ a bale.  At Christmas, the barn was empty.  She’d gotten $1.50 for every bale.  So much for my market wisdom.  Mother knew how to size up a buyer who drove his truck to the farm, having heard at the nearby country story that a new widow had a barn full of quality hay for sale.

Luke ended his note to Ivy:

“Be fair, but hold your own.  Don’t price your goods too low.  See if you can figure out what the buyer expects to pay before you set your asking price.”