The savings-and-loan crisis in Maryland hasn't done much good for anybody, but along the way it has at least shed the light of publicity on a handful of institutions about which most of us had been wholly unaware but from which we can learn a pertinent lesson. These are the street-corner, Mom-and-Pop S & Ls, most of them in working neighborhoods of Baltimore, and they are noteworthy because they offer a commodity that is increasingly difficult to find in the United States: service.
Many of these small institutions, some of which are capitalized at as little as a couple of hundred thousand dollars, were established early in the century to serve Baltimore's immigrant communities. Their residents have long since been Americanized, but the old neighborhoods remain remarkably unchanged and so too do the little old S & Ls, to which community residents turn for everything from mortgages to small loans. Their applications receive prompt attention, in a process that is as much neighborly as fiduciary; these are in fact transactions between neighbors, and what the lender supplies along with funds is personal service.
Think about that the next time you go to your bank and get "serviced" by slipping a piece of plastic into a wall of metal; think about it when that same bank, in which you have deposited both your liquid funds and your savings, treats your loan application as if it were a declaration of war by a hostile nation. Think about it when you pump your own gas at a "service" station and then turn over your cash to a sliding drawer behind which sits an "attendant" in a bulletproof cage. Think about it when you try to attract the attention of a sales clerk in a department store.
It is one of the more considerable ironies of an ironic age: At a time when the base of our economy is gradually shifting from manufacturing to service, "service" as it has traditionally been known is gradually disappearing -- indeed is doing so at a considerably more rapid pace than the transformation of the economy. We are not talking about service in the sense of servility -- a transaction between superior and inferior -- but in the sense of an exchange between equals in which both stand to gain from courtesy, helpfulness and civility. If you're looking for any of those in the American marketplace today, look again.
Consider that you are in the market for a bedspread. You will gain most if you are able to find the most attractive and durable spread at the most affordable price; the store where you are shopping will gain most if it can persuade you to purchase one of the spreads it has in stock and if you depart sufficiently pleased by the transaction to want to return again. In the old-fashioned department store this usually took place, because the stock was large and varied, the sales staff equally large and solicitous; but in the department store as it now exists this is rare, for the stock is limited and poorly displayed, the sales staff short-handed and poorly informed.
How this came to pass is the subject of a provocative if depressing article in the current issue of The American Scholar. Titled "A Sad Heart at the Department Store," written by a Chicago psychotherapist named Marjorie Rosenberg, it chronicles "the achievement of the new, invisible executives in destroying the trusting relationship between buyer and seller so assiduously, and often lovingly, cultivated by the personnel of the family-owned department and specialty stores." This was a relationship in which buyer and seller valued and respected each other equally, a relationship that on the part of the stores involved liberal exchange policies, the provision of comfortable sitting rooms and bathrooms, and service that offered "personal attention from store employees and in the stocking of exclusive or unique merchandise"; on the part of the customers it involved loyalty to the store and its personnel, often to the extent of purchasing almost nothing anywhere else.
These were not stores, it must be emphasized, that catered to the carriage trade. They were stores like Rich's in Atlanta and Marshall Field's in Chicago that sought the business of all citizens who could afford prices that were quite within the reach of most. Stores catering to this market still exist, but now only rarely in the old style. Now they are operated by "executives who do not wish to provide any service beyond the ringing up of sales" -- hence the undermanned, harried sales staffs -- who pursue "a marketing technique that foists on the buyer huge quantities of merchandise as a substitute for real variety, and manipulation of prices as a substitute for quality."
The only trouble with Rosenberg's analysis is that it does not go far enough. The department stores are scarcely the only culprits when it comes to the rapacious pursuit of profits at the expense of service and courtesy. Have you been to the supermarket lately? To an automobile dealer? To that same dealer's "service" department? To a bookstore? A sporting-goods store?
If you have, then you found many things, none of which could be called "service." At the supermarket you found management locked away from you in an aerie by the checkout lane, and your progress through the aisles was impeded by clerks single-mindedly ramming new merchandise onto the shelves. At the auto dealership you found indifferent, even hostile sales personnel, and at the "service" department you found that they were doing you a favor to let you wait three hours in order to give them your money. At the bookstore you found a clerk who knew nothing about books and regarded special orders as an intrusion on his gum-chewing time. At the sporting-goods store you found a "shoe salesman" who knew nothing about shoes, nothing about feet, and thus had no helpful counsel about which shoe would fit you -- that's you, your feet -- most comfortably.
The stores, most of which are chains run by distant and anonymous managers, have plenty of explanations for this. They moan about shoplifting, about the difficulty of finding capable clerks, about the highly competitive marketplace. They conveniently don't mention that customers usually don't shoplift from merchants they like and respect, that capable people aren't interested in working at places where they're ill-paid and ill-trained, that competition is not a synonym for discourtesy. They also don't say that their only real interest in the customer is in separating him from his money.
Contrast this with a Virginia department store that used to advertise: "Between the patrons and the management there is more to be desired than mere selling; an abiding friendship is valued far above profit." Think about that the next time you try to buy a bedspread, and then think about what its disappearance says about the condition of the social contract in the United States in 1985.