Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The Birth of Reid's "Talking Windows"

In the middle eighties, I made my first discovery about the power of streetside communication. That's a term I coined to describe a technique that came into being quite by accident. It was another of those times when I attracted major press without intending to do so at all, like today with the Rosie exposure.

It was during the days when Sony introduced the walkman, and my youngest customers were proudly wearing them on their belts. Everyone sported headphones and vacant stares as they passed my shop on their way to and from school. Sony ushered in a problem that few beside record store owners were aware of. During the LP album era, youngsters would bring home their new purchases, put the disc on the record player and everyone in the house would hear and enjoy (or not) their newest album. With the walkman, kids would come into the store, select a cassette tape, walk out with the music blaring in their ears with parents being totally unaware of what was being listened to. I, alone, would know that much of it was ugly and often obscene material. In an odd way I was placed in the position of putting into the ears of children (secretly) what I would not have wanted my own to be exposed to in their formative years.

The walkman came into being about the time that rap music was becoming popular and this added an extra dimension. I started listening to my products and being horrified at much of what I heard. Made a decision that started my "talking windows" strategy.

When LL COOL J, a New York rap artist came out with a release called "Bad," I decided to act. I only intended to communicate with the children in the immediate neighborhood. I would explain to them why I would not be selling the new release that they'd been signing up for days to buy. Took a large poster, turned it around and wrote on the back -- posted it prominently in the window with an album cover of the artist;

LL COOL J is not on sale here.
Sorry, kids, but we have to draw the line somewhere.
This album contains not only explicit sexual lyrics, but advocates
violence as well.
We certainly need your business and support
but not at the cost of your values and moral development.
You are the future
You are the hope for positive change!

Betty Reid Soskin

(You'll notice that I didn't dumb down the words or the message.)

As the kids filed in to buy this latest monstrosity, I waved them along with, "you'll have to get this one from Leopolds up on Telegraph Avenue, kids. I'm sorry."

At some point on that first day a reporter passing by saw my homemade sign and stopped in to inquire. He took a picture of it (and with me standing beside it) and walked away grinning and shaking his head. The next day there on page three of the Oakland Tribune was a large photo and a major article about the evils of rap music. This is surely not what I had in mind. Nor was the unexpected response that followed. There were calls from local radio stations from talk show hosts. There were requests for interviews. There was one talk show host who made a visit to the store that very day for a live interview -- and happened to catch an interaction between me and a precocious 8 year-old wanting the tape and being refused.

The radio host:

"Do you agree that you're in violation of the First Amendment?"


"No I do not. The artist has a right to create and record the material. The record company has exercised the right to produce the record for sale. I am simply opting out on my right to sell it. I'm not suggesting that people don't buy it -- am actually referring them on to where it is available. I'm simply not participating in the process -- that is MY right. Actually, everytime I visit my wholesaler and make the selection of just what I want on my shelves, I'm exercising that option. This is no different."

Over the next week there were letters from far and wide. They came from caring mothers giving thanks. There were several from San Quentin from prisoners who congratulated me on "helping to save kids." There were some that contained checks written in the amount of the cassette with notes saying, "...this is for the sales that you will miss for taking your stand. Keep it up!"

In the years that followed there were many occasions when my windows "talked" to the community. At election time I'd study the ballot measures for a couple of weeks prior, and on big rolls of newsprint would cover my display windows with my choices; a replica of the ballot. I would start -- not by telling folks how they should vote, but with how I planned to use the franchise. Big difference.

The California ballot was becoming more and more convoluted year by year, with initiatives written to be as confusing as possible (requiring a no vote when you wished a yes). The process was hard enough for me to wade through. I guessed that many simply gave up and sat out election day for fear of making wrong choices. This might increase the number going to the polls (I hoped). Along with my window ballot (always with my signature at the bottom), I placed on my counter a printed list of my rationale for each of my choices. Was always careful to leave at least one measure without an answer, ("...you're on your own on this one. I can't quite figure it out") just so I wouldn't be seen as a know-it-all. Would write the really critical ones in red ink to call attention to the weird ones that were written with the intent to confuse.

Again, I thought that I was talking directly to my neighbors and customers until local candidates began to show up for endorsements from time to time. It was common for people to begin to come in a couple of weeks before election time to ask if I'd gotten my ballot ready for posting yet, "how we gonna vote Ms. Reid?". During the last week before, it was not unusual to see people pull up in their cars and park in front of the store to sit marking their sample ballots. Even the drug dealers would sit on the curb doing the same. On the last couple of days people would come in to talk about the candidates and the measures and to argue good-naturedly with my choices. It was all that I'd hoped for.

I'd hoped that my talking windows idea would catch on with other small merchants in the neighborhood, in hope that folks would then have a choice of leadership. It never happened. I suspected that no one wanted to be seen as being on the wrong side of the results on the day after the election. I never cared. For me, the goal was to increase the numbers going to the polls. I believe that we did that.

Talking windows and a dynamic newsletter worked miracles in my determination to magnify my voice toward social change in my 500 foot realm of influence.

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