Artistes have always viewed tradespeople with condescension, if not contempt, seeing them as crude money-grabbers, not fellow creators and innovators. Although art itself participates in commerce, it is never totally reconciled to it; it often sees itself as the flagbearer of values critical of the urge to make profit at all costs and to treat human labour purely as an economic commodity. It might be said that art seeks transcendental values; business, merely worldly ones.

Timeless: John Updike’s My Uncle’s Death is part of the anthology.

Indeed, in The Hardware Man, perhaps the best story in the collection, these contrasting attitudes towards the selling of goods and the employment of people are shown meeting head-on in a small town in America. The story is by John O’Hara, a short story writer who once enjoyed a reputation as big as his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It depicts a young tyro, Lou Mauser, who starts off as a worker in a hardware store, learns the ropes of the trade, saves up some cash, buys the owner out, and then sets out to decimate every other hardware shop in the neighbourhood.

There are stories here about employers and workers, thrift and largesse, success and failure, desk jobs and con jobs. The opening sentence of Joseph Heller’s In The Office In Which I Work—“In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I am afraid"—will resonate immediately with anybody who has ever worked in an organization and quickly become part of its sects and rivalries.

“Just about everybody in the company is afraid of somebody else in the company," says Heller’s narrator—which might serve as a small-scale encapsulation of the logic of capitalism. Heller, who spent many years in corporate life, was drawing from personal experience. So, presumably, was O. Henry—who spent five years in jail on a charge of embezzlement—in his tale of three crooks, A Man Higher Up. And in John Updike’s My Uncle’s Death, a child’s adoring view of his rich but somewhat mysterious uncle from the fringes of his life gives us a sense of how the man might be in his dealings in a harsher climate. Uncle and nephew play card games, and “now and then, as he deliberated over the upturned pile, and then plunged and took them all in his hand, I felt for an instant the decisive thrust that had carried him into the world of money".

Calvin Coolidge thought that “the business of America is business", and the implications of that idea—the readiness of a civilization for that “decisive thrust"—are explored from many viewpoints in Minding the Store.

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