Saoirse and I are standing on a curb in front of a Starbucks in Albany amidst a sea of suits and cell phones. It doesn’t take long for me to find Steve, who we are waiting for. Steve Hoare owns Black Dome Press, a small, local, independent publishing house that focuses on books of regional interest. He stands out in this ocean like a lighthouse. No suit, only a red parka and an old pair of jeans. His hands are in his pockets, not holding an iPhone, and he is looking up at the clouds and the people milling about, not down at a screen. We are meeting to hand off some books while Saoirse and I are in his neck of the woods. Steve and I have worked together for the past 10 years, supporting each other in our adventures as independent publisher and independent writer. As he comes toward us, I suddenly realize he isn’t the only conspicuous one. Here are Saoirse and I, Mother and adolescent daughter, arms linked on a weekday at noon in the state capitol. I am not at a job, she is not in school. She is wearing bright yellow barn boots and a hand-me-down sweater, no designer jeans or handbag. I am in my darned sweater and moccasins — No heels, no lipstick.
The three of us chat briefly before we make our way on our errands. Steve is excited, because he is almost finished buying out Black Dome Press from his predecessor, a process that has been ongoing for the last five years. He shakes his head. “If I’d only known what would happen in the publishing industry,” and then he starts laughing, “I don’t know if I’d ever have gone through with this.” Then, still laughing, he shrugs. “It’s so tight, trying to make the numbers work. But here we are. And I’m still in business!” There is joy in his eyes as he says it.
I smile. I think back to the meeting Bob and I had with Larry, our contractor, that same morning. We poured over my spreadsheets detailing the renovation expenses to convert the old firehouse into a cafe. I estimate that, if there are no more surprises, we are only $6,000 shy of funds. As Larry swallows down his coffee, I start to laugh. We’re not doing too bad, I figure, considering this project wound up being $50K more than we’d expected, which was $50K more than we’d had.
Steve’s words stick in my head: If I’d only known. If I’d known that the crumbling pavement in front of the door would need to be jack hammered out to make it safe for foot traffic, or that we’d have to build a new ADA-compliant bathroom and new emergency exits, or that our project would require five sinks and the requisite fixtures, or that it would take a team of technicians to design a water system that would make coffee taste perfect without leaving our mountains’ mineral residues in the machines, would I have gone forward?
On another night Cornelia comes by, taking a break from working on the old church hall, which she and her husband Greg have re-named Panther Creek Arts. She brings a bottle of vodka from Barber’s farm stand. The distillery is Barber’s newest endeavor, a project to add value to their potato crop. She puts it on the counter and we hop up on stools. The bottle isn’t even open before we are laughing like a couple of drunks.
Cornelia has a concert scheduled at the hall a little over a week out, and the kitchen of the building is still completely gutted. The detritus that accumulated in the hall from 50 plus years of civic history — old chairs, old cook stoves, retired tools, boxes of antiquated kitchen equipment, fill what is supposed to be the reception area, leaving only a path through the downstairs. She begins regaling me with stories of the stumbling blocks they’ve encountered on just this phase of the project. If she’d only known.
Bob comes home and urges us to do more than sit in front of the lovely glass vodka bottle. Before long, ice and glasses appear before us. I watch the bottle tip, and I think about what unexpected developments Barbers must have confronted when their son came home and said “Hey! Let’s put a distillery on the farm!” If they’d only known.
And as I sit here this morning, my desk cluttered with checkbooks, invoices and to-do lists as we make our march toward opening day, those words echo in my mind: If we’d only known. If we’d known what we would face, would we have gone forward?
I’m a big believer in business planning. I have cash flow projections, income projections and market analyses scattered amidst the checkbooks and invoices in front of me. I have manuals on coffee machine maintenance and repair, recipe cost breakdowns, and farm balance sheets reflecting livestock, feed and labor costs. I have insurance quotes, flooring quotes, and more equipment quotes. I’ve tried to know everything I can.
And yet, there is so much that I didn’t know. So much that I still don’t know. So many times more when I might utter those same words, If I’d only known.
But what if we had known? What if Steve had realized just how hard it would be to keep an independent publishing house running? What if Cornelia and Greg had known just how much work and money would be required to open a performing arts venue in our tiny hamlet? What if Barbers had known exactly all that was entailed in opening a distillery using their potatoes? What if Bob and I had fully understood all the costs and risks tied to opening a farm store and cafe in the middle of nowhere?
If we’d all known everything, then there would be fewer books telling the stories of the Catskills and Adirondack mountains. There wouldn’t be a bright red parka, or a scrappy mother and daughter arm and arm on a school day, standing out in a sea of black suits and mascara. There wouldn’t be live music in an abandoned ramshackle building in the center of a long-forgotten hamlet . There wouldn’t be a clear glass bottle of creamy potato vodka to sit around with friends, talking late into the night, laughing about all our mistakes, all the things we might have done differently if we’d only known.
But we don’t know. And this morning, before as I keep looking for that last six grand, I breathe deeply and give thanks for the things that I don’t know that I don’t know.