Whither the Artisanal Bank?

Willy Staley

By Willy Staley  Thu Mar 8, 2012

Willy Staley is a staff writer and columnist for MyBankTracker.com. His columns cover banking, policy, and culture. More Columns »

Paul Lowry/flickr source

To mock Brooklyn for all the artisanal products hawked at shops and flea markets from Greenpoint to Ditmas Park is a joke as well-worn as the barstools at any of Williamsburg’s self-consciously dumpy dives. The whole damn borough is turning back the clock to when Brooklyn was “the greatest place on oith,” making boutique industries out of formerly mechanized ones. At any decent restaurant you’re likely to find that everything from cured meats to ice cubes are made in-house, or by someone responsible, and nearby.

It’s not just here, of course, IFC’s Portlandia has done an excellent job cataloguing and parodying these anachronistic tendencies, perhaps most succinctly with the “Dream of the 1890′s” video, in which Fred Armisen boasts incredulously of his recent trip to Portland and all the pre-modern technologies and fashions he saw. It’s witty, and speaks to the absurdity of our current fixation on the artisanal.

While in the past, a nationwide fascination with the retro might have led to increased sales of zoot suits or bell-bottoms, there is a stronger undercurrent in this trend towards local industries. It’s easy to write this off as a consumer trend, but harder to do so when you consider that newer, smaller producers are popping up at a staggering rate, and as the New York Times’s Adam Davidson recently pointed out, this hyper-specialization is what makes capitalism work.

“Instead of rolling our eyes at self-conscious Brooklyn hipsters pickling everything in sight,” writes Adam Davidson in the story — inadvertently referencing another Portlandia sketch, by the way — “we might look to them as guides to the future of the American economy.”

It’s hard not to look at this homegrown, artisanal trend as a response to the abstraction and excess of the last economic expansion. After a few decades of massive economic growth and prosperity fueled mostly by finance, technology and real estate, which was accompanied by flavored vodkas, slick Asian fusion restaurants, furniture from CB2 and bright, carefree Pantones, it’s not surprising that in the wake of the crisis brought on by this mess, young people are looking for something with a more permanent, weighty feel. Even if the nostalgia might be misplaced, it speaks to a desire for a deeper, local connection to the things we consume. Silly and boutiquey as that may sound, this impulse carries weight with academics, public intellectuals and anyone who understands that crude oil is a finite resource.

So how is it that the industry at the very epicenter of this shift in consumer habits and desires, banking, has not even made a gesture towards taking part. It was our illustrious editor, Paul Conley (my boss), who pointed out in a conversation last Friday that this would be a brilliant marketing move. But bankers, unlike journalists, don’t write trend pieces in their heads to pass the time.

This isn’t far-fetched

Look no further than the Brooklyn Flea for an example of banking’s former glory put right alongside Brooklyn’s obsession with vintage. In the winter months, the Brooklyn Flea hibernates in One Hanson Place, also known as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, one of Brooklyn’s grandest buildings. In the main atrium, under imposing limestone columns lit by precariously dangling chandeliers, jewelry makers and collectors of things of varying degrees of uselessness hawk their wares. At the back of the atrium is a massive mosaic map of Brooklyn, the various towns that were annexed into the borough named in their original Dutch. One floor below, you can find locally-made food in the bank’s old vaults, the doors to which are as big as a small car, and likely heavier.

Compare that to the carpeted furniture, fluorescent lighting, and strip mall parking lot vistas that most banks offer today. Could a bank not set itself apart from those involved in the crisis by making itself look old school? By returning to the fundamentals of the business — at least on the surface? Turn-of-the-century cheesemongers, butchers and barbers didn’t go around with a Capital One card in their wallets. Their banking experience was not weighed down with the crushing banality that characterizes the business today — or at least, we like to assume so.

Capital One blows it in the ‘Burg

And as Capital One slowly moves into Williamsburg, that bastion of “hipster” culture, opening two branches there in recent years, it’s easy to see how incongruous a nationwide bank looks in the neighborhood. The bank erected a brand-spanking-new branch location on Metropolitan Avenue, in the midst of a stretch of sleepy vinyl-sided buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Goodfellas. And their building is sharp and metallic, like it could have been airlifted in from Riverside — more like the condos that are popping up in North Brooklyn than the existing neighborhood.. Their 90′s-vintage logo, with its slick, swooping lines just feels outré in a neighborhood that has become so wrapped up in a false version of its own history.

My pitch to banks here is that there is money to be made — and I’m happy to take a salary to act as cultural attaché, if need be — by branding a bank in such a way that hearkens back to simpler times, when banks wouldn’t need to be wary of the risks of investing in complex derivatives, because there were none to invest in. Customers would get the sense you reward thrift — not that you gouge customers for fees wherever possible.

And it would be charming, wouldn’t it? — bearded, tattooed tellers trading your $10 bills for laundry quarters, loan officers with three-piece suits and monocles, handcrafted, well-polished wood, everywhere. And on the back end, this just could be any run-of-the-mill community bank — Capital One couldn’t pull it off — providing finance for neighborhood businesses and development. Looking to start an artisanal laundry? Why not? Come on down to my really cool bank that invests in businesses like this, in addition to traditional, lower-risk investments.

The genius of the artisanal businessperson is that they can make you forget that they’re doing business. Banks have been trying to figure out how to do this for years. Why not give it a shot?

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