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"Lena! Lena! It's here!"
Helena looked up from the pot she was stirring to see her cousin Dorothea Kellerin pushing open the door. The girl was barely able to hold on to the basket of food she'd bought at the market, considering the thick book she was waving. "What's here? And be careful with that. You'll bruise the apples if you drop them."
Dorothea pretty much ignored the admonition, which was fairly standard for her, especially when she was excited about something. Worried for the apples, which wouldn't store well if bruised, Helena said, "Come, Dara. At least put the basket down first."
Dara managed, finally, to get the basket down without mishap, but it was a near thing. "Come look at this, Lena."
"Again I ask, what is it?"
"The new Wish Book." Dara was practically bouncing with excitement. "Remember? We got the first one, the little one. But with all the fuss this past summer, we never got another. Until today."
Trust Dara to call it a fuss, Lena thought. A rebellion, one that had caused quite a number of deaths, not to mention the uproar here in Bamberg. Why, you still saw mounted men wearing Ram armbands on the street. Of course, they were actually a part of the State of Thuringia-Franconia Mounted Constabulary. The second company had decided to keep the ram as their symbol. She leaned over the book to see what Dara was pointing at.
"I want those." Dara pointed at the divided skirts that had become so common. "And they're cheap. Probably cheaper than you can make them, even."
Lena looked closer. It was getting to be time to buy Dara one of the suits of clothing that she got each year. Room, board and clothing, along with a small amount of wages was how she paid her cousin for her help. It was the common arrangement. Dara made pin money by doing chores or errands for others in her spare time, but her primary job was to help Lena and her husband Peter with the housework and work in the shoe shop. Her wages wouldn't be due until Dara left them to marry, as was usual. The young—and Dara was only twenty-two—didn't usually marry until they'd saved enough to start their own households. "That does seem to be a good price, Dara. But how do you know they would fit?"
"They have a sizing chart, they call it."
"Very well. I'll look at it after supper. For right now, though, we'd best get busy."
Lena looked over the section of shoes with increasing concern. The shoes were much like her husband made. At least some were. Some were better. Not fancier, but better designed. There were pictures that showed the structure of the shoes: lining, padding, support for the arches. Dead cheap, too. She began to worry, then, as she turned the page, she got very worried. Boots, this time And, not just the fashionable boots, either. Work boots, like any man would wear. And again, dead cheap.
How was Peter going to compete with these prices? They even, she wasn't too surprised to find, had a shoe sizing chart on the pages. Three, in fact. Men's, women's and children's. All sorts.
This was bad news.
Peter Schuhmacher looked up as Lena came in to the shop area of their home. "What's wrong, dear?" he asked as soon as he saw her face. They were a good match. She took care of the books and he made the shoes with the help of a single journeyman and two apprentices.
"This!" She showed him the book.
He looked at them and immediately realized the quality of the shoes. Still, the structure of these shoes and boots would require a whole lot of extra sewing and some really good glues. So he wasn't really worried. He did look at the prices, but the truth was that he still wasn't all that comfortable with the new money that the up-timers had introduced. Yes, thirty dollars for a pair of boots seemed a little low, but maybe not. Peter wasn't all that sure what thirty dollars was worth.
Lena was quick to inform him that thirty dollars was less than half of what he would charge for a pair of boots.
"They can't do it. There's no way that they can make these boots for that little. Especially these boots. Look here." He pointed at the picture showing the various layers of the boot sole. "It's not so much the materials; it's the time it would take."
Peter spent a long time explaining to Lena why the shoes in the catalog could not possibly be made or sold for the price listed. By the time he was through, Lena was about ready to pound on him with the boot heel. At the same time, she knew he was right. She knew enough about the business, about how long it took him to do the cutting, the sewing, and the nailing necessary to make a pair of boots.
In any case, Peter, having convinced himself that the so-called Eisenhauer Shoe Company couldn't do it, had decided there was nothing to worry about.
Herr Kacere was polite. "I'd like to help you, ma'am. I really would. But not at the cost of seeing more shoeless kids in winter."
"Our prices are fair, Herr Kacere! We do not cheat people." It had been hard to believe at first, but Lena was able to get an appointment with the SoTF administrators with only a few days delay. Everyone knew how busy the up-time administrators were.
"I'm sure they are. For handmade boots and shoes." Herr Kacere sighed and Lena could tell that he had had this conversation before. "Ma'am, you want to know what shocked us most, right after the Ring of Fire? It was how expensive everything was. Everything but labor, anyway. Before the Ring of Fire, some of the older folks used to talk about the horrors of inflation all the time. How, back in the good old days, they used to be able to buy a hamburger for a nickel, without considering the fact that when they could do that, a man got paid around a dollar a day. Just before the Ring of Fire you could buy a hamburger just about like the ones they talked about, but it would cost a dollar. But in that time, even at minimum wage, a man got paid around forty dollars a day before taxes. The nickel hamburgers were actually more expensive than the dollar hamburgers. Twice as expensive."
Lena wasn't at all sure what John Christopher Kacere was saying, except that it came down to "No, the SoTF would not challenge the mail order catalogs and their prices." And a part of her, a good part, wanted to leave in a huff. But the practical, pragmatic part kept her in her seat as Herr Kacere continued.
"And food was the least of it. More durable goods like shoes, beds, houses, and tools went down in price even more over the years. Since the Ring of Fire, we—at least those of us who are dealing with the economic impact—have spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what happened. It had a lot to do with assembly lines and production machinery. Mass production in general. I'm not sure of the details of how these boots and shoes listed in the catalog are made, but I can make a fairly decent guess. Somewhere around Grantville or somewhere on the Elbe, there is now a factory. In that factory, there are machines to cut the leather and shape it, to sew it together. And they don't make one pair of shoes at a time. One person at one machine is cutting the leather used in the toe, then passing that piece on to someone else. The next person on the line does subassemblies, sewing the toe to the side, or however it's done."
Herr Kacere shrugged his ignorance. "Then the piece goes on to final assembly. What matters to us is that if you add up all the time of all the people working on that line to make one pair of boots or shoes, it's a lot less than it would take in your husband's shop. And that's what lets them make shoes for so much less. Plus the fact that since they're buying a lot of leather, they probably get a better price on it than you do.
"Ma'am, I realize this isn't really fair to you or your husband, but I have to weigh that against what's best for all the people who need shoes. The best thing I can suggest to you is that you try to modernize your shop. Go look at how they do things in Grantville or wherever the shoe factory is. See about getting a loan and buy some sewing machines and leather cutters or whatever they're using."
"Peter, we must."
Peter shook his head. "No, we must not. Lena, I know you are concerned but a trip like that would be expensive. Wait till these shoes get here. And the buyers find out they are made of paper or gut."
Lena wanted to go immediately to Grantville to see about buying the machines and setting up the assembly lines needed to compete with the boots and shoes in the Wish Book and the other catalogs. That, however, was not to be. Peter was not convinced. Not yet. He wanted to wait and see.
"Already we have fewer orders."
"I know. But they will be back." Peter sniffed. "When they see what they have paid good money for. And after buying from a picture in a book, they will deserve what they get."
The most irritating thing about it was that little bit of uncertainty. It was just possible that Peter was right. After all, how much could the assembly line and production machines that Herr Kacere spoke of really speed things? They had to be scrimping on materials as well, didn't they?
Over the ensuing weeks, the number of shoes and boots ordered from the shop decreased a bit more. Finally, Lena had what she needed to convince Peter that they must act. The first order of shoes and boots had arrived.
Karl Strauss flinched a bit when he saw Lena in the market. It didn't take her long to see why, either. Karl was a clerk and scribe and had been a fairly regular customer of Peter's. But now! Lena looked at his feet. "Penny loafers, I see, Karl."