Chris James starts his day at A and J King Bakery in pre-dawn darkness. He’s in at 2 a.m., and there’s no hiding behind a coffee and a computer screen: “As soon as you walk through the door, you’re already aware of schedule and you’re already up against the clock.” Thus begins a long, tightly scheduled day. Chris calls the work “athletic,” because “speed of production is a huge part of it. You feel that schedule.”
Why the urgency? When my brother first told me he would be an artisan baker, I imagined something pastoral, a vision of flour-dusted aprons and precision hands sculpting and molding. I imagined artists at idyllic work. But from the beginning of his training, Chris was reminded that “dough is alive. You have to keep an eye on it through the whole process. It requires intervention at specific moments: fold, divide, shape… it’s constantly active.”
I asked him if he considered this work a form of art. He cautioned me against any romantic misperceptions: “maybe people think artisan work is about individual flare, but a lot of it is about conforming to a tradition.” Thus, mastery of this craft is not necessarily in breaking boundaries or innovating. As Chris puts it, “one of the things that distinguishes a true artisan is that their hands are trained through constant repetition. Certain physical movements become ingrained. That way they can multi-task better.”
For years, Chris worked at a bank. He manned the teller’s window and pitched new products to potential costumers. The bank was bought by a bigger bank, only to be absorbed into a yet mightier entity. With every new corporate merge, managers put forth greater and more manipulative measures to make each employee feel that they were part of a community, working together toward common goals. It was impossible for Chris to feel this sense of community and common purpose, because the leadership always chose to put the wealth of trustees and owners above the quality of service. And with every merger, Chris felt less connected to the purpose of the organization. His work was a mere function, drained of intention, drained of investment.
Working at the bakery was different; for the first time, Chris was proud to work for an organization. For the first time, he would bring up his job in casual conversation as a colorful experience rather than a gray, albiet necessary, thorn in his side. But as we sat down to talk about the pressing realities of his new job, I began to wonder: if working at the bakery means being ruled by schedule, a slave to the clock and to tradition, and working long days at ungodly hours, what’s so redeeming about it? Where is the pride?
Of course, part of that pride comes from delivering a delicious product, a product that is praised and loved by our whole community. I consider it a near-sacred thing to take a walk to the bakery on a Saturday morning and break hand-made bread with my wife or my baby boy. People of all sorts gladly pack themselves into the little storefront, and gladly they wait in line, because this place makes food they love. Who wouldn’t be proud to have a hand in such joy?
For Chris, however, there’s more to it than the quality of the product. For him, an even deeper satisfaction comes from the wholeness of the artisan baker’s work: “Seeing the process from start to finish is satisfying because it becomes a learning experience as opposed to a mindless function.” This was missing at the bank. He took no stock in his work, because he worked with blinders on. Now that he has experienced this thorough connection with baking, he’s convinced that “all places of employment would be doing themselves a favor by letting their employees in on the whole process.” For him, there was nothing more deflating than “do what we tell you because we’ll pay you for it,” and nothing more ennobling than “learn this craft from start to finish. Come to know this work. Be a complete craftsman.”
As we talked about the virtues of this new position, I was reminded of what makes Chris special; he is mindful. He is always intent on what he does. He distrusts any activity that is automatic or culturally contrived. And he’s always striving to articulate the philosophy behind the choices he makes. During our interview, he recalled Ayn Rand’s words: “Any work is creative work if done by a thinking mind.” Though he be a slave to the clock, his labor is awake and aware. He strives knowingly. This makes it creative.
Brian James teaches 8th graders, writes music, and resides in Salem.