I was strolling along the wharf in Bodrum, Turkey, and I was intrigued to see some natural sea sponges on a table with a merchant behind the table telling me something about them in Turkish.
I vaguely recall seeing an item like this when I was a kid but I long ago dismissed them as some kind of goofy, hippy thing. Sea sponges are for the Flintstones. The Jetsons use the cool stuff in the grocery store.
Still, I bought a couple of them anyway. Then I got them home and that’s when my sponge love took off. These things are just amazing. Big, scratchy, and solid, they look and feel great. They soak up the soap and water, distribute it all quickly, and then drain fast. The guy at the wharf told me it will last 50 years, which seems extreme but maybe not. I’m dedicated to these things.
So once stateside, I decided to get more. I shopped and shopped and found nothing out there, not even in the hippy health stores. Finally, I landed at “Bed, Bath, and Beyond,” and picked up a sea sponge that was lighter colored. It was from the Caribbean, not the Aegean Sea like mine. But how could this really matter? Surely a sea sponge is a sea sponge. So I shelled out $20 for it.
It turns out to be pathetic. Once the water hits it, it turns to a blobby mush. You might as well try to wash with a raw egg yolk. What’s the deal with the Caribbean and its wimpy sponge plants or animals or whatever they are? Is this the best that place can do is produce such a sorry excuse for a sea sponge?
I went online where all things are available. I looked everywhere for a sponge from Turkey or Greece or just from the Aegean Sea generally. You know, seas that produce robust and manly sea sponges. No luck. Surely I was mistaken. I returned to the Internet night after night pursuing my treasure. Nothing.
How can this be?
Sure enough, statistics from the U.S Trade Representatives office confirms. We get plenty of sponges from the Bahamas, Philippines, and Caribbean but none (none!) from Turkey and only a few from Greece. Incredible. It seemed obvious to me that Turkish sponges are far better so why can’t we buy them in the U.S.?
We live in a world in which everything is available. If some tiny choir in Amsterdam sings a 15th century motet, I can snag a recording of that in a matter of minutes. Most of the stuff sitting on my desk comes from China. My shirt has parts and labor embedded within it from a dozen countries around the world. Why can’t I get a sponge from Turkey?
This is when I start making calls. I rang up the leading importer of sponges with a business that has been in the family for three generations, starting long ago with imports from Turkey. Now the company only imports from places closer to home. This is how the conversation began. I told him what I had found and he confirmed it point by point.
The conversation lasted 20 minutes. It was filled with fascinating detail about varieties of sponges, places of origin, sponge farming techniques, import restrictions, wholesale pricing deals, big-box contract restrictions, sponge longevity, and trends in sponge usage across industries. This man lives and breathes sea sponges, just as his father and his father’s father did.
I gotta say it: I love conversations like this. They are too rare. Experts are amazing people. Real experts, people who know a sector like no one else. And if you want a real expert, you have to go to a business person. These are the people with the strongest passions, the depth of knowledge, the on-the-ground (or in-the-sea) experience, and vast knowledge about stuff that no normal person could acquire through any known means. Wikipedia is ignorant by comparison, and the professor who thinks he knows knows nothing.
Speaking on deep background, he admitted that the Turkish sponges are vastly better and that the floppy mush from the Caribbean is a sorry excuse for a sea sponge. He said that consumers have been denied serious sponges for so long that they no longer expect anything else.
Why can’t he get them from Turkey? He said that he has tried and tried for years but, as best he can tell, there just aren’t people harvesting them on a scale to enable the volume of imports that would make importing them economically viable. There are no restrictions on importation, so far as he could tell, but he still can’t make it work and be profitable.
I just laughed and laughed over this comment: “A few years ago, a guy in New Jersey managed to get some. But he kept them!” I’m not sure if he meant that he declined to sell them to wholesalers or if the guy retained them for use by his children and his children’s children. In either case, it was a funny comment because it illustrates just how much my new friend knows about this market.
That still leaves the question why so few boats are willing to go out and harvest these things. It could be that there is not enough demand to justify it, but I doubt that. This is an ancient profession — literally dating back to the ancient world when divers would plumb the depths of the ocean to drag up this amazing things and sell them on the streets to all classes of people.
I can’t confirm this with absolute certainty but I suspect that modern sponge divers in the Aegean Sea region have lobbied for and achieved a cartel status, restricting capitalized companies from planting and harvesting on grounds of job protection. Again, I can’t confirm but I’ve found enough material about the supposed sad plight of traditional sponge farmers to make me suspicious that the hand of the state is somehow involved in forming them into a tiny guild to keep their wages and profits high. Hence, the small quantity available on the market.
My temporary mania to discover the secret of the sponge took place right in the thick of the presidential debates just before the national election. Each of these debates feature extremely impressive actors who purport to have vast knowledge of all things sufficient to give them the intellectual capacity to manage the country and the whole world. They rattle off statistics and pronounce on all aspects of everything. We are supposed to believe that they are like that character in the movie Megamind. They are all knowing!
Anyone with bit of sophistication can detect the truth. These guys are pulling sponges over our eyes. They know how to get elected. That’s their main talent. If you want to gain actual working knowledge of something, you have to talk to a person — like this sponge importer — who lives and breaths the sector and puts his own property on the line, and tests his knowledge daily by the ultimate crucible of the balance sheet. It is in the commercial sector that you find real expertise.
Of course my sponge merchant is not presuming to run our lives or run the world. His mission is more realistic and humble: get people stuff they can use to improve their lives. This is a humble calling, an honest profession, a heroic endeavor. It is social service. It is a model of how to live a good and productive life.
Admire not those who lie and trick us into believing they are god like! The merchants are the people we should be admiring because they are exactly what they purport to be, and, in a market economy, they are always and everywhere willing to be corrected, ready to change plans, and happy to be deferential to the tastes and demands of others. This is the market at work: humble expertise in the service of humanity.
If you are ever in a position to advise young people, steer them in this direction. Merchantcraft is a life well lived. A mind is a terrible thing to waste on politics.