[lg policy] New Haven: The Last Word: On the so-called Atticus controversy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 4 15:55:40 UTC 2010

Political Correctness:
The Last Word: On the so-called Atticus controversy

NEW HAVEN — The flap in the news about the language policy at Atticus
Bookstore and Café has me very upset. The language policy itself does
not. I worked at Atticus in the late 1980s and I worked there again
from 2004 to 2006. I don’t know owner Charlie Negaro well, but I know
him enough to say I’ve had my share of disagreements with him. He’s a
complicated and often hard-to-deal with character. It might be an
understatement to say that we didn’t get along all that well. However:
Negaro is not bigoted, racist or likely to engage in discriminatory

Negaro is a businessman, down to the bone, and Negaro does what he
thinks is best for his business and best for the community he serves.
In all the time I worked for Negaro, he and his managers (and I worked
under three different general managers, including the current manager,
Jean Recapet) have always hired staff entirely without regard to
country of origin or ethnic background. What mattered was whether a
person would show up for work and do the work well. It never mattered
what an employee’s native language was.

The staff of Atticus should not suffer a boycott of the store because
of a rash of PC silliness. Negaro and Recapet have done absolutely
nothing offensive in posting a policy that English should be spoken at
the counters. I assume that the memo was written under stressful
conditions borne out of one customer’s complaint, and that Recapet
wrote it quickly, doing his best to be both diplomatic and stern so
that the staff would get the point and pay attention. Perhaps the
policy was not presented as perfectly as one would like; I don’t know,
because to be honest I have not read the policy. But I know what it
means to work for Negaro.

He’s not the easiest person to work for. But he inspires in some
people tremendous loyalty. Those hard workers who put up not only with
the crappier aspects of working in the bookstore or the café, but with
doing it for Negaro — not an easy proposition — created a work
environment in which some employees may come and go. This is always
how it is in the bookstore and restaurant businesses. But the core
staffers stay and stay and stay. They are loyal to their employer,
yes, but really, in the end, they are loyal to the customers and to
the business.

Eloi Lira, who has worked at Atticus for more than a decade, is an
excellent example of this. He has worked for Negaro so long not
because Negaro is a saint, but because Negaro is the owner of a
business where Lira has been comfortable working and where he has
thrived in many ways since coming to America. This is a credit to
Lira, and it is a credit to Negaro. Lira came here from Tlaxcala,
Mexico, where he’d been a semi-professional body builder. (Anyone
who’s seen Lira lift huge boxes of anything you can imagine will not
be surprised to read that: he is astoundingly strong, Lira is.) Lira
could have moved on from Atticus a long time ago: He is reliable, he
is trustworthy, he’s sharp, he works incredibly hard. He’s also one of
the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

But he has stayed on Negaro’s payroll, I think, not because he lacked
opportunities in New Haven, but because in the end he’s become part of
a community on Chapel Street, which is, simply, a good feeling, and he
appreciates it.

Lira doesn’t speak the English of William F. Buckley, but I don’t
care, and neither did anyone else who worked with him. I don’t think
his customers care. Lira is good at what he does, and that is what
matters. I am sure that Negaro appreciates Lira and the job he does.
If Negaro doesn’t appreciate Lira, he’s got bigger problems than this
nonsense about the “English-at-the-counter, please” language policy.
Those who condemn Negaro for the language policy at Atticus, if I may
be so frank, have their heads up their asses. One can want to attack
Negaro for any number of reasons, I’m sure, but accusing him of
discriminating against Spanish speakers is not one of them. The New
Haven Workers Association is, as far as I can tell, a non-entity;
poking around online, I kept thinking, “This group was invented solely
to make a stink about this language policy, and they’re attacking to
drum up publicity for themselves.” Yes, I tend toward ugly thoughts,
and I am cynical, but — God help me, I’ve been around this town for
years and I’ve never heard of this group. (Though, in typical New
Haven fashion, it turns out that its spokeswoman, Deb Malatesta, and I
have six mutual friends on Facebook.) And that they’re launching a
campaign against Negaro and Atticus now, just a couple of weeks after
a New Haven Magazine article about what a sweetheart Negaro is, how
community-minded he is? Negaro was, literally, minding his own
business when this group attacked, wrongheadedly, relying on the
PC-obsessed population of New Haven to back them. The New Haven
Workers Association probably meant well, here, at some level, but I
think they’ve made a mistake.

In the 1980s, many of the café staff were recent arrivals in the U.S.;
I could be wrong but I seem to recall staffers from Ethiopia and
Malaysia as well as various South American countries. Over the years,
the café staff became overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking. I admit that I
don’t speak a lick of Spanish, and that when I worked at Atticus as
the book buyer (a job I took in 2004), I often was frustrated by my
inability to communicate as well as I liked. But I viewed the failing
as mine; and I was fortunate to work with people who’d translate for
me. One bookstore staffer who worked with me, and eventually became my
superior as bookstore manager, was from Chile, and he was always happy
translate for me or anyone else who needed help. Occasionally this
came up when trying to plan a special event — a party, a book signing,
an off-site event that the bookstore and café were both supporting —
but on the whole I did not have trouble working alongside the café
staff because of language issues, and it did not trouble me
excessively when the staff spoke Spanish to each another.

It is true that sometimes I wondered what was being said about me. I’m
sure what was said was often unflattering or unkind. There is a divide
between the bookstore staff and the café staff, and sometimes it could
turn somewhat antagonistic. This was not because of anyone’s choice of
spoken language. It was because we were all working hard for not a lot
of money and because we were all under tremendous pressure from Negaro
and managers to improve sales in a time when bookstores, and
bookstore/cafés, are a dying breed. The bookstore and the café support
one another at Atticus. Without the café, the bookstore would be dead;
but without the bookstore, Atticus Café would be just another place to
buy expensive coffee and sandwiches. The two operations function
separately in ways that I don’t think the general public fully
understands; for starters, bookstore staff do not work in the café,
and café staffers never serve as bookstore clerks. But both
operations, and both staffs, need each other, and I think that
historically the people working at the café and bookstore have always
understood that.

Atticus serves the New Haven and Yale communities in ways that I think
go unappreciated. Were Atticus to close, even people who never go
there would mourn, I think, not because it’s the best of the best in
any category, but because it is one of the few establishments downtown
where town and gown really do sit side by side at the counter.

As did the Yankee Doodle (R.I.P.) and the Daily Caffe (also R.I.P.),
Atticus welcomes everyone. Distinguished professors, local lawyers,
noted actors and playwrights, local eccentrics, young mothers dandling
their babies and waiting for naptime, and travelers from all over the
world have always been welcome to hang out at Atticus, and they do, in

They would not do that if Charlie Negaro were pushing for an
environment in which people felt fundamentally unwelcome. All of us
have our flaws, and Negaro is no exception to that. But he is being
accused of terrible things that he is not guilty of, and no one is
more shocked than I am that I am sitting to write in his defense. The
fact is Negaro posted a policy designed not to harass his staffers, to
whom he is generally loyal, and whom he supports in surprising ways,
but to make customers feel comfortable. He can hardly be blamed for
that. In an era when businesses make life more difficult for patrons,
Negaro is doing the opposite. —Eva Geertz


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