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I can still see Jay trying to sell this young Navy wife a Bible, while she kept telling him she was agnostic. I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or butt in and set him straight.

I kept quiet. When you’re tagging along with another direct salesman and he’s into his pitch, it’s more or less gospel to keep your mouth shut, other than a “hi” to the prospect or a few brief and innocuous comments. Because if you start talking, the customer may feel he’s being ganged up on, getting it from both sides. Then, too, the pitch is a show, a standup, and timing is everything. To talk over the rhythm of the pitch would be to break the timing of the pitchman. When I was a kid in the book biz back in New York, I knew a couple of young aspiring actors rappin’ slats — selling books door-to-door — until they got their shot on Broadway. I guess it was a kind of training to them, summer stock before hitting the big time.

Jay was doing a laydown in the Chula Vista apartment of this newlywed Navy couple. It was maybe 20 years ago. The place was one of those furnished jobs that proliferated in the South Bay for the service families that would likely be there only a short time. A “laydown” is another word for a pitch, or presentation. You lay down large broadsides, plasticized papers flaunting a blaze of books that looked like fancy pastries, comelier as graphics than the drabber reality. One after the other they’re drawn from the sales kit, dazzling the prospect with the idea that he’s getting all these extras as some kind of “bonus.”

Jay specialized in young service families. So did I, to a slightly lesser extent. So did a lot of local peddlers, like the photo-album salesmen and the whole-life insurance boys. Everyone was nursing on the big military tit. This market was young and relatively naïve. Sailors had regular employment and likely would have for at least a few years, and more often than not the parents were far away and so were not around to warn the kids about the evil, lying peddlers. Or, those “snakes in the grass,” as the mother of a newlywed I once sold described me in an angry call to the company that employed me.

It was embarrassing to sit in that living room and watch Jay make a jerk of himself. The guy was a hard worker and probably the most productive book salesman in San Diego at the time, which was the mid- to late ’70s, early ’80s. This one, though, I knew he wasn’t going to close.

He had laid the Bible broadside on the floor. In tune with peddler practice going back generations, his technique was to get the prospect to make little affirmative decisions, to participate in the pitch, so that the big decision, the final “yes,” would be easy, would continue the good feelings, the natural flow. Dozens, maybe hundreds of tomes have been penned by sales experts expounding upon this technique.

“It comes in either the Catholic or King James version,” Jay airily intoned, then waited a few seconds and pointed at the couple on the couch before him. “King James?” he asked smiling. Get the idea? Get them to make an easy choice. It’s a subliminal commitment, as the sales textbooks would have it.

“Agnostic,” the young wife replied, matter-of-fact. I could see in Jay’s face that he had never heard of this religion, but he wasn’t going to let that inconsequential item break up his pitch.

He kind of waved his hand at her, smiling like a fool. “King James?” She looked at him like, oh boy, here’s a guy selling encyclopedias and dictionaries and he doesn’t have a clue. “Agnostic,” she repeated, very quietly.

I started to wonder if she was double-meaning the word, telling him she was agnostic about the pitch. But she was only 19 or so, as was her husband, who sat there like a piece of furniture. I was counting the minutes before we could get the hell out.

Jay, though, tried one more time with his “King James” mantra, a little more forcefully, more flutter of the hand, trying to squeeze out a positive reply. No answer. Young Wife was silent now, withdrawn. Her husband followed her lead. Jay plugged on, sensing something amiss, but telling his tale until the stillborn deal ground him down and he packed his broadsides back into his kit. Outside, he laughed long and loud when I explained it to him.

After spending the better part of a lifetime selling encyclopedias and other items door-to-door or by appointment, I may have only war stories like this to show for it. Yeah, I made good money, at times. When I was 21, I was earning more than many people twice my age, driving a new car, partying every night, having a blast. Not bad, I thought, for a high school dropout. But the money probably is never the paramount thing for most direct, self-employed salesmen. The quick money, though, was a big item, the ability to earn more in a day than those in the workaday world made in a week. Since many commission salesmen were always, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, “one step ahead of the shoe shine, two steps away from the county line” and the bill collector and tax man as well, the fast-buck skills were essential.

But it was also the lifestyle, the independence, the free-as-a-bird feeling, the idea that you could go anywhere in the country or anywhere abroad where Americans lived and with your sales kit be making money from the first day you hit town. Heady stuff for a young, footloose guy who’d been shackled to a time clock. Most of us could have worked very successfully for some big corporation because we were, as they say, “self-starters,” self-rolling wheels who didn’t need a kick in the ass to get to work and who had the balls to do what the soft corporate kind didn’t. But our personalities were such that we couldn’t fit the corporate pigeonholes, couldn’t abide the petty rules and politics that go with it. And since we could work without the safety net of a guaranteed salary, we didn’t have to abide the corporate bullshit. There was a certain pride in this, that we could live on our own terms and just about anywhere we wanted, by our wits and our ability to command center stage in a stranger’s home, to make the pitch that brought the bucks. A knock on the door, and an hour later you’re walking out with a contract for maybe $500 worth of books, which most buyers of same would probably never use.

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