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It’s not completely correct to say that the empathy displayed by the salesman is fake. It’s real at the time, although perhaps “real” in the same way that a professional actor feels he is the character he’s portraying. I’ve listened to personal problems more than a few times, even when I knew I wasn’t going to close the order. And I’ve offered sympathetic counsel. Once, a broke young couple told me they were going to send money to one of those “work-at-home” rackets. I talked them out of it and also declined to sell them any books, because they obviously couldn’t afford it. OK, I also knew they’d never pass muster with the credit department.

I knocked around the Midwest for a while, rollin’ from city to city, town to town, rappin’ slats, movin’ product, havin’ fun. In Cleveland I went out with a girl I met when selling cykes to her sister and brother-in-law. After our first date, I told her I had to go on the road for a while, company business. I didn’t want to get serious with her until I’d gotten paid on her sister’s order: people presume too much when things get personal. Four months later I was back in Cleveland, living with her. She wanted me to stay, permanently, in that crummy burg, so I had to lie that the company needed me in the field to train new salesmen. For the couple of years the romance lasted, I had a place to stay whenever I hit Cleveland, until she realized that the saw about rolling stones and moss was true. Still, the salesman/farmer’s daughter stories are exaggerated, I think. When you’re out in the field, you have to keep your mind on work or there’ll be no payday. I’ve passed up obvious invitations because I needed the money more than a glandular explosion. And so, I know, have other salesmen, probably since the sales game began. Because if you don’t stay focused, you won’t be working on commission for long. “Don’t shit where you eat” was the way one slat-rapper put it.

I took this crude advice years later when pitching a newlywed pair in Clairemont. I was receiving all the positive responses as I proceeded through my presentation but did take note of certain gratuitous comments from the husband to the effect that his wife had a great body and liked sex. It wasn’t quite as open as that, but almost. They were seated on the sofa, facing me, as you always like to position the prospects. Midway through the pitch the attractive young bride’s legs began to open, slowly, like one of those creaking drawbridges on the East Coast.

Frankly, sex was the last thing on my mind. I was sniffing money, not the scent of a sexually aroused female. I had a deal going, and if I screwed the bride, that would surely screw the deal. They’d maybe want the books for free, really free, like the lady in the trailer park. And nothing is really free. Likely her husband would also have wanted to watch, and I’m too old-school for that. Like a rube from the sticks, I feigned ignorance of the salacious invitations and closed the deal. Driving to the post office to mail the order, I figured that if it kicked out — canceled — I’d call and try to date the wife, to at least get something for my time and effort. But it held up. I guess they, too, wanted the deal more than the sex.

There are no door-to-door bookmen anymore, not even any selling by appointment, because the print-encyclopedia game right now is just about where the buggy-whip industry was a century ago. Sure, there are still sundry peddlers (they prefer to call themselves “representatives”) who sell in-home, like insurance salesmen and the construction add-on people, and maybe even a few selling hard goods. Most of these work by appointment. It’s all telemarketing now, or those camouflaged pyramid schemes known as multilevel marketing. The only true slat-rappers left are the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness canvassers, selling their own brand of belief.

I can recall when there were around 15 English-language print sets marketed. Now, I understand, there are just three updated and published each year (Americana, World Book, and Book of Knowledge) and a few (like Britannica and Compton’s) that come out with a new edition every couple of years. Virtually all their sales now are to public and private libraries, although a few cyberphobic old farts or traditionalist parents may prefer to turn the pages of a Britannica or World Book. (We bookmen never considered the schoolmarmish direct-sales folks from World Book one of our kind, and they most certainly returned the disdain. The WB salespeople believed their approach morally superior to ours, but they, too, would on occasion run into problems with consumer agencies for suggesting to parents that little Johnny needed their product to do well in school.) Even the institutional sales of these print sets won’t slice it much longer, not when the libraries get more computers and the current crop of cyberkiddies pack away the old folks to nursing homes.

I don’t know what happened to the millions of print encyclopedias sold door-to-door. Yellowing in attics and cellars, I’d guess. Save them long enough, though, and they may be collector’s items. I still have an old Britannica from the 1950s, which I use now and then. It’s easier to do that than to boot up the computer. And the old sets are relatively free of the politically correct mania that tends to distort history and biology.

Once, though, selling encyclopedias door-to-door was an integral part of the American landscape, a heritage of shoe leather stitched to the national dream of a better life through education. The ticky-tacky Levittowns that crawled from the cities in the wake of WWII would hardly be authentic without a band of bookmen and other slat-rappers marching over the manicured lawns. I saw written somewhere the phrase “as American as encyclopedia salesmen.”

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