I’m not a natural businessman but it is not for not getting an early education in the commercial world.
When I was maybe nine I came home from school one day to discover I had a job. And I wasn’t even looking for one. I mean I had a 25-cent per week allowance, or maybe it was 50 cents. I think I got a raise. But I was informed that I was to report to the circulation director at the newspaper where my dad worked as a photographer-reporter. I would be a street sales newspaper boy.
As I recall we were given 15 newspapers (and of course we could get more if we sold them all) and were sent out onto the street of the little town where we lived at the time. And I think we got three cents for each paper and the company got seven out of the 10 cents-per-copy sale price.
My first day I sold one newspaper.
The second day I sold none.
I’d walk down the street or stand on a corner and yell “paper, paper”, and sometimes read a headline, and yell “read all about it”. I don’t think I yelled real loud.
But after going a whole day and not selling one newspaper I was pretty discouraged.
I think it was on the third day that another newsboy, “Harvey,” let me in on the secret.
“We all have regular customers, Tony,” he told me.
Sure we would sell to anyone who would buy them, but the boys had people who they could count on to buy a paper each day, so they’d never come back with no sales.
The good news was that Harvey said his family was moving out of town and that he would “give” me all of his customers.
Wow, what a deal.
Well nothing comes completely free. I was Harvey’s slave for the next week or so. “Hey Tony, go get me this, go get me that, buy me a coke. You want my customers don’t you?”
But he was not too demanding really and I did get his customers. And along the way I got some new ones on my own. It was not that I was aggressive about it, most of them just fell into my lap, so to speak.
But to this day (and all this was like 58 years ago) I can still recall most of my customers. And I should add, I used a bicycle to get around — I had quite a bit of ground to cover.
I began by selling a newspaper to a woman who worked at the JC Penney Store. Her name was Hope. I remember one day I could not find her, and they told me she was down in the basement. I still remember yelling down into that dark stairwell: “Hope, Hope…”
She came up and bought that paper.
I also sold one each to the ladies who ran two different dress shops. And I sold one to Alma of Alma’s Café and then would go to each booth and lunch counter stool and ask patrons if they wanted a paper.
I also went to a couple of bars, even though I was told they were off limits. But the bartenders would buy a copy and sometimes patrons would and they would give me a tip.
I sold a copy to a man who worked at the hardware store. And I sold one to a guy at a cab stand. But one day some wise guys at the competing cab stand across the street hoisted my bicycle onto their roof or actually an overhang. But my customer across the street came over and yelled at them, demanding that they give me my bike back, adding:
“You leave my god damned paper boy alone!”
I also sold one to a school mate’s dad who worked at a tire store. One day I could not find him right off. I wound up crawling up onto a big mountain of tires outside to deliver his daily newspaper.
One of my favorite places to go was a trucking company way on the edge of town. I enjoyed the calendars they had on the shop wall, although I tried to look at them without anyone noticing.
I also sold one each day to a woman who worked at the A&W Root beer drive-in. She would give me a free root beer.
And I had another restaurant on my little route. One day a young businessman bought a paper from me, and I had to give him change. Now I knew how to count change, and even the old-fashioned way of stating the amount owed without giving the customer anything yet, and then counting from that amount up to the amount of the coin or bill he gave me (I think I’ve said that right). But I was never good at giving back change in the most efficient way, even if it was the correct change. He tried to explain things to me but I just froze and could not understand him and just wanted to get out of there. Business was really not my thing. But I think this junior chamber of commerce type just wanted to help the fledgling little businessman.
I also sold a paper each day to a man who ran a funeral parlor. I would go in the back through a little screen door directly into his office. But one day he was not there so I proceeded into the building. I walked down a dark hallway and opened a door and saw a bunch of caskets — none were opened but it was so quiet and dark and downright spooky in there that I ran all the way back and out the door. No sale that day. And you know? Dead people don’t buy papers.
Seems like I told this whole story or parts of it before. Figures. But anyway my last stop of the day was the post office steps, just before 5 p.m., to catch what was a kind of rush hour for business there.
One day an elderly woman stopped and bought a paper and asked if I knew what the significance of the date of the that particular day was. I did not. Turns out it was Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7 (the anniversary of course of the Japanese attack on us in 1941). I never forgot it.
Saturdays were usually our worst day. But one day a guy stopped me and said his girlfriend’s picture was in the paper. He bought them all.
For a while I was selling a paper to a guy who lived in an apartment building. But I was told to lay off that because he was in a route carrier’s territory. Gee maybe that route carrier should have been a better salesman, I thought.
I also remember the liquor store guy sending me over to an apartment building to deliver a guy a bottle in a brown paper bag. Don’t recall if he bought a paper but I got a tip for the delivery.
Lots of times when we would try to sell someone a paper they would brush us off saying they got the bigger paper from another city.
But one day I swapped some papers with the street sale kid for the competing newspaper. I was in a café and went to a booth and sure enough the prospective customer says: “No son, I read the other paper”. I turned my stack over and displayed that other paper. With a slight look of surprise and shock on his face he bought it.
I thought I’d really beat the system until I returned to the newspaper office that evening and faced the wrath of the circulation manager who had heard about my trick.
I have had a couple of brief forays into sales since — I’ll just stick to my boyhood memories and leave it at that, thank you.