When I was nine or ten I saw an ad in a comic book. For $3.99, you could send away to Kearney, Nebraska and get a portable radio that would fit in the palm of your hand. That sounded good to me, so I told my mother I wanted to buy the radio, and could she please give me the money? “No,” she replied. “You’ll have to get a job and earn it.”
I reminded her that I was only a little kid and could hardly be expected to earn money. “Just a minute,” she said, and the next thing I knew she announced, “Here’s something you can do.” What my mother had found was a classified ad from “Friendship Studios” in Elmira, New York. I wanted that radio, so I sent away for a sample kit.
Thus began my career as a door-to-door salesman. Within a few days, the samples arrived, and I started ringing my mother’s friends’ doorbells to see if they would like to order engraved stationary, or imprinted napkins, or matchbooks, or greeting cards. With my carbon paperered order pad, I could leave the order with my customer and have a copy for myself. Back then, this was considered technology. It didn’t take long to earn the necessary $3.99, which I sent off to Nebraska as planned.
Soon I branched out, carrying a larger sample kit and ringing the doorbells of strangers. While waiting for my radio make its way from Nebraska to Claremont, I continued my sales career, and that fall I decided to expand and include Christmas cards. If I had any twinge of conscience over this, it didn’t last long. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was already a popular song, and he was Jewish after all.
Maybe I was born to be a door-to-door salesman, because I needed a summer job after my first year of law school, and (history repeats itself) I saw a classified ad from the Fuller Brush Company. I remembered the 1940’s movie, “The Fuller Brush Man,” starring Red Skelton, which I saw it at the Latchis Movie Theatre, never expecting that I would become such a person.
But I did. Just like old times. I took my sample kit door to door in Boston’s North End, this time climbing a lot of stairs in apartment buildings. I used the same pads, wrote up the orders, and made deliveries the following Friday. Usually someone would offer me lunch, almost always pasta, and one frequent question was whether I was Italian. “No,” I would reply. “What are you?” “Jewish.” More than once my customer would say, “Oh, you look Italian. My brother-in-law’s Jewish.”
I learned valuable lessons that summer. One was the importance of advance notice. I had little choice but to let people know I was coming, since that was the summer the Boston Strangler was also in the neighborhood. So I hired a nine or ten-year-old from the neighborhood to drop off brochures, featuring that week’s “specials” and letting people know I was coming. The Strangler didn’t do that.
Another lesson was how to “close” a sale. I would demonstrate my most popular product, DCW (“dusts, cleans, waxes”). The North End never had so many shiny coffee tables! Then I would repeat what my supervisor told us to say. Never ask, “Would you like to order one?”, but always “Would you like three, or will two be enough?”
I’ve never regretted my door-to-door experience. It helped me develop independence at a young age, and it taught me when to take “No” for an answer. I’m sorry to report, however, that the portable radio never arrived, and I lost the $3.99.