Selling Magazines, Door-to-Door
November 14, 2014
By Michael Calvert
The Columbus Dispatch classified want ads were often spread across our dining room table when I was growing up. Dad, who was often between jobs, circled potential positions with a red pen.
When I decided to look for a part time job to earn spending money after playing football in my sophomore year, I turned to the classifieds. Bona’s Pizza, the Super Duper, and the Marathon gas station had already rejected my inquiries.
Under “PART TIME SALES,” one heading offered just what I was looking for: “MAKE MONEY AFTER SCHOOL.” Smaller print promised “Great opportunity for outgoing young men with potential. No experience required.” I was glad to see the last sentence. I had complained to Dad that I could not possibly get work experience if every job required prior experience. His long answer left me even more frustrated. I circled the ad and added a big check mark.
I called the phone number and was immediately invited to come to the 12th floor of the Beggs Building for an interview the next afternoon. This would have set off alarms for anyone except a naive teenager with no job hunting experience. I announced to Dad and Mom that “I have a job interview.” They asked about the job, but I knew nothing except that I was looking forward to a great opportunity as stated in the ad.
I knew from its two-digit address on State Street that the Beggs Building was downtown. After school, I walked a couple of blocks away from downtown before I stuck my thumb out. I didn’t want to have juniors and seniors from my prep school pick me up or even see me hitchhiking. A young guy in a pick up truck stopped and gave me a ride to downtown Columbus. I walked past the capitol, a drum-shaped building with a classical facade and fluted columns surrounded by lawns, mature trees, and several statues. Dad had told me that a dome like the one on the capitol in Washington had was never built.
I pushed through the Beggs Building’s revolving door, crossed the terrazzo lobby as the guard watched me, stepped into the elevator and hit 12. Black letters painted on the frosted glass door identified the office of Premier Media at Suite 1220. Inside several boys sat on folding chairs around the perimeter of the room. It was like Dr. Curran’s waiting room with no adults, girls, or babies. A middle-aged woman opened a sliding glass window, took my name, and assured me that Mr. Thrush would see me as soon as possible.
More than an hour later, Mr. Thrush motioned me toward one of two folding chairs in front of his desk without looking up. A pudgy man with dull blond hair, sleeves rolled up, and tie pulled down, he recited without any inflection, “Am I right that you want to make some money?”
“Yes, sir,” I asserted as Dad had taught me.
“ You can make money with Premier Media. If you’re good, you can make a lot of money. It takes a little time to learn the business. Are you willing to invest some time to make good money?” as he slumped forward with his elbows on the desk.
“Yes, sir,” I said with less enthusiastically than before.
“OK, Michael, do you think you can be a successful salesman? Have you ever sold anything?”
“Yes sir. I added twenty-six subscribers to my newspaper route and won a trip to New York City.”
“Excellent,” Jack said as he sat up in his chair. “I can tell that you’ll be good at this job. I want you as a member of my sales group. Will you take the job?”
“Yes, indeed. Thank you.”
“ I see that you live right around the corner from me in Amvet Village. When can you start?”
“Tomorrow, after school?”
“Great. You’ll be working with Dan Murray, the best team leader in the company. Come to the office at three-thirty tomorrow. OK?”
“OK, but could you please tell me what I’ll be doing?”
“Sure. You’ll be offering people a great discount on the Saturday Evening Post, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and thirty-three other publications at a 68% savings. You make money on every sale. Dan will give you all the details.” Mr. Thrush stood and offered his hand. I gave him a firm handshake, not a wet fish, as I had practiced with Dad.
“Damn! I got hired,” I said aloud as I walked through the capitol grounds toward Cleveland Avenue where I could thumb a ride home. I was composing an announcement of my position in sales for Mom and Dad.
“Knocking on doors, cold calling, selling magazines. It’s great training,” said Dad. “If you learn to sell, you’ll always be able to get a job. If you’re good, you’ll make a lot of money.”
“Door-to-door sales will not be easy, honey,” Mom said. “Remember that poor man who tried to sell us Encyclopedia Britannica last week? And the vacuum cleaner salesman? Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I want to give it a try.”
The next afternoon, I strode through the lobby of the Beggs Building repeating Dad’s words in my head. Upstairs I met Dan, a short, skinny man in his late twenties. He said I had made a very favorable impression on Jack. He proceeded to ask about my favorite subjects in school, the baseball and football teams I followed, and what I wanted to be when I grew up. I almost forgot that I was talking to my new boss.
“Michael are you familiar with some of these magazines?” Dan asked as he handed me a card that began with the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Popular Mechanics.
“We get the Saturday Evening Post, Redbook and Sports Illustrated, and I’ve seen most of the others in the drug store.”
“Super! You’re going to tell people that you’re starting a Saturday Evening Post route to earn money for your college education. You keep right on talking. Don’t give them a chance to say ‘No, not interested.’ Ask them to please listen for just a minute. Tell them they can get the Saturday Evening Post and three other magazines for 68% off the news stand price. Hand them this card and ask what magazines they like. Then follow up on which would like to receive. They’ll be billed later. Keep talking about your plans to go to college, the magazines, and weather until they check off four magazines and sign the card. You get five dollars for every signed card. Do you want to make some money?”
“Please call me Dan. We’re going to work well together. Let’s go make some sales,” he said as he patted me on the back.
In the parking lot behind the building, three guys leaned against the mauve 1956 Plymouth with fins above the rear fenders. They wore thin, black ties, unstarched white shirts, and waist-length jackets.
“Hey, guys, we’ve got a new salesman. Michael, meet Tommy, Phil, and David.” We exchanged minimal nods and grunts. Tommy opened the front door and “rode shotgun” and the rest of us piled into the back seat. I sat in the middle with my feet on the hump.
“We’re going to Grandview where we’ve had great sales before. Tommy, you got five cards signed the last time we were there. I bet you have another big night. I want you to ring a few doorbells with Michael. Show him you best lines at the first few and then let him make the pitch.”
Tommy knocked on the six-panel door and stood back. Just after the curtain at a nearby window fluttered, the door swung open to reveal an older woman scowling at us. Tommy’s face lit up, and he poured out the spiel.
“I’m a retired teacher and I’m delighted you boys plan to go to college, but I can’t afford magazines on my pension,” she said with a fixed smile.
“Michael and I have learned from some wonderful teachers who said we would do well in college, but tuition is expensive. Are you familiar with the Saturday Evening Post or Redbook?”
“Yes, I used to get the Saturday Evening Post, and I see Redbook at my daughter’s.”
“You can get both and two more magazines on this list for seventy-nine cents a week,” as he handed her the card. “You would also be helping Michael and I get a college education.” She scanned the card, hesitated while Tommy rambled about becoming a professor, and finally handed Tommy the signed card and smiled benevolently as we walked to the next house.
“See how it’s done, son? You listen, talk to them, bait the hook and reel them in.” The next two prospects, an elderly man and a young housewife, resisted Tommy’s blandishments. He turned to me and said, “Ok, my friend, let’s see what you’ve learned. Let’s see you sell.”
I made a couple of pitches and Tommy enjoyed critiquing my performance. Then we alternated. In two hours, Tommy got three signed cards, and I nailed my first sale just before Dan met us.
“Congratulations!” Dan said as I climbed into the car. “Rookies almost never get a card their first time out.
“He learned from a master salesman,” said Tommy with a solemn nod.
We were all in a good mood when Dan dropped us at Anthony’s Bar on West Main Street. Phil and Dave went to the bus stop. I followed Tommy as he marched to a large round table littered with empty glasses and bottles. Ashtrays overflowed and blue smoke hovered over the table. Tommy planted his feet and raised both hands with thumbs up. “Big night. Nine sales. Even the new guy’s no longer a virgin. Dan said you should buy us a pizza, Jack.”
“Way to go! One pizza coming up. Tell Tony what you want on it,” said Jack. Other team leaders murmured their praise. Tommy and I found a booth. I learned that he had been selling magazines for a year and lived in a room above a bar on the near south side. He had just turned fifteen, only a year older than me. When he saw my reaction, he launched into a well-practiced explanation.
“My dad went to Florida to look for work the year I started high school. Mom and I never heard from him again. A few months later, Jonathon, Mom’s friend from church moved in with us. I didn’t like him one bit. We argued all the time, and Mom took his side. When Jonathon said he was going to teach me some respect and came at me, I hit the bastard. Mom screamed at me to get out, so I did. Been in Columbus for over a year now.”
“Have you talked to your Mom?”
“No and I ain’t going to talk to her. She had a choice to make and she chose Jonathon.”
“What about school?”
I figure I’ll get a GED in the Army. I’m going to join as soon as I’m old enough. I’ve already talked to a recruiter at Fort Hayes.”
Tommy ended the discussion by saying, “Do you like this pizza?”
I had one or two sales most nights that first week. On Friday, I totally struck out. Tommy said he had those nights, punched my upper arm, and told me not to worry about it.
On Saturday, Jack gave me a ride to the office. “Saturday’s a good day. More people home. More men. Push Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream with them.”
I did and got four sales. One man said he had grown up with the Saturday Evening Post and remembered the Norman Rockwell covers, cartoons and Captain Hornblower sea stories. A mom signed the card because she wanted Highlights for her kids. Tommy only had three sales.
After Jack dropped me off in front my house, I sat on our porch before entering the noise and chaos inside our modest house. Five kids and two adults lived in the four rooms on the first floor during the day. Except for the baby, we slept upstairs in an unfinished attic that was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. I envied friends who had small families, their own rooms, and homes as quiet as libraries.
As I enjoyed the serenity, I was gratified that I might have a knack for sales. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a salesman, but it was good to know I could always find a job in sales. Tommy certainly had the knack.
I wondered what Tommy was doing on a Saturday night. Did he have friends? Would he listen to a ballgame in his room? Did he have a TV or even a radio? Would he miss his mom? Maybe he would call her and find out that the stepfather was gone. I hoped he would, at least, call and tell her he was OK.
I pushed open the front door and stepped into the living room of our modest house. The little kids, Steve and Margy, were shrieking as they played in a tent they had made from the couch cover that Mom used to hide the cigarette burns, food stains, and the worn places. In the dining room, Kathy was laughed loudly on the phone with one of her girlfriends. In Mom and Dad’s bedroom, the baby cried. Mom was cooking supper in the kitchen while Dad talked at her continuously about potential customers for his line of advertising specialties.
For once,I found the noise and chaos of my home comforting.