Learning the Spiel :
The year I was about to turn seventeen, Id told my father I wanted a car. He said hed make a deal with me. "You get a job this summer, save your money, and Ill match you dollar for dollar. Hows that?"
I agreed and started searching the help wanted ads in the New York Times classifieds. One caught my eye. It was for magazine subscription salesmen for Curtis Publishing Company, and theyd give me free training. The day after the school term ended, I showed up at the office on 5th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets promptly at 8:00 a.m. There were seven or eight other young men about my age. The office was empty of furniture, except for a large desk with only a stapler on it. There was a huge roll of heavy brown wrapping paper on the floor, and against one wall, stacked four feet high, was row after row of the newest edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The Post was a weekly selling on newsstands for a nickel. Five minutes after I arrived, a man in his early thirties, sporting a Clark Gable-type mustache, entered and greeted us all. Then he set about telling us how his operation worked:
"We dont go door-to-door offering a subscription to a housewife who maybe wants to buy it," he said. "Im going to show you how to make a large envelope out of about twenty copies of the current Post, then Im going to teach you a spiel. Learn it exactly as I teach it to you no changes! Then, we all go out as a group and hit the office buildings. Well divide up, each one taking the offices of a building from the top floor down, then meet for lunch and go back to another area in the afternoon. Any questions?"
There were none.
We learned how to tear the right size piece of paper off the roll, fold and staple it around twenty-five copies of the magazine, leaving the top open. This way we could carry the pack under an arm and reach in for a copy quick as a flash. Then we learned the spiel. Today, fifty-five years later, I still remember every word.
The first day, we all took the subway to a commercial district in Brooklyn where there were a bunch of office buildings averaging seventeen to twenty floors. Each of us was assigned a building. We took the elevators to the top floors and began our day going from office to office, opening the door to each one, to be greeted by either a secretary or a receptionist.
This was the spiel; as I took a copy of the magazine out of my sack, Id hand it to the young lady at the desk and say: "Im from the Curtis Publishing Company and we want to give you a sample of the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post" (plop, right on the desk in front of her) "absolutely free, if youll be kind enough to answer just one question."
What else could the answer be but, "Yes?"
"If we sent you this magazine free each week, would you just pay the postage on it?"
"Free?" was the invariable answer, "whats the catch?"
"No catch," Id answer, "and Ill tell you just how we can manage to do it. First of all, if youve ever read the Post (and who hadnt?) youll realize that Curtis Publishing cant possibly make a profit at five cents a copy. They make their money on the advertising, therefore the more readers on our subscription lists, the greater the advertising. Make sense so far?"
"Okay then. What well do is send you a copy of The Saturday Evening Post each week for two years. You have a right to cancel any time you choose. Thats two years, or a hundred and four weeks. Lets chop it off and charge you for just a hundred weeks, I like round numbers. Okay?"
"Thats a hundred weeks at the postage rate of only three cents a copy. Comes to exactly three dollars."
About seventy-five percent of the time Id get turned down, and in most cases theyd just hand back the sample copy. By the time Id run out of copies, it would be about three in the afternoon and Id head for home.
The next morning, Id turn in my subscription information (from a pre-printed pad Id been given) and a dollar-and-a-half out of each three dollars. Our boss got twenty-five cents for each subscription we sold. The publisher got a dollar and a quarter and turned a healthy profit. Our boss was driving a new convertible, so you can figure how good business was.
Let me explain a few things of that day. A first-class postage stamp was three cents, but magazines went out third class, which probably, in bulk mailing, came to about half a cent a copy. Also, if you looked on the masthead page of the Post, youd see that anyone could subscribe for a year for two dollars, or two years for three dollars.
We werent taking undue advantage, just selling something to people for the regular price. Our family had been taking the magazine at home for as long as I could remember. It was great reading, full of short stories (and often serials) by some of the best writers of the country.
One day, the boss told us that we were going to work the garment district, an area in Manhattan from 28th Street to 38th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue. These buildings were mostly one business to a floor, containing the reception office, the owners and managers offices, a showroom, and, of course, the factory huge conglomerations of racks of materials, giant steel-topped cutting tables, row upon row of sewing machines, and the shipping department. Plus, there were wheeled racks with iron bars running the length of them, on which could be hung a hundred or more garments to be transported to other areas of the district. With only one business to a floor, it was possible to do three or four buildings before a leisurely lunch with the fellows, then the same number again in the afternoon. I began to recognize that I was in the middle of an untapped gold mine.
The next morning, I told my boss I wasnt going out with the group that day, I wanted to try a few places on my own. I headed for the garment district and went to the top floor, into a reception office and asked to speak to the factory foreman. A few minutes later, the foreman would come out, look at me and say, usually in a slight accent, "Whats goin on, kid?"
I took him over to a corner. "How many people do you have working back there?" I asked.
Hed usually look at me, suspiciously. "Why?"
I gave him a copy of the Post. "This is why. Now just listen to me for five minutes and well both make some money. And honestly!"
Now he was really suspicious, but listening. I opened a copy to the masthead, "Look," I said, "a two-year subscription costs three dollars." I handed him my order pad and a pencil. "You go back there and tell your workers that they can buy a subscription to this magazine for a dollar a year. Thats two dollars for two years. Every order with two dollars you bring back, Ill give you twenty-five cents. So how many do you have back there?"
"Forty, but most of em dont read English."
"Their kids do," I said, "and theyre saving thirty three per cent off the regular price. What dya say?"
Hed think for a few moments and say something like, "I dont know, Ill try."
"Why do you have to try? Youre the foreman!"
"Thats right," hed say, straightening up a bit and puffing out a little, "Im the foreman!"
"Ill wait here for you."
About twenty minutes later, hed come out with a full pad and a handful of dollar bills and quarters. Wed count the number of subscriptions and the money, and Id give him his cut. A foreman in those days made forty-five a week, if he was lucky. With my subscription deal, hed end up with about ten dollars for less than a half hours work and Id make the same.
For the rest of the summer, I worked only the garment district. My boss was aghast at the number of subscriptions I was handing in every morning. He kept trying to find out where I was working, but I never told him. He followed me one morning, but I shook him off, then he just left me alone. It got so Id just work mornings, making about forty dollars, then have a nice lunch and spend afternoons at the movies.
By the end of August, my father wanted to know if Id made any money toward the car and I brought out over three hundred dollars. (Id spent quite a bit on lunches and movies.) I thought his jaw, as it dropped, would hit his shoes. "I know you got this honestly," he said.
So I told him the story. He didnt say anything, but I knew he was ready to bust the buttons off his vest. He matched my money and we put it in a savings account until the following year, when Id be old enough to get a license. That was my first business venture well, third if you count the Phoenix newspaper route and the tropical fish. It panned out better than I thought it would.
On my eighteenth birthday we bought a good two-year-old convertible for four hundred dollars, the rest had gone for driving lessons and a few months of future garage and service fees. It was a custard yellow Packard about a mile long and it attracted girls even better than the zoot suit.