Slammed Depression-era doors, and a sister’s unexpected help
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I’d like to believe that if I had not become a writer and instead entered the province of business, I would have displayed a measure of innovation and achieved a measure of success.
I would submit as evidence a time when the Curtis Publishing Co. designated me “Chicago Saturday Evening Post Salesman of the Year.” This honor came in the mid-1930s, when I was 12 years old and lived with my family in Woodlawn.
In the spring of that year, a man dressed in shirt, tie and suit interrupted our baseball practice.
“If you boys want to get into something good that will make you some money, gather around and listen.”
The country at that time was burdened in the Depression years, and the prospect of making some money intrigued us all. We put down our gloves and bats and listened.
He told us his name was Charles Poole (“Call me Charley”). He was a regional sales manager for the Curtis Publishing Co.’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post.
Charley was soliciting for salesmen. He explained that we’d be paid a percentage of the purchase price for every copy we sold. There would be additional compensation for salesmen who did well, and Honor Certificates for monthly sales winners. At year’s end, the best salesman in the city would earn the title “Chicago Saturday Evening Post Salesman of the Year.” The winner would receive a framed certificate of merit as well as a certified check for the imposing sum of $50.
Each salesman would receive an initial weekly allocation of a dozen copies and, after they were sold, as many additional magazines as we needed. In addition, we were promised a sturdy red cloth shoulder bag emblazoned with the Post logo.
A dozen of us volunteered to become Post salesmen (a singular honor, Charley assured us, as significant as volunteering for the military). Bursting with confidence, we spread out across the neighborhood.
Only a few hours of ascending and descending the back stairs and porches of apartment buildings were required for me to grasp the difficulties of the assignment.
Charley’s claim “that people around the world were eager to read the Post” didn’t seem to include our neighborhood. I could never have imagined the numerous ways people rejected my appeal.
Some shook their heads through the window. Some would open the door and say “No!” quite sharply. A few were angry at my interruption. A sleepy-eyed woman in her bathrobe scolded me for waking her up. One beefy, flushed-cheeked man in an undershirt threatened to “kick my ass down the stairs if I bothered him again!” I was outraged, but concluded it best if I took his advice and forever deny the lout the pleasure of reading our fine magazine.
At the end of the afternoon, after five hours of ascending stairs and knocking on numerous doors, I hadn’t sold a single copy.
I was apprehensive about reuniting with the other boys, fearing to hear of their successes. I was surprised to find their experiences matched my own. Two had sold a copy apiece, both sales, they admitted, made to relatives. The rest had sold nothing.
The days that followed repeated the dismal experience of that first day. By the end of that week, I had sold three copies. Almost all of the other boys had a similar experience. One boy, regarded by us with envy, had sold his entire allocation of 12 copies. (We learned later that his mother had bought all his copies.)
I was sorely discouraged but vowed to keep trying. One Saturday morning, my sister, a year younger than I, despite my pleas and threats, tagged along with me. I made her remain a few steps down from the door I was working.
In response to my knocking, a woman opened the door. Even as I launched into my pitch, she began shaking her head. Looking past me, she spotted my sister.
“What a sweet little girl,” the woman said. “Come here, honey. I just made some sugar cookies, and you can have one.”
Afterward, her heart warmed by my little sister, the woman bought a magazine.
For the next week, as soon as we got home from school, I took my sales bag and my sister and began my route.
I was bewildered at why my sister’s presence seemed to warm the hearts and loosen the purse springs of people. Perhaps it was her waif-like look, her big dark eyes glistening plaintively in her small pale face.
When the boys assembled with Charley for our weekly review, I reported selling 45 copies of the magazine. I easily won the “Post Salesman of the Week” and then “Post Salesman of the Month.”
Seeking ways to improve my solicitations, I found a tattered, worn oversized sweater for my sister to wear. Standing there with the torn sweater added to her sad and plaintive appearance.
I kept innovating. I gave the bag of magazines to my sister and, while I waited on the landing below, had her knock on the back doors. The sad-faced little girl in the torn sweater, bending under the weight of the bag of magazines, must have appeared heartbreaking.
After being designated “Chicago Post Salesman of the Year,” I won the accolade “Illinois Post Salesman of the Year.” Curtis Publishing Co. sent me a colorful framed certificate and a $100 U.S. Savings Bond.
At that point, the story stops. Selling lost its appeal, plus my sister, suspecting she was being used to only profit her brother, refused to make our rounds. I gave up selling the Post.
All this drama took place many decades ago, but the memories remain vivid and ageless. Charley urging us on, my sister in her torn sweater, the awards I have packed away.
Someday when my sons review those possessions I have left behind, they will find the evidence of their father’s time of glory.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.
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