hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

August 1, 2013

Making the right sales pitch can be tricky

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — I can’t sell an igloo to an Eskimo.

Maybe that’s why I never succeeded as a traveling salesman. I certainly had my share of experience.

Now, let me see. In my other life, I sold vacuum cleaners. I’ve pitched encyclopedias. I’ve even gone door to door with Fuller Brush products. I saw what that did for an Armenian in town. Sarkis must have hit easy street. He was driving around in a gold Cadillac pitching his wares.

I had just gotten married when I met the man. He visited my mother-in-law downstairs and sold her a bill of goods, along with half his stock.

“Get rid of that filthy oven and put an extra sparkle in your countertops,” he suggested. “Fuller Brush at your service.”

He had an Angora cat that weighed a bundle. Both Sarkis and his feline appeared well fed and bred with his job. He talked me into joining him one day.

“There’s plenty of room in this town for both of us,” he said. “You take the east side and I’ll cover the west. We’ll meet somewhere in the middle and count our commissions.”

I drove a VW Beatle. The car ran out of gas before I could see any profit from this job. I begged off in a month and tried something else.

Sarkis had a secret to his success that I remember to this day: “Live well within your means and far beyond everyone else’s.”

The vacuum cleaners didn’t do me much better. Getting one of those in and out of a compact car was quite the trick. I had the door slammed in my face and climbed up tenement stairs to no avail. A white shirt and tie did me no good, either. Some people mistook me for a Jehovah Witness caller.

My first pass into a living room turned into a disaster. I couldn’t get the cleaner working and was shown the exit. Last I heard, they hired a cleaning lady.

As for the encyclopedias, they sold for a while. But lugging 24 volumes up a steep stairway began taking its toll. I would have had better luck with an unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Let’s see. I wound up buying one for my family and another for my mother, who couldn’t say “no” to any family endeavor. I tried selling one to my grandmother, but that didn’t work. She lived with my mother.

What I do recall is this: The job of a door-to-door salesman is to canvas homes to find out that people don’t want to buy your product.

A foot in the door meant a sore bunion. I would have been better off calling the shots with two feet on my desk. Then it struck me.

I didn’t have the gift of gab it took to sell my merchandise like Sarkis. The product never sold itself. It was Sarkis’ salesmanship. He could sell — well — that igloo to the Eskimo, plus a box of snowballs.

I did requisition myself to other jobs before turning into a journalist. I worked inside a suitcase factory for two summers while in high school. I sold butter and eggs for Kennedy’s (remember them?) and even shined shoes as a bootblack.

Because my folks operated a luncheonette, guess where my teenage years were spent? Dishing out hash and eggs. I got to be real good at keeping an egg yolk intact.

As memory recalls, all these jobs were sandwiched around occasional writing bits, beginning with school papers and later with ethnic journals before landing “a real job” with a newspaper.

I say this for obvious reasons — that to find your place in life, there are hurdles to clear. There are lumps to be taken. No matter what your job or what your ambition, it all evens out at the end if you give it a chance.

The sales jobs that I maintained paid me more than any salary I could muster. They introduced me to people and allowed me the opportunity to handle disappointments. They made me bushwhack my own trails and seek out my own destiny.

The best education I ever had before retiring after 40 years at the Gazette was the school of practical thought. It’s an old school and people don’t give it much of a chance these days. But it’s the experience of a lifetime.

So, no matter what your job and wherever your ambition may lie, go ahead and make the most of it. When poverty comes to your door, it’s usually experience that makes the call.

Go ahead and answer it.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.