My father operated a dry cleaning business all his life in a small Midwest town in Iowa that was comparable to Mayberry when I reflect on it now. Around the Clock Cleaners was like many businesses doomed to be a dying trade in the future because of technology. Although, in the early ’60s it was a vibrant hub for the community and business people dropping off clothes to be cleaned and salesman constantly arriving at the front counter greeting my father, who always had time to talk with them and have a laugh over a joke or two. Mostly what I remember is they always left some wonderful item behind that of course would catch a young boy’s eye like money clips with a little knife in it, or a fine writing pen, or pencils, tape measures, ashtrays, rulers, and the list would go on. But what I remember most was everything always had the company name they represented wrote on them just like the yardsticks my father gave away to his customers with Around the Clock Cleaners imprinted on them.
About the time I went back to school in the autumn there was an old boy that came in with a big traveling sales kit and would belly up to the counter and he and my father would laugh out loud at the conversation they were engaging in, I remember telling my dad I could never remember his name, was it, Mr. Brown or Mr. Bigelow? My mother would show up and they would shop through dozens of calendars, some large, some small, with all kinds of scenic pictures until they decided what they liked. It was always the same kinds of calendars now that I look back on it with a little product knowledge of my own, my mother would pick out a home-orientated appointment calendar like cooking and then a scenic usually the Saturday evening post version with something Rockwell had done and they would order several hundred of both. My father always picked out the biggest hanger, usually with an apron pad for the commercial accounts, maybe 75 or so. And then my mother and he would agree on a very nice desk calendar for the business people that came in. I asked one time how come he never bought something else and he said, “because my customers look forward to these every year and they come in for them, we don’t want to disappoint them, and keeps my name in front of them every day all year long.” Something sank with me that afternoon.
The holidays were always the best time because the salesman came in with gift baskets filled with goodies and presents with everything from cookware my mother would take home to fishing lures because they knew my father loved to fish, all with their company information imprinted on them. I once asked him when the “trinket” salesman comes back he should buy some new pencils so I can take some to school, my father replied, “trinket salesman! He started to laugh as he informed me he doesn’t sell trinkets he sells advertising.”
Those days are long gone along with my mother, my father, and Mr. Brown or Bigelow or whatever his name was as well as the wonderful main streets in small-town America stuffed with small businesses, department stores, and a gas station and grocery store on every corner. They have been replaced with corporate America who has no friendly smile or greeting for a salesman walking in the door. Needless to say as a younger man I left the service in the ’70s and I decided to sell advertising, I had a great little business through the 1980s into the late ’90s before things slowed down after 2000 with factories closing. When I started I had a salesman bag just like the old-timer’s used stuffed full of catalogs and samples and was always looking for an angle to get attention when I walked into a business, I noticed Dick Kaeser who the president of the company I represented liked wearing bow ties, I thought that was a great attention getter so I would hunt down 1940 and ’50s ties to wear so when I walked in the door with a big flower on a tie they looked at me and BANG! They knew I was there to sell them. LOL… I had fun and I had lots of customers that became good friends, there were weeks I made three times in commissions beating the streets a few extra hours than what I brought home working a 30-hour part-time job in a retail store and my wife never complained about the ties when she seen the checks. But, all good things come to an end and that was called NAFTA and the internet for me, as I struggled through the next fifteen years it became leaner and leaner by the year as more businesses were replaced with big box stores and factories disappeared.
I’m sure my loss was some guy’s million-dollar gain selling promotional products on-line, not that I ever made a million bucks, far from it. But to an old guy like me that takes the fun out of selling specialties because you never get to know your customer and become friends, it’s impersonal, you never meet or know the people who use your service and when they have problems they are forced into talking to robots in a desperate attempt to solve their dilemma. It’s just about money and that doesn’t equate to success with me. I’m retired now and still sell when I can find an acorn next to the tree but I remember the glory days when I gained customers by the week faster than I could count them, now I can count them on one hand with fingers to spare. I spend most of my time fishing on warm summer mornings and a cold beer in the afternoon at the neighborhood tap where recently a couple of young guys asked me what I did while I was enjoying a tap and reading the paper. I said “I sell specialties,” the kid asked the bartender, “what’s the old guy talking about, what are specialties?” He said, “you know, imprinted calendars and pens.” So the young future business type looks at me and replied, “Oh, okay you mean you sell trinkets.” I said, “NO, I sell advertising.”