Birth of a Salesman

By Hy Abady

Though the wages are low, man, I don’t get the willies actually starting a new and vastly different career at the overripe age of 66. A part-time summer salesman job in Amagansett, to help out during the busy season.

I came to this decision out of sheer boredom. What to do now that I was doing nothing? So I agreed to sell antiques and tabletop accessories and beach bags and candles and whatnot in a lovely “lifestyle” store, as I adapt to my new lifestyle of retirement-slash-unemployment.

Truth be told, I may have always been a sort of salesman. At 15, I helped my dad out in his shoe store in Rockville Centre. But, being a shy kid, I really wasn’t much of a salesman; I had no idea how to close a sale. For example, if an older woman wanted to know if the pointy-toed, multicolored patchwork pump was too “young” for her, I would sit at her feet, dumbfounded for an answer, head tilted, fingernails at my mouth.

My lack of gift of gab often led to a lack of shoes in bag. I was just too tongue-tied, and besides, being paid $15 a week, what I would have gotten anyway as an allowance, I didn’t particularly feel I had to sell. Nor could I — this did not seem to be my calling, nor did I have any interest in someday running the store when my dad chose to retire, as my older brother did.

He was more of a charmer than I was. At the time.

At 20, I entered another form of salesmanship, but I don’t really count writing advertising as selling. In my early years, in the hotshot 1970s, I didn’t give a hoot if my Volkswagen ads sold a single car, or if anybody bought the Sony TV sets or tape recorders I cleverly strung headlines for. I just wanted to win awards, build a career, and make some real dough.

Selling Perdue chickens at my next ad agency job was never attributed to me, even as I worked on that account writing a handful of ads. That gift of selling belonged to my edgy boss, a small man with a big talent. He thought Frank Perdue looked like a chicken and made him the TV spokesman. The fact that there had really never been a branded chicken doing smart advertising before Perdue put Perdue on the map. And sold plenty of poultry.

I wrote some forgettable ads; all ads were forgettable when pitted against the genius copywriter who created the campaign: “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” Remember?

Barney’s next. I wrote newspaper ads but they were nothing more than touting the fact that Barney’s had moved into the world of high fashion from being a bar mitzvah suit specialist. I never knew if any of my work sold so much as a pair of socks.

It’s not really a salesman’s job, being an advertising copywriter, no matter how good I was at it, and I was good enough at it to work at it for almost 45 years.

And then, it ended. With a thud. And a day to clear out my desk, at the time in a shared office, where other art directors and copywriters 45 years younger than me sat outside at communal tables, headsets on heads, baseball caps on heads. Backward.

I didn’t think any of those kids thought of themselves as salesmen. Unless they were selling pot to supplement their incomes, one-tenth of what mine had become.

But enough about me. Well, not really. But now it’s time to get to the point of that title up top.

To pass the time — retirement is a bitch if you don’t play golf or tennis (or sell pot) — I volunteered to help a friend out with her Amagansett Main Street shop. It was a lark for me, at first, something to keep me out of Rowdy Hall at lunch to save a few calories and stop me from getting too early a buzz, which often led to long, snoring afternoon naps.

The hours were 11 to 5, and occasionally weekends. And the place is a potpourri of everything — lots of things that are perfect as hostess gifts or dinner guest gifts. My problem? I had a hard time gift-wrapping. As it happens, her “gift wrap” is nothing more than the sheerest sheets of chic, antique-patterned tissue paper that tears easily and fights you. Ribbons are strips of unforgiving raffia, thin as dental floss. I would break into a sweat whenever anyone said, “It’s a gift.” Wrapping is not one of my gifts. And, frankly, neither does the owner of the store possess that gift, so together, wrapping, we were like some version of the Keystone Kops.

I was relieved and less dripping wet when a buyer said, “Take your time, I’ll go next door for a manicure,” as it took forever to wrap with this filmy, flimsy paper. And I was horrified when people lined up three and four at the cash register, holding bulky salad bowls with servers, an oblong tray that fits in no box, or a set of six wineglasses. Gifts.

Gulp.

Everything looks like a gift to me in that store. Even a $25,000 armoire, French and from the early 19th century, weighing a ton. Wrapping that could take me into the 22nd century.

But gift-wrapping aside, the job had its high points, although the owner hated air-conditioning, and it often felt to me, with hair everywhere except the soles of my feet, that I was working in a sauna. Or a hot yoga studio. Even the stone Buddhas for sale had a film of sweat above their lips.

But, on the plus side, most of the customers were nice. Pleasant. (Most.) One exception was on the day that I heard a crash in the next room, clearly a broken something, and a woman called out: “Oh, my. The frame just slipped off the shelf!”

Again, gift-wrapping aside, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of stress except for the time a lovely customer from Ohio bought and requested shipping of $350 worth of vases and artificial flowers that were ultimately lost by U.P.S. Tracking, that totally dependable way of locating stuff, sent out no record of the transaction, and there were no duplicates of what she bought, and paid for, in stock. I still shiver over that one, as it was me who delivered the packages in person to the U.P.S. store in East Hampton. Did I do something wrong with the labeling?

Still, I did get to work my advertising headline chops by creating signs like “Tray chic!” around a grouping of trays. Or “These gifts will bowl them over!” among, you guessed it, a grouping of bowls. But the next day, the placards disappeared. “Not my thing,” the owner said. And it’s her candy store, although no candy is sold, but there is a pretty good fake cake that sits atop a real cake stand.

Best of all, I have found I actually do have a personality. Fifty years on from the days of sitting on the floor surrounded by a stockroom full of shoe boxes that no one actually bought in the end due to my lack of conviction, my lack of salesmanship, I found, with confidence and genuine (ish) enthusiasm, a smile on my face as wide as a berth, and I would say: “This alabaster bowl with its sparkling silver rim goes with any decor!” Or, “This beach bag with a print replicating Missoni is an absolute steal at $22!” Or, “Have you ever seen champagne glasses with this particular pearlized patina of pink?”

The responses were generally as blank-stared as I was in the shoe store. Or, “Just looking,” they’d say. “Thanks.” Or, “We’ll be back. Oh, look! The sun is coming back out!”

Amazingly, though, I did sell a $7,500 grandfather clock! The owner did a jig after that particular transaction, and I thought, well, I did have what it takes, but frankly, the buyer told the owner that she had been eyeing the clock for three years and today was the day she finally decided to buy it. The day being my very first day on the job.

“It’s a nice clock,” I managed, shrugging, smugly, settling into my salesman personality.

Tick-tock. Summer’s over. And so, it seems, is my salesman career.

Tennis, anyone?



Hy Abady, a frequent “Guestwords” contributor, is putting together a sequel to his 2010 “Back in The Star Again: True Stories From the East End.” “Back in The Star Again, AGAIN!” is due out in early 2015.