My sister, whose nickname is Stancelee, recently butted heads with me over whether it is more difficult for my twenty-two-year-old niece to go door-to-door today in Lewiston, Idaho to solicit clients as part of her sales training to become a stockbroker for Edward Jones than it was back thirty years ago when I went door-to-door selling books. I told my sister it has always been difficult. Times and people haven’t changed much.

I should know. I spent two summers in college going door-to-door in Texas. I was twenty-nine, an older student at Gonzaga University, and sold alongside a twenty-year-old female student, named Kim, from Pacific Lutheran University in Portland the first summer, and competed with two other twenty-year-olds, named Joanne and Mary, from Gonzaga the next summer.

Because poverty is common among college students and summer jobs were hard to come by, we were easy targets for a recruiter from the Southwestern (Book) Company who promised sales training, adventure, and to come back at the end of the summer with a healthy check if we did well. We signed up to sell a $100 Volume Library (mini-encyclopedia) as well as several children’s books ranging from $25 to $40 a set.

Four of us headed to Nashville, Tennessee, for a week of sales school training and stopped in Vernal, Utah, to visit my poverty-stricken sister, whose nickname was Mute, and her three young boys. After our short visit, we drove on a flat stretch of road, with me in the driver’s seat, when all four tires blew out at once. Egad!  I hadn’t thought of that possibility. That wasn’t exactly the adventure I’d hoped for. Although we all grudgingly chipped in to pay for the flat tires, and I wasn’t allowed to drive the rest of the way, I considered this only a minor obstacle to overcome. It would not stop my trip to success.

During the week in Nashville, we listened to many stellar speakers, which included vice presidents of the company and other such greats like Zig Ziglar. Each day we also memorized and practiced our sales spiel with our roommates in our flea-bitten hotel room, took ice cold showers in the morning and sang a version of the following song:

It’s a great day to be a salesman.
It’s the best thing I know.
It’s a great a great day to be a salesman,
Everywhere I go oh-oh-oh-oh.
Goodbye no’s and never’s.
Goodbye, doubt, and fear.
It’s a great day to be a salesman,
And be of good cheer.

We were pumped.

At the end of the week, the Sales Manager, Steve Davis, told us our territory would be in Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. Wow!  We thought we hit the jackpot!  When we landed in Fort Worth we had to find a cheap place to stay, so we contacted a local Christian church and after many tiring hours of searching, found a host family, and each of us paid $20/week to stay with them.

What I didn’t know, but soon realized, is that Southwestern gave us rookies “rough” territory to start with until we proved we could sell. Kim and I headed out together. She and I both wore very short shorts, Nike tennis shoes and a body-hugging T-shirt. My hair was streaked blonde at the time and Kim had long, dirty-blonde hair. We both considered ourselves attractive, both very competitive, and tried to outsell each other.

The knock on our first door had to be at exactly 8:00 a.m. Imagine the angry people we woke up doing that. One guy in our group knocked on the same lady’s door every morning and she’d come out of the house with curlers in her hair and a rolling pin in her hand threatening him not to do it ever again. But, he did it anyway.

As could be expected, the weather was sizzling hot in Texas. I’d be dripping in sweat and hoped someone would take pity on me and invite me inside a house with air conditioning. Whenever I felt battered emotionally by people slamming doors in my face or by those who refused to talk to me or would not listen to my rehearsed spiel, I gravitated toward kindness. Many people I crossed paths with in Fort Worth had the old school southern charm. On one particularly warm day, I knocked on the door of a lady who was in her 80s or 90s. She graciously invited me inside and offered me a glass of cold water and some friendly conversation. I couldn’t imagine this happening back in the Northwest. Although I had a nagging sense that I was wasting my time because there was no chance for a sale, the conversation was a welcome relief from the doors that were slammed in my face.

Pretty soon we ran out of good territory. To give you an idea of the low-income territory we encountered, the houses were dumps, there was trash all around, we were lucky if we could get someone to answer the door and their English was so poor, we wondered if we were in a foreign country. After about an hour of knocking on doors and getting them slammed in our face, we came up empty-handed, so Kim suggested we hitch-hike to a better area. Having no idea where a better area might be, we stuck out our thumbs to head north.

After the driver let us off, Kim took off in one direction and I in the other. I was walking along a street when a red car slowed down and the woman driver pulled up alongside me and said, “Ma’am, you don’t look like you’re from here. This area is not safe. There are a lot of crimes committed here. Please get in the car and I’ll drive you to somewhere safe.”

I didn’t know if I should trust her. “I’ll be ok,” I said, and kept walking.

“People get murdered here. Women get raped. Please, Ma’am. Please get in.”

“I’m meeting my girlfriend,” I said.

“I’ll take you there,” she said. “Please get in.”   

So, I hopped in and we drove to a 7-11 convenience store where I had planned to meet up with Kim.

The lady drove us all the way back to Fort Worth. We offered her money for the ride, but she refused, saying, “I don’t want your money. I just hope that if I ever find myself in the Northwest where you live, that someone will be as kind to me as I have been to you.”

The phrase “Random Act of Kindness” had not been coined yet. Neither was “to pay it forward.”  This lady clearly was ahead of her time.         

After relating the experience to our Sales Manager during a weekly Sunday meeting, we were given new territory—Plano, a suburb of Dallas.

For the next several weeks we canvassed the flat streets of Plano, knocking on doors all day and finding a stretch of people who said no after we recited our memorized spiel, or no one at home, except maybe latch-key children who spoke to us behind a closed door because their mother had warned them not to open it. We were told to knock three times and if no one answered, go on to the next house.

Although I started out the day with high hopes of making a lot of sales, i.e., a lot of money, after about an hour or two of not getting any sales or not talking to anyone, my mind began to wander and I’d start what is known in the business as “stinkin thinkin.”  I became depressed, thinking I was a failure, and wondered maybe if I shouldn’t quit and go flip burgers at McDonald’s. We were forewarned in sales school we might have character-building moments like this, so they prepared us with positive mantras to recite like the following:


When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must—but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twist and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up, though the pace seems slow—
You might succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late, when night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out
The silver tint to the clouds of doubt—
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar;
To stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

Sometimes I did find a lady at home and after I’d give her a demo and my sales pitch, she’d give me what is known in the business as “the husband objection.”  It was pretty near impossible to overcome this objection without getting in front of the decision maker and scheduling a callback after 6:00 p.m. when the husband would be home. On several occasions when I returned at the scheduled time, I got skunked because no one was at home. However, one day I returned at 7:00 p.m., like I promised, and was ushered in by the wife who invited me to eat dinner with them. I grinned and gushed when she told me her husband had told her to prepare something special for me–chateaubriand and strawberry shortcake for dessert. Her husband was a physician who had sold books door-to-door when he was in college. He also bought the $100 book from me for his daughter.

If only all of the other days could have been as rosy as that one. We worked every day from 8:00 a.m. till 9:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday. That’s thirteen-hour days or 80-hour weeks. I wore out more than one pair of tennis shoes each summer and also lost weight.

On Sundays, we met for a sales meeting at a local hotel. As you can imagine, the top sellers were applauded while those whose sales numbers were down felt shame and humiliation. That was designed to motivate us to try harder and sell more the next week.

One Sunday, Steve Davis, our Sales Manager, took us to see the Southfork Ranch outside of Plano where they filmed the prime time television soap opera series, “Dallas,” which aired on CBS from 1978-1991. The show, about a wealthy and feuding Texas family, the Ewings, who owned an independent oil company and cattle ranch, was renowned for its cliffhangers, and its most famous character–J. R. Ewing played by Larry Hagman. Seeing the ranch was special.

Although I wasn’t the top performer, I persisted and got good at selling kids’ books, and as my closing ratio improved, the Sales Manager at the weekly Sunday meeting asked me to perform my demo in front of the other rookies. They wanted to know what I did differently to make the sale. Why was I so successful?

“It was easy,” I said. “I got the children involved in the sale. Naturally they were curious and I’d open up a book filled with photos of barnyard animals and point to an animal in the picture and ask the kid, ‘What does the cow say?’  The kid was always very proud he or she could answer the question and the mother was proud of her child. I’d turn the page and say, ‘What does the horse say?’ and so on. The mother couldn’t resist buying the book so she could have as much fun as I was having with her kid.”

After that, the other rookies started selling more kids’ books. I had actually closed more sales than Kim, but her take-home pay at the end of the summer was higher because she sold higher priced books (the Volume Library) geared for teenagers and she stayed in the field an extra week so she could beat me.

During Kim’s and my stay with a host family in Plano, another girl, a girl with physical disabilities, joined us. It was very challenging for her and although she sold about fifteen books in total, she quit after only a couple of weeks.

We took orders all summer long and collected a down payment at the time of the sale. At the end of the summer we delivered the books and collected the rest. Since the disabled girl didn’t finish the summer, I collected the rest of the money for her and delivered her books. I grew up with a disabled sister and couldn’t bear the thought of customers feeling ill will towards a disabled person because they had been cheated out of books even though they had done a noble thing by purchasing one from her.

What amazed me when I delivered her books, was that she had sold in low income territory where Kim and I were met with the excuse that the people in those trashy houses we visited didn’t have the money to pay for the books. We believed them. How could we not?  They lived in trashy houses, after all. The lesson I learned is they did have the money. They just didn’t have the money for ME or KIM. They were willing to part with it for the disabled girl.

As I accumulated more money throughout the summer, Kim and I decided we could accumulate more if we didn’t have to spend an hour walking home each night which cut into our selling time. We could reach more people if we had a motor scooter to get around. So, we each purchased a used moped for $100 from one of our customers, even though the license plates on them had expired. I was a risk taker, was careful to watch out for the cops who might give me a ticket for the expired plates, and felt I could sell the moped at the end of the summer. It seemed like a good investment. It did save time but we weren’t able to sell them at the end of the summer. The police came and confiscated them.  

The following summer, I signed up again, and to receive more money, I tried my hand at recruiting other students for which I would be paid a part of their commission. I was told to look in the library for possible recruits and managed to recruit a male and female Gonzaga student.

The male showed up in the field dressed like a high class preppie student. His territory was low-income blue collar workers in nearby McKinney. He lasted about a week and returned to Gonzaga with horror stories about selling books door-to-door. His stories around campus made it that much harder to recruit students the following year.

The young female student didn’t last much longer than the male. To help motivate her I knocked on doors of houses with her. She was fine when I did that, but being out there all alone was too much for her to handle, she got too lonely, so she soon quit and went to work at McDonald’s.

I owned a yellow Volkswagen Bug and the company tried to persuade me to take it to canvass the countryside because those who did made more sales, but the car was old and I felt like I might burn it out completely so I took my bicycle instead. Little did I know—another surprise—that year we acquired Austin as our territory which is almost as hilly as San Francisco. Try riding a bike up and down those hills or delivering a two-pound book on a bicycle.

However, I was lucky that summer and knocked on the door of a man who turned out to be very kind. We talked for quite a while and I found out his name was Mark and he was a nephew of Senator Lloyd Bentsen. (Senator Bentsen, a Democrat, was also a vice-presidential candidate running on the Michael Dukakis ticket and became famous in 1988 during a presidential debate with a remark he made to vice-presidential candidate Senator Dan Quayle when Quayle compared himself to President John F. Kennedy. “Senator,” Bentsen said, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”)

Mark lived in a nice house, not spectacular, but nicer than I had ever hoped to own. He asked me if I noticed his slight lisp. I hadn’t until he pointed it out. He said it took him a long time to overcome it. That to-die-for story of perseverance was just what I needed to hear. What perhaps was more memorable, though, and made my eyes widen when I saw it, Mark had a gigantic portrait of himself which almost completely covered one whole wall, at least it appeared that large to me. I wondered if that was why he seemed to have a healthy self-image.

While I was canvassing the area where he lived, he offered to transport me and my bike back to the house where I was staying. I took him up on the offer several times. Never saw or heard from him after that summer, but I never forgot his kindness.

Besides Joanne and Mary, another girl with a Russian last name from Gonzaga lived with us who was kind of like an Assistant Team leader. One night I went out to the garage and caught her tinkering with my bike, unscrewing some of the bolts. I didn’t want to have a bike accident, so I confronted her and although her face turned red, she didn’t apologize. She soon quit and went to work for McDonald’s.

The other girls and I were all highly competitive and kept close tabs on how many sales we each made. One Friday night I confessed I hadn’t sold much the whole week while each of them bragged that they had each sold three $100 Volume Libraries. Things looked grim for me. I was due to be humiliated at the weekly sales meeting on Sunday.

I kept knocking on doors, however, and on Saturday afternoon I had the surprise of my life. I made a callback to a home I had visited earlier, and after a quick demo, the lady ordered FIVE Volume Libraries—what we called a dump!  Had anyone in the history of the company ever made a sale like that before?  I wasn’t sure. On Sunday I had the shittiest grin on my face when I announced my coup and the other rookies looked on in disbelief.

I did come back from both summers with what I thought was a healthy check—more than I could have saved while working a summer job in the Northwest. We worked as Independent Contractors, received a 1099 at the end of the year, and had to pay our own taxes on the money we earned. I collected almost $10,000 but I had to pay Southwestern $5,500 for the books. I worked thirteen weeks for a total of 1,040 hours and my net profit (after expenses) was $1,775.15 the first summer. I figured that only came out to about $1.70 per hour. However, I didn’t figure out the math back then, which is why I signed up again the next year.

During my “tours of duty” in Texas, I was also approached by other sales people who tried to recruit me to sell jewelry, Mary Kay cosmetics, and Amway as well as a company out of Georgia called Trans Art which sold fine art and low- and high-end numbered art prints. Unfortunately, I got sucked into the latter. The starter kit I had to buy was expensive and because I was a full time student and didn’t have the time to invest in selling, I ended up with only one sale to a relative, so I lost money on the deal. Another lesson learned.

I may not have made much money and certainly made many mistakes but I learned a lot about dealing with people and running a small business. I learned that people are people and persuading them is hard work, and that there will always be conflicts because no two people are alike or have the same views or personalities. I learned that there are kind and good people in the world and that sometimes it takes going through a lot of shit to find them. I learned to keep the faith and believe in myself. I learned a sense of humor is important and to persevere. And, I learned it takes a lot of time, energy, guts, persistence and hard work to own your own business.

Not much has changed. I still value those lessons. They have stuck with me my whole life.