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The Soft Sell

I remember that when I was a kid we were honored by a visit from an encyclopedia salesman. One evening he came to our house and sat himself at our dining room table. I remember thinking that he was a young fellow, or at least he seemed so. Clean cut, jacket and tie, pearly white smile and shiny black brogue shoes. I also remember that he was a smooth talker.

He was a great salesman. Pitching the Encyclopedia Britannica couldn't be easy, but it was the 1980s and Wikipedia didn't yet exist. He spoke with great honesty about all the benefits of the 20-volume set to a family with teen and pre-teen kids. "And what would you use it for?" he asked me as I leaned awkwardly against the piano, fidgeting the way a 9-year-old does. "For school work, I guess". The salesman smiled and spread out his hands, palms open, gesturing at the children. He beamed.

I'm sure that my parents didn't hear the spiel. I'm positive that they were oblivious to the salesman's statistics of how many of his customers ended up as Nobel Laureates. I think their mind was on the price.

I don't remember the going rate for the set, but if you take the current price of $1,200 and convert it to Australian currency (which is where I am from), it would be approximately $1,675AU. According to McCrindle Research (pdf), the average wage in Australia in 2008 was, conveniently, $1,000AU per week. Rounding it off, that makes the cost of the encyclopedias about 1.675 weeks salary. According to the same study, the average weekly Australian salary in 1983 was $324AU, making the cost of the set approximately $543AU. So that would be my guess (see "Creative Journalism").

When the salesman left the house, I wondered why our bookshelf was not adorned by the 20 magnificent volumes of the famous Britannica. My parents most likely breathed a sigh of relief. The salesman was good, but not that good.

Today I answered a knock at the door. It was an encyclopedia salesman. I almost called the Israel Antiquities Authority to make sure this guy is put in a glass box on display in some museum. I just could not believe that they still existed.

My salesman was not as smooth as my parents' was. My guy was dressed in ill-fitting navy blue track-pants, a plaid shirt and a coat that, from its length, looked more like a bolero than anything else. Sporting a bushy moustache, he breathed out heavily through his nose after each sentence. And he never stopped talking. One sentence ran into the other and I couldn't understand what he was saying half the time.

All of a sudden the price dropped by 30 shekels, and I hadn't said a word. I decided to keep mum, maybe I could bargain him down some more. I just looked at him as he kept jabbering on. After he dropped the price by another ten shekels, I decided to put the guy out of his misery. "After all," he sputtered, "I'm selling this at a loss".

Unlike my previous experience, this time when the salesman walked away, I didn't have to eye the empty space on the shelf. We bought a ten-volume set of the childrens' encyclopedia. They are actually very good and come with nice glossy pictures. Just my style.

Encyclopedia salesmen are a rare species. How could I refuse a bushy moustache and a jovial, albeit, unshaven face? The swanky suit and tie, smooth-talking thing was unnecessary. All through the sale I had no idea what he was talking about, but I smiled respectfully, looked concerned as appropriate, and laughed heartily when he laughed as I handed over my credit card.

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