Monday, February 27, 2006

Bookfield, Sales School, Part 1

Mom had driven me to LaGuardia airport from home, so, the airplane landing seemed like the first step of my first journey that I had ever taken alone. The sound of the wheels touching the ground was muffled from inside the plane, but the force of wheel against pavement pulled my head back slightly. I was on my own. As we taxied I strained to see the Nashville Airport terminal. It was a small cinder block building only distinguishable from other small airplane hangers nearby because of the white letters on it bidding me, “Welcome to Nashville”. I was glad the airport was small, because it would be easier to spot the expected welcome group from Parchment. The plane parked a hundred yards or so from the terminal and I undid my seat belt. I took my green duffel bag and tan sales case down from the overhead storage compartment and waited to exit.

I walked with the other passengers into the terminal. One by one, the other passengers were claimed by waiting loved ones. “Grandma, Grandma!” exclaimed a little boy who rushed forward to hug the elderly woman walking ahead of me. Couples and families embraced, reunited. For them the trip was over. The crowd of passengers dissipated quickly. Off to their homes and families, I supposed.

I surveyed the crowd. The terminal building was small enough that I could see from one end to the other from the gate I had arrived at, there were only four gates. Supposedly, a group of other college students, like my self were arriving in Nashville today and a bus was to be provided to take us all to the hotel. I saw no groups of people fitting that description or even anyone who was alone, like me. I walked across the speckled, moss green linoleum floor to the ground transportation booth, but it was Sunday afternoon, and no one was on duty there. Ticketing was just a few paces up ahead and so I went there and looked at the arrivals board. My flight was the last to arrive that afternoon; no more flights were scheduled that day.

Ten minutes into my first independent foray and I was marooned at the goddamn airport. I looked around the airport and the number of people there had already dwindled down so that they could be counted on one hand. The people I was supposed to meet weren’t here. The bus wasn’t here. I sat down on one of the bowl like black plastic chairs to think. A tear rolled down my cheek. I had expected the comfort of meeting my new friends, and having the travel arrangements taken care of. I felt stressed by the situation. It wasn’t going as planned.

But what if the bus was merely delayed and on its way? It could be transportation was planned for me, and it just wasn’t here yet. Maybe I should wait a while before I worry too much. So I waited twenty minutes. I tried to relax, but as each minute went by, and I looked at my watch, my tension only grew. Every five minutes or so I walked out side of the terminal and looked down the street both ways to see if any thing was coming. The bus didn’t come. Surely if it was coming, it would have been here by now. Finally I felt justified in taking some action. No one could say that I didn’t wait.

I fished around in my pocket for change and opened my sales case to hunt for Parchment’s phone number. Finding both, I got up, picked up my duffle bag and sales case and found the pay phones. I put a quarter in the slot and dialed Parchment’s number. The phone rang and rang. I guess no one was there because it was Sunday. I tried another Parchment number, also with no response. I looked at my watch. I had been in the airport for forty-five minutes already. There was a Nashville phone book on the shelf under the phone and I pulled it out. I looked in the yellow pages under hotels and found the Hermitage, where I would be staying. I dialed that number.

“Good afternoon, Hermitage Hotel, how may I help you?” the woman at the other end answered.

“Hi, this is Sue Fairview, and I’m with the Parchment group. I’m at the airport waiting for the bus to the hotel, and its not here.”

“I’m sorry, the last bus left there over two hours ago. You’ll have to take a cab to the hotel. Don’t let the driver charge you more than twenty-five dollars. See you soon, bye!” She said in that cheery down home voice.

I hung up the phone. Twenty-five dollars! I only had one hundred dollars on me to last the whole week! A fourth of it was gone just like that. My worries crested and another tear fell down my cheek. I retreated back to the same black chair and sat down again. I held my head in my hands. I didn’t want any one to see I was upset, not that there was anyone there to see. I sobbed as quietly as possible. Would I have been better off if I had stayed home? The quick thought of home made me marshal my resolve to be independent. I tried to minimize the inconveniences I faced so far. This was just a small set back. I knew I could overcome this.

I got up, picked up my things and walked outside again. There was not a cab in sight. I swallowed hard and went back into the terminal to the phone. I looked up the number of a taxi cab company and dialed. I could hardly understand the southern accent of the individual that answered the phone. The wait would be twenty minutes. I stood outside waiting, some how feeling that if I sat in that black chair; I would not find the resolve to leave it again.

Finally, the cab arrived. The driver sprang out of the car to open the trunk for me. He was a black man in his fifties, I’d guess. The short tight curls of his hair were white, and his eyes were tinged with red at the corners. He picked up my duffle bag and sales case and put them into the trunk.

“Are Y’all alone?” he asked.

“Yes.”, I said despondently. “Hermitage Hotel, please.”

He shot me a sympathetic glance as we got in. I guess he could tell I had been crying. He tried to cheer me up by talking about the Grand Ole Opry. He though that Minnie Pearl was funny. I had hopes of doing some sight seeing, not ever having been in Nashville before. But I kept focused on the cab’s fare meter. What would I do if he tried to charge me more than twenty-five dollars? Would he take a longer route to try to gouge the fare? How would I know if he took the shortest way? I looked out the window. I expected to see high rises, maybe a skyscraper, like in New York City. Highways, streets, route numbers I didn’t recognize, and nondescript buildings were all I saw. The meter kept adding up my fare. I couldn’t tell if we were any closer to downtown. After a while I saw a green highway sign for downtown Nashville, and to my relief, the cabbie went that way. The buildings were not very high here either. The meter was already near twenty dollars. What if the fare was thirty, or more? Without warning, we pulled over.

“Hermitage Hotel.”, the cabbie suddenly announced. We both got out of the car and he opened the trunk and brought my stuff to the curb. “That’ll be twenty dollars please.” I opened my wallet and handed over the money for the fare. He took it saying, “You take care now, y’hear.”

“Thanks.”, I muttered. I picked up my bags and looked at the hotel.

I looked around the lobby quickly to see if any of the Parchment group was there. Again I saw no one who fit the bill. I walked up to the check in counter. The woman behind it looked friendly and just being there made me feel better. I was silly to worry so much about getting here. I made it and that’s what counted. “Good afternoon, and welcome to the Hermitage, do you have a reservation?” It was the same woman I had spoken to on the phone from the airport.

“Yes, I’m Sue Fairview, I called earlier from the airport. I think I have a reservation.”

“Oh yes, glad you made it. Was the cab alright?”

“Yeah, it was only twenty dollars.”

“Good.”, she said as she rummaged through the reservations. “Okay you are in room 515 on the fifth floor. We had a little over booking problem and some of you Parchmenters have had to double up. You’ll be staying with a nice young lady named Mary.”

“I have to share my room?” The thought was immediately unacceptable.

“Yes I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but nothing else was available, and she was the only other female checking in with Parchment. I’m sure you two will get along just fine.”

It didn’t seem that I had any other choice in the matter, so I took my room key, picked up my bags and went to the elevator. I had roomed with strangers before in college. My freshman roommates were strangers at first and friends later. If Mary was the only other woman there, perhaps I’d better get to know her sooner any how. We’d probably be roommates for the whole summer. On my way down the hallway of the fifth floor I noticed for sure that the hotel had a scent of mildew and also a musty smell. It didn’t seem to be air conditioned either. I found the room around the corner from the elevator. I paused outside the door. If Mary was in there, perhaps I should knock first. I did, but there was no answer. I opened the door without problem and got another surprise. There was only one bed.

I surveyed the room completely. There was no couch, no rollaway bed in the closet, no place but the one bed for both of us to sleep. Mary’s things lay about the room. There was a suitcase, and clothes thrown over a chair. It looked like she had already been there, changed and left. I picked up the room phone and called the front desk.

“Hello, this is Sue Fairview in room 515.”

“Yes how may I help you?” Again, it was the same woman from the front desk.

“There is only one bed in 515 and there are two of us checked in. Could you please send up a rollaway bed?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, but the group from Parchment this year is so big that we have already used all of our rollaways. The bed in your room is a double bed. We sent all of the cots to rooms with two people and single beds. Again, I apologize for this...”

“Thanks anyway.” I hung up the phone and sat on the only bed. I breathed a heavy sigh. After a few minutes of convincing myself that everything would be alright again, I went to the bathroom and freshened up to prepare myself for meeting the other Parchmenters. I looked at my sales case, and opened it one more time.

I had received my sales kit from the Parchment Publishing Company some time before my sophomore finals. Inside the cardboard shipping box was a light tan fiberglass sales case that looked rather like a large tackle box. The enclosed letter explained that in the remaining weeks of the semester I was to study the enclosed sample books, memorize the demonstrations for each book, read the enclosed inspirational paperback books by Dale Carnegie, and sign the registration form. The registration form indicated that I agreed to follow the direction of sales management to the best of my ability. Failure to do so could result in immediate termination. I signed reluctantly.

The sample books consisted of a Family Bible Library, a Bible Dictionary, a health book, and a set of educational books. The Family Bible Library was actually a ten volume set that sold for about $100. From that, Parchment would get $35, and I could keep the remaining $65 as profit. The Family Bible Library, or FBL, was a sort of an encyclopedia of bible stories. Non-denominational and written for youngsters, it was illustrated with sketches and photographs and was bound in an ivory colored leather-like material with embossed gold lettering.

The Bible Dictionary was actually a dictionary of the words used in the Bible with scriptural cross references. Bound in a textured brown vinyl with gold letters, it resembled a Bible. The selling price was about $30; my profit was $20 for each sold.

The health book had a red cover and was a basic how-to guide to health. It covered nutrition, first aid, and the like. It sold for slightly less than the Bible Dictionary.

The educational books covered basic science, American history, and etcetera. The construction of these books was a bit cheaper and the coverage of each topic seemed superficial at best. What struck me most was that the focus of the American history book was notable assassinations, Lincoln, JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King. I could see value in the other books, but did not have any interest in selling the educational books.

The demonstrations were sales scripts that when performed for the customer would result in a sale. The ‘approach’ script was designed to gain entry to the customer’s house. It went like this:

“Hi there Mrs. Jones! My name is (insert your name) and I’ve been calling on all of the church folks in the neighborhood. Just wanted to come by and see you. You all do go to some local church, don’t you? May I come in?” The sample customer’s name was always Mrs. Jones. The actual name was to be determined beforehand from the mailbox or a neighbor.

The script also included what can only be described as stage directions, like, ‘Complement the customer on the first thing you notice in the house. Sit down facing the gathered family on your sales case, opening it behind you.’ There was a scripted demonstration tailored to sell each book or set of books. Most memorable was an introductory line in the FBL script that read, “Mrs. Jones, don’t you wish that Bible study could be as exciting as the Fourth of July?” Each script was several pages and all together it seemed like a lot to memorize. There was also a closing script which focused on filling out the order slip. The customer’s name, address, number of books to be ordered, and amount of down payment (half of the total was suggested by the Company) were all to be completed. Books would be delivered at the end of the summer. Conspicuously absent was any wording dealing with whether the customer wanted to buy the book or not.

I closed the sales case. I summoned up the courage to take the next step of my adventure, and left the solitude of my room and went down to the lobby to meet up with my group.

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