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Steve Lang: Traversing inner space with sale-ing adventures

"I am the world's worst salesman. Therefore, I must make it easy for people to buy." — F. W. Woolworth

"Art is making something out of nothing and selling it." — Frank Zappa

No item truly sells itself any more than a story writes itself, but sometimes circumstances occur in either domain to provide a jump start on the process.

For years, I sold advertising to finance room for the newspaper stories I wrote. In other words, the inner space of advertising provided the outer space for news copy, as much of the latter content has been termed as being "out there," as in, orbiting parallel universes.

While I have accumulated the large majority of my collection of humorously memorable moments from the editorial side (outer space), a few have been the results of sale-ing adventures, including the following voyages through inner space.

As a kid, traveling salesmen were frequent visitors to our house and neighboring residences. On one occasion, a hawker stopped at the neighbor's and when the lady of the house answered his knock, he asked if her husband was at home.

"He's at the cemetery, but you're welcome to come in and have a cup of coffee while you wait," she said.

The salesman stepped into the kitchen, sat down at the table, accepted at cup of coffee and cookies, exchanging small talk through first one cup, then a refill. Checking his watch, he asked, "How long do you expect your husband to be at the cemetery?"

"Well, I'm not sure," the lady replied. "He's already been there for six years."

Salesmanship, I learned at an early age, can be augmented by a glib tongue and quick wit. Growing up in Erdahl, Minnesota, Charlie Van Aarde's grocery was centrally located in the handful of establishments that occupied our downtown/main street district.

My dad, who owned the local produce, selling cream, butter, feed, seed corn and occasionally other ag-related items, had given me a sample spool of baler twine, supported by a pair of wooden knobs, one at each end.

Not long after, I walked into Charlie's store and saw similar knobs on his spool of wrapping paper. I mentioned I had some of those spools at home.

"You'd better go home, get 'em and bring 'em up here right away," Charlie said. "There's a guy that comes around — should be here any day, in fact — that pays a buck apiece for those things."

A dollar to an eight-year-old in the 1950s was a significant sum, but a mixture of curiosity and caution prompted me to ask, "What does this guy do with them?"

"He uses them to make rear-ends for hobby-horses," Charlie laughed, favoring me with a broad wink.

Once, while working at a rural Minnesota newspaper, a new advertising representative asked me who she should contact at a diner called The Red Shed. I was somewhat new to the area myself, but I thought I had heard the business was originally called Fred's Red Shed, so I suggested Fred, and went back to writing a sports story.

A few minutes later, the ad rep repeated the brief phone conversation:

"Red Shed," a voice answered.

"May I speak to Fred?" she asked, then was treated to a lengthy pause, followed by, "Fred's dead."

Decades ago, I was invited to purchase a share of a new weekly paper in eastern Oregon. During a visit there, the owner and I discussed advertisers. The town had two grocery stores. One store regularly ran a full page of weekly specials, while the other store adamantly refused to buy space, but nevertheless used the paper for his own marketing.

Each week, when the competitor's ad was published, the rival store owner would walk over to the other establishment, buy as many cartons of the featured items as he could and haul them over to his store. There, he stacked the products below his competitor's posted ad, crossed out the price of the advertised product (for example, tomato juice, 69 cents per can), and mark the price a penny lower per item.

Nearly 40 years later, the philosophy of this marketing ploy still befuddles me, and I ultimately passed on the partnership deal. Memories of another episode relayed years earlier probably had some bearing on my decision.

A fellow I knew had once sold trading stamps to grocery stores, but found a store owner in western Minnesota to be a brick wall of resistance.

After exhausting all his angles, he threw up his hands in mock desperation and said, "Well, sir, you leave me no choice but to offer this wonderful opportunity to your competitor across the street."

The store owner was unmoved.

"Go ahead. I'd love to see him go broke."

During his salad days, Steve Lang briefly considered naked vegetable sales: "Grin-and-bare-it Carrots." Lang also served as editor of the Morris Sun Tribune from 1974 to 1979.