Beethoven is my book buddy

Ludwig Van Beethoven — encyclopedia salesman's friend. (Portrait by Joseph Willibrod Mahler, 1804)

Ludwig Van Beethoven — encyclopedia salesman’s friend. (Portrait by Joseph Willibrod Mahler, 1804)

There is no doubt anywhere in the world that Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony) is the greatest piece of music ever written in the entire history of music. (Others may disagree, but what do they know. After all, I grew up listening to great country music, so obviously I know a lot about music.)

Kidding aside, “Ode to Joy” is right up there, and Beethoven is considered by many to be the greatest composer of all. Check it out, and you’ll agree.

So the question is, what connection could this sublime music have to the success of a shady, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman? Well, let me tell you.

Many years ago, back in the UMT days (for you younger folks, that stands for Universal Military Training — the draft — when we fellas had to serve our country), I decided to beat the draft board to the punch and enlist. Between signing up and beginning training stretched several months, so being at loose ends I went off to St. Paul, Minn., to stay with friends and find some kind of little job.

There wasn’t much available for a person of my limited skills — except a “position” of door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. I applied, was accepted, and began one of the more memorable periods of my life.

Once our class finished training, I was assigned to go out with one of the company’s legendary salesman, a fellow by the name of Hank Schmidt.

One of the ploys we book people used went like this: A salesman knocks on a door, the wife answers, and the salesman says (Hank instructed), “Hi, I’m Hank Schmidt, is Mister Home?”

That way, Hank explained, she will think you know her husband and be more willing to invite you inside. So we slithered into a residential neighborhood, found a likely-looking house, and Hank told me to watch how he did it. He knocked and a large, scowling woman answered.

“Hi, I’m Hank Schmidt. Is Mister home?”

“Schmidt sh–. Get the hell out of here.”

Hank staggered backward down the stairs as we retreated; he said not another word for the remainder of the evening and called it quits without selling a thing. He was a broken man.

The dead of winter is a cold and dangerous time in Minnesota for those of us intrepid souls who went house-to- house, door-to-door in the dark of night. That kind of selling is a numbers game — the more doors you knock on, the better your chances of finding some gullible soul who will actually let you in, instead of running you off at gunpoint, or knife-point, or German Shepard-point. The last two happened to me; one of the other crew faced a gun. The youngest crew member, Rich, couldn’t have been much older than 17. He was injured after falling backward down some stairs, startled when a naked woman opened the door.

I remember a sale I lost, after I thought it was a sure thing. It was in a nice Minneapolis neighborhood and when wrapping up a pitch to this couple, I whipped out one of our incentives to encourage their participation — a handsome New Testament — your choice of black or white in a handsome genuine imitation leather cover. Moments later, they decided not to take part in the program. It took a long time to figure out what went wrong. South Dakota hick that I was (still am) I had never met a Jewish person, which in retrospect, these folks were. I guess they didn’t need a New Testament. Or were just wary of Gentiles bearing gifts.

It was hard to leave the comfort of home for four or more hours to trudge those frozen streets. It was here the “Ode to Joy” served me well. Every evening before heading out, I would lie in front of the stereo, blasting myself with this powerful piece of music. The concussion of sound waves lifted me off the floor, it got all my molecules popping like firecrackers, I could plunge into the darkness. I moved books like a mad dog, I achieved second highest sales in the nation one month. I was giving people those books for free and felt pretty good about it, generous soul that I am.

Free? Yep. Our verbatim pitch was so smooth that even we sales people believed it.

Here is how it went. We told the householders that we were advertising workers laying the groundwork for a sales campaign in the neighborhood. If they would be willing to help us out by writing a testimonial letter praising our wonderful books, a letter we could then show their neighbors, we would give them a set of books in return. Oh, yes. We can’t just go around giving away books willy-nilly, so “to show your sincerity to help us in our program, we do ask you to purchase our ‘reference service.’ Anytime your kids need to write a term paper, or you need information not in the books, send in a reference coupon and our experts will write the report for you.” (This was long before personal computers.)

Then we would whip out a little bank and say, “See, if every day you put your pocket change in this bank, at the end of the month you will have plenty of money to make your installment payment for the reference service.” The reference service cost about $250, but the books were free.

Indeed, we new sales people thought we actually were giving away books and getting paid handsomely for doing so. Enthusiasm was high, we knocked on doors like crazy. I was making $200 a week and more — in 1960 this was a lot of money. But then, doubt began to creep in. Was this too good to be true?

After a couple of months there was a company party. I was talking to Giles, the office manager, about the program. Giles had been drinking, and in a rare moment of honesty, actually told the truth: Nobody ever uses the reference coupons.

After that, my enthusiasm began to wane and my success dwindled. Then my friend Paul showed up, said let’s go to Mexico, and we did, leaving icy Minnesota in the rear view mirror.

It wasn’t the most uplifting experience of my lifetime, but the “Ode to Joy” remains so to this day.

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