“That’s a horrible picture of you.” The woman with the frizzy hair pointed up to the large banner with the caricature of me sitting in my Coffee Blog cup. “It’s really bad.”
“Do you think so?” I replied, taken aback. Not only was her manner brusque, but I actually thought the picture was somewhat flattering and I’ve had worse. (First photo after giving birth – not good)
“Terrible. Not good at all. Your hair looks like a wig and your face looks fat.” She looked around. “Are you giving anything away for free?”
I handed her a pair of cotton gardening gloves with the word “MOM” stenciled on them. “Thanks for stopping by.” I smiled sweetly. “It has been a pleasure.”
She looked disappointedly at the gloves as she dropped them in her bag. “My advice – get a new photographer.”
“A real pleasure,” I repeated as I glanced over at Dawn, who was gently peeling a man’s very hairy hand from her arm. “Dawn,” I called out, “can I talk to you?” She looked at me gratefully as she made her way out of the corner in which she had been backed in to. We needed a code word.
Here’s the dealio . . .
Situation analysis . . . BEA – BookExpo America, the largest publishing conference in the U.S., New York City, May 2009. Windy City Publishers was making its debut and I, along with partners Dawn and Kristyn, was manning our booth on the convention floor. The lines to get in were long and we were crazy busy from the moment the doors opened and a brave librarian threw herself across the entrance threshold, determined to be the first to get Fabio’s autograph. No one had the heart to tell her the Harlequin icon hadn’t been there since 1995.
My friend, Debbie, who helps run the show, was kind enough to garner us a booth in the middle of the action, a stone’s throw from Random House and Simon and Schuster. This gesture was testament to her willingness to let bygones be bygones as earlier this year my husband had gotten into a heated discussion with her. The debate had concerned some ridiculous provision in the contract for the booth space, and we almost didn’t go as he told me, “You can’t sign this, it’s too one-sided.” But the threat of divorce can be a serious one and he quickly changed his tune and made nice with Debbie. “I understand,” she told me apologetically, “he’s a lawyer.”
Don’t judge us by our junk!
Authors, publishers, book sellers, book buyers, librarians and anyone who was willing to pay the piper roamed the two floors of the large convention center. Our goal: to get as many of these fine folk to stop by our small 10 x 10 booth and listen to our pitch. The hook? Junk.
Last January a local warehouse outlet store was going out of business and I struck a deal with the manager to take cases of the cheesy merchandise off her hands for, literally, pennies. The thought at the time was to hand out the Speed Racer tire gauges, rulers that said “girls rule”, gardening gloves (see above), Rubik’s cube erasers and a number of other “gifts” as bait to lure the folks hustling by into the WCP booth.
But Dawn and Kristyn did not share in my excitement. They didn’t find the charm in the golf balls that said “dear dad” or the lighted magnifying glass shaped like a dog. “I’m not sure how to tie that in with publishing.” Kristyn, ever the marketer, told me diplomatically. “They don’t even say Windy City Publishers.”
“It’s just the fact that they’re free,” I said. Thoughts of my cheap relatives passed quickly through my head – had I unknowingly become my father? “Everyone likes something for free.”
My argument did not convince them and we struck a deal. I had one hour after the show opened to make my case. If the gifts did not perform as I expected, the Ice Age II bouncy balls and Harry Potter stickers, along with the other treasures, would be pulled and stored behind closed doors. We could then join the ranks of the sophisticated other vendors who were above such nonsense and hopefully Windy City Publishers would have enough time to earn back the respectability that such a stunt might damage.
The Big Bet
Dawn was so confident they were right, she offered to kiss a certain large part of my anatomy for a year if I was proved wrong, and Kristyn joined in the bet, both women convinced that I had relapsed and the bizarre voices in my head had returned.
It could have been the fact that I stood in the aisles shouting “free stuff” or that I practically stalked the patrons walking by, but within minutes it became obvious that the pink lava pens were a hit. Say it with me, friends . . . we like free junk! I know I’ll take anything (two if it’s small) of whatever you want to give me, even if I have no need for it, no place to store it or don’t even know what it is. I actually bought 1500 of the Rubik’s erasers, knowing that I would have at least one item for birthday gift bags for all the foreseeable future.
But people pushed into our booth, jockeying for position. We overheard librarians claiming that we gave out the best chotchkies and they would pass on our location to their friends. The booth was busting at the seams, folks spilled out into the asles and we couldn’t keep up with the crowds. We did manage to spread the good word of our company and collected hundreds of business cards in addition to talking non-stop for three days. We met some really great people (hi to Ray, Barbara and Peter) and some really interesting people (translation: strange).
I’m not one to rub it in, but WCP was the buzz of BEA, partially because of our swag, partially because of the scantily dressed models we had hanging out (I’m just pulling your leg – Kelly and Leslie aren’t models). I may slightly exaggerate, but we were very popular. The “gifts” proved to be excellent bait, and I’m happy to report I have a year of special lovin’ coming my way from two of my very favorite people (That would be you, Dawn and Kristyn).
Now if anyone is interested in a Rubik’s cube eraser – have I got a deal for you!
A special thanks to our good friend and design expert, Jeff Comeau, (IntuitDesign) for all his hard work, on both his design work and his manual labor at the show. P.S. Jeff, my leg is fine, the bruises have healed nicely!
(say that three times fast)
My dad is a frugal man. Notice how I thoughtfully use “frugal” instead of the ‘C’ word? Well, for one thing, I respect my father and, for another, I would never want to hurt his feelings. At least not to his face. My siblings and I save the ‘cheap’ shots for when he’s not around.
My grandparents had ridden out the depression and my parents had been drilled, bombarded and otherwise brainwashed into the mantras that used plastic Cool Whip containers didn’t just grow on trees and throwing away old issues of National Geographic qualified you for that special place in Hell, reserved for the frivolous and wasteful.
(In a related and totally true story, ask me, when our house got TP’d in high school, where the used toilet paper from our trees ended up. If you guessed in a paper bag, next to our toilet, you win big!)
Both my mother and father believe that, if faced with the choice between cheap and not-cheap, well, there is no choice. For many years I subscribed to this adage until I realized that cheap is sometimes – well – crappy. It doesn’t necessarily mean a well-made product that costs less. It could also possibly mean a poorly-made product that costs less. I know this first hand having bought my share of plastic shoes from Big Lots or socks from flea markets with pretend elastic.
Accounting for Nothing!
Now, as you may remember, not only was I an accountant in a former life, but I was also a single mother on a very tight budget, so I would not consider myself a spend-thrift. As a matter of fact, I would submit that I am fairly practical. Having said this, when faced with a choice between Heinz ketchup and the no-brand option from Dollar Tree, I reason that the price difference of 69 cents is not a deal-breaker, and I’ll splurge for the good stuff. On the other hand, I’m happy with a designer knockoff bag from Target or a fine pair of Zirconium earrings from Sears.
My father, not so much. I have received shoes two sizes too big, because they were on sale and men’s shirts because “you can hardly tell the difference.” My son, as a teenager, was once the recipient of a pair of beige wrinkle-free pants with what looked like a built-in diaper, because “they were practically giving them away.”
My dad is a habitual shopper who makes the rounds at Kohl’s, Target and Meijers just looking for a good deal, whether he needs it or not. If one comes available, he mentally combs his list of family members that he can rationalize giving that particular gift to. It’s actually very exciting. You never know what could be in the brown paper bag with your name scrawled in black magic marker that is your birthday gift. It could be a slightly damaged George Forman grill or perhaps the purple leggings with the matching belt you once had your eye on in 1988.
Wealthy is as wealthy does
My father and step-mother, Janet, are not what I would call rich in the traditional sense of the word. On the other hand, they live a very comfortable life between a small but meticulously maintained home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a condo on a golf course in Naples, Florida. They have health care and pensions and, though they live on a budget, they do not worry where their next meal comes from or how they will make their mortgage.
So you may find it surprising that they did not have air-conditioning in their home in Michigan where the humidity in summer rivals that of the jungles of Southeast Asia. July is a particularly steamy month and it wasn’t unusual for my father to mention how they, once again, slept in their basement because it was so darn muggy. The basement he is referring to was updated in 1974 with orange furniture, shag carpet and dark wood paneling, and has been preserved in that state ever since. It also, does not have a bathroom.
“Why don’t you guys just go get an air conditioner? Look, Sears has them on sale this week,” I would beg as I showed them the Sunday circular.
“Oh, we don’t need one. We enjoy sleeping on the couches. It’s very dark down there.”
“But, Dad, you have to go upstairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.”
“Well, then you father can check on the house,” Janet would add. “And besides, they’re so darn expensive to run. Maybe next year.”
“What are you waiting for?” I countered, more than once. “It’s not like you’re getting younger every year. How old do you have to be before you don’t feel guilty for making yourself comfortable? There is no age limit in Kalamazoo for a good night’s sleep.”
I bugged them enough that last year they finally relented. I think it was the point I made that, when they were ready to sell their home, it would be difficult to find a buyer in this day and age who would be willing to make the same sacrifices that they did with the sleeping arrangements.
The thought that they might not get the full value their home deserved forced their hand and they broke down. They bought one of the cheapest models.
Passing stones, throwing stones, Rolling Stones
Last summer, I got a call from Janet telling me my father was in the hospital. He had a kidney stone and was in horrible pain. We rushed to Kalamazoo and by the time we got there, he had passed it and was sitting up in a chair, ready to tell his story.
“So,” he began, “I was so sick last night. I was throwing up and had a fever. I was miserable and I had stomach problems,” he looked at me and mouthed the words ‘the runs’ before he spoke again. “I was running upstairs all night to use the bathroom.”
“What do you mean, ‘running upstairs’?” I asked. “You have a ranch home.”
“Well, we were sleeping in the basement.”
At this point, I need to share with you that this exchange took place during an oppressive heat wave in July.
“Dad, you were sick, running to the bathroom every five minutes, and had a fever. You were passing a kidney stone for heaven’s sake. Why in the world didn’t you have your air conditioner on? The one time, when I can’t think of a better reason to be comfortable and near a bathroom, you were in the basement on a sofa,” I said exhaustedly.
“We only use it when it’s an emergency,” my parents stated in unison.
And there you have it. In a nutshell.