Selling Encyclopedias


Back in the 1950s, door-to-door selling could be a lucrative occupation. At various times my brother Bill sold cookware, encyclopaedias, siding, guitar lessons (he didn’t play the guitar), and rugs. We spent a lot of time in coffee shops talking about how much money could be made in one of those endeavors. Bill dreamed of getting rich.

Bill had a friend, Gene Talarico, who trained him to sell the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Talarico, as we called him, had some strange superstitions. He would never use the last of anything. He threw out the last match in a match book and the last cigarette in a pack of cigarettes. He wouldn’t even take the last swallow of a beer. He played the horses and was supposedly a good handicapper, but often in the line to place his bet, something would spook him, and he would bet on a different horse. Invariably, the one he had intended to bet on came in. He claimed he wrote a novel entitled Hell Is Only Half Full.

Talarico was an incredible salesman. There was a term for potential customers that Talarico used—mullets. It was a contemptuous term similar to the term “mark” used by grafters and con men. A mullet was some poor dumb bastard you had to convince to part with a couple of hundred dollars for a set of encyclopaedias he or his kids would never use. Here is Talarico closing a sale:

Talarico: Here, we’ll just write this up….

Mullet: Whoa, hold on there. I didn’t say I was buying them.

Talarico: (Tearing off a piece of the contract) No, look.  It’s just paper. You’re not buying anything. I’m just showing you the figures.

Mullet: Uh, Okay.

Talarico: See that’s just $5 a month. Do you think Johnny’s education is worth $5 a month?

Mullet: Yeah, but I can take him to the library. They have encyclopaedias in the library.

Talarico: Let me ask you a question. Do you smoke? (Everybody smoked.)

Mullet: Yeah.

Talarico: So let me ask you another question. If every time you wanted a cigarette, you had to go to the library to get a match, do you think you would keep smoking?

Mullet: Well, I dunno..

Talarico: Come on. Think about it. Here have a cigarette. (It was the last one in Talarico’s pack and giving it to a mullet was like throwing it away). Now, we can’t light it. We have to go to the library!

Mullet: Yeah, okay.

Talarico: If you have to run to the library to get a match, you’re going to stop smoking, right?

Mullet: Yeah, I guess so.

Talarico: So what’s going to happen to Johnny here if every time he has a question, he has to run to the library to get an answer?

Mullet: Uh…

Talarico: He’s going to stop asking questions, right?

Mullet: Yeah, I guess so.

Talarico: You know asking questions is what getting an education is about. So is it worth $5 a month to make sure Johnny keeps asking questions? Of course it is!

Mullet: Yeah…

Talarico: Just sign here.

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