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Confessions of a card sharp

November 25, 2011
By BOB SEIDENSTEIN ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

It'd obviously been a very long while since I'd shopped for greeting cards, because when I looked at them last week, I about passed out.

The prices? Gevalt! We're talking $2, $3, $4 or more per card!

It's the sign of only one thing - a world gone mad.

Certainly it's not a world run by the Elmira Greeting Card Company, because if it were, they'd have it all under control. And I'm not just saying that because I was once a star member of their crack sales force.

My career with the Elmira Greeting Card Company, though long and fruitful, came about completely by accident.

I was a 13-year-old with a mania for candy and comic books, but with a serious cash flow problem. But even at that tender age I knew the First Rule of the Cruel World, which is: It's up to you and you alone to support your vices. Otherwise, you shouldn't have them.

My mother had made The First Rule abundantly clear to me when admitted I was powerless over the power of root beer barrels, Fudgesicles, red licorice and the like, but had no money to buy them.

It was obvious I need to make money. It was much less obvious HOW I could do it.

The most common job for kids was a paperboy, but after a brief but thorough market analysis I dismissed that course out of hand. A paper route was six days a week, in every kind of weather, and for wages that made indentured servitude seem like a glamour job.

There were odd jobs like yard work and shoveling driveways, but they too were long on the effort and short on the money. In addition, employment was erratic, since it was based on the whims of Mother Nature and the kindness of strangers.

No, I knew if I was to make the Free Enterprise Dream come true, I'd have to do it on my own and not as some capitalist greed-hog's lackey.

But where to look for my dream job? I had no idea, but ultimately it didn't matter because it found me.

And it found me in the place I looked most of the time - in comic books.

Comic relief

There were ads in comics for all kinds of things that boys found irresistible, from boomerangs to blowguns, from itch powder to fake blood, from slingshots to shrunken heads and so on. Of course all of it was junk but it was also a natural part of growing up, i.e., learning that adults could lie to kids at least as well as they could lie to each other.

But there were other advertisements that caught my attention. They were for selling greeting cards.

Three companies touted their wares.

One offered prizes for selling cards. In other words, you got points instead of the money you collected. So X number of points entitled you to this gift or that. It was essentially barter, something I had no interest in. I'd learned all I needed to know about barter from reading about the Dutch giving the Natives $24 for Manhattan.

With the other companies you paid for the cards yourself and then kept the profits. They sounded like my kind of outfits so I sent away for their sample kits. When they arrived, my choice of future employer was clearly The Elmira Greeting Card Company. The other company's wares were, if you'll pardon my French, pure dreck. The card stock was light, the designs blurry, the sentiments downright moronic.

But Elmira's were less greeting cards than works of art. The stock was heavy, the colors vivid, the wording heartfelt and articulate. The Elmira cards even had top-of-the-line silver and gold glitter that sparkled gloriously and that never came off, unlike the stuff on the cheap-o cards.

Even though no cards were sold, I was. Now all I needed was customers.

When it came to cold call, door-to-door sales, I was pretty much a zero. I wasn't good-looking, well-dressed, or the least bit versed in sales methods and manners. But I did have one thing going for me chutzpah. I had a lot more brass than brains, a formula I've since come to realize works well for leaders of business, politics, religion and about every other darn thing.

So there I was, schlepping my samples around the neighborhood, showing my wares to anyone who was either kind or foolish enough to let me through their doorway. And surprisingly, I made a lot of sales. Then again, when I look back at it, it actually made sense.

First, the times were different: Back then people corresponded in writing all the time. Long distance phone calls were too expensive, and people preferred writing and receiving notes and letters. Then again, back then people could write, so it only made sense.

Second, the Elmira cards really were attractive, plus the price was right. For an all-occasion assortment of 21 cards, the suggested price was $1.25. Comparable cards in the stores cost at least a dime apiece, so $1.25 a box was a steal. But catch this: To sweeten the deal, I charged only a buck - that's right, only one solitary greenback - a box. I knew I was losing profits, but I figured I made it up with volume - a theory I stuck by but never proved.

I didn't only sell greeting cards - Elmira had personalized stationery, also high-quality and very reasonably priced. It was something no high-tone letter writer could do without, so I moved a bunch of that too.

As quirky as this scheme sounds, it worked beautifully. I had my regular customers and through my timely visits made sure their correspondence stocks never ran out, much less ever got dangerously low. Plus I did a rocking seasonal business: My Christmas hustle alone kept me in Sugar Daddies and Green Arrow comics till I got my Easter game on.

Given my Jewish background, Christmas spirit wasn't something I fully understood, but I clearly understood it was good for business which apparently it still is.

I can't remember exactly when or why the Elmira Greeting Card Company and I parted company, but I know the parting was amicable.

After that, I went on to other money-making gigs, working of course for other people. All those jobs were bigger in terms of money, but given the freedom and fun I had as a freelance greeting card hustler, none of them were even close to better.



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