It was the summer of 2012, and I had not had a great two years, employment-wise. Since graduating in 2010 I had been stringing together part-time gigs and freelance work with, at best, mixed success. The previous year my primary income came from cleaning schools 20 hours per week, a job that chiefly involved riding around on a power scrubber (granted, fun) and cleaning wrestling rooms (not so much).

But school was out, my other freelance gigs had dried up, and if I had contributed anything meaningful to society or my bank account within the preceding month or so, I certainly can’t remember it now. I felt very bad about this.

It was this cocktail of mid-level desperation and sustained self pity that led me to consider, and ultimately accept, a part-time position doing what seemed to me at the time to be the most miserable job I could ever possibly be offered.

Salesman.

That December, my wife’s cousin had opened a gourmet pasta shop and business was expanding rapidly. In addition to their humble storefront, he and his business partner were pushing into any and every farmers’ market in West Michigan they could, adding new markets seemingly every week. They needed bodies to man the booths.

I was a body. And, having satisfactorily met that one and only qualification, I swallowed hard and decided to give it a try.

Now, hawking wares at a farmers’ market might not resemble your worst nightmares, but let me assure you that those first few weeks I was terrified.

Stephen

I can be painfully shy around strangers. It took me a couple of weeks just to get to the point where I could consistently say “hello” or “good morning” to a customer who didn’t speak first. And I definitely didn’t want to be the pushy salesman, the one who always beckoning to unsuspecting passersby, blabbering on and on while customers tried in vain to escape. You know that guy? I can’t stand him.

If it hadn’t already been obvious enough, it soon became even more apparent that this social shyness was a significant handicap. Gourmet pasta, delicious as it is with its myriad flavors (a sampling: basil and garlic, spinach and artichoke, aged asiago and oregano, morel mushrooms …), is not exactly the type of item that sells itself at a farmers’ market. Most people have never seen anything like it before. They have no idea what it tastes like. They have no idea what to make it with. They can’t sample it. As the vendor, you have to find a way to explain the product and make it sound enticing, preferably before the customer can squeak out the inevitable “How much for a bag?” If you can get them to see it as easy-to-make, delicious, affordable home gourmet—fancy restaurant quality food at fast food prices—it’s a great buy. If all they can see is a bag of noodles, forget it.

But it takes more that social boldness to hack it at a farmers’ market. There are physical challenges, too. Some markets, like Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, do come with a roof over your head and a stable for your goods. But in the remote wilds of Rockford or St. Joseph or Manistee, you’re on the hook for your own (flimsy, heavy, easily breakable, difficult to set up, highly susceptible to blowing away) tent and (ugly) tables. Ideally you’ll be able to unload right next to your spot, but it doesn’t always happen. To wit: it’s not a matter of if you’ll have to lug your tent, tables, and boxes halfway across downtown St. Joseph in 95-degree heat and back again. It’s a matter of when.

Once set up, you’re moored to your booth for the next six or so hours, a lot of that time spent trying to look inviting but not too desperate. For many, the tedium would be intolerable. The more pressing concern, though, is making it through the shift without needing to eat lunch or sneak in a bathroom break. First, there may not even be a bathroom anywhere nearby. And even if there were, there’s no one around to run your booth for you.

All of this is to say that the job seems like it would be a never-ending horror show for a plodding, overweight, morning-averse, mildly oversensitive, socially tentative introvert such as your humble narrator. And in those first few weeks and months it was. I was a bad salesman and I knew it. Every week was another reminder of my own inadequacy, a struggle to do the best job I could despite my utter lack of skill or comfort with role, punctuated by the shame of returning to the shop with what I knew must have been disappointing sales numbers for my bosses. That, ultimately, was the hardest part. Still is.

Yet they kept asking me back, maybe because they were desperate, maybe because I was family, maybe because I wasn’t really as terrible at selling pasta as I truly believed I was. I don’t know.

But then a funny thing happened. Maybe it was the sense of accomplishment as I slowly got more comfortable in my skin, or maybe it was just repetition, but I kinda sorta maybe started to enjoy it.

About two months after I started working markets, I landed a full time gig as a copywriter. The pasta bosses asked me if I would keep working markets on Saturdays, and I said something to the effect of, “Sure, I guess, for at least another week or two.” Then after that, I said I’d go another week. And then another. And then another and more, until autumn wound down and most of the regional markets closed for the season.

Then this spring: “Going to do any markets for us this year?” And I realized that I’d actually missed it.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten a lot better at the job since those early days. Not only have I mastered “hello,” but I can even follow it up with “Have you tried our pasta?” and launch into my pitch. I can even–gasp!–offer cooking suggestions based on individual tastes, which is somewhat amusing given that my own culinary skillset still hasn’t evolved much past being able to operate a microwave.

I still have my good days and bad. Getting up before dawn on a Saturday after working a full week at the office is never easy. I’ve had marketing managers yell at me and customers harass me for no particularly good reason. One time it was so windy in Manistee I had to tie my tent to my car.

But after forcing myself to keeping working at a job I initially didn’t particularly like and wasn’t particularly good at, and challenging myself to get better, a part of my life that I used to dread has gradually become a welcome, even calming, part of my weekly routine.

I’m still not the greatest salesman. I know it, and I’m sure my bosses do too. But I’m available almost every Saturday and I never really complain about where they send me, so I make a good last-minute sub.

And honestly? I’m pretty happy with that. For a guy who started out convinced he wouldn’t last two weeks, it’s not a bad place to be. The journey from lousy, reluctant marketeer to merry (if middling) one has been surprisingly rewarding.

3 Comments

  1. Brad Zwiers

    I love your detailed descriptions of what it takes to run a table at the farmer’s market, and it seems to me this is a prime example of what Jake encouraged us to do: “show how and why the stuff of life is ripe for commentary.” Great post!

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    I smiled at “cocktails of mid-level desperation and sustained self pity”…that’s about it sometimes, when in between freelance/career options. Liked that. Best wishes!

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    It’s inspiring, really, to think of growing at a job that was 99% unsuitable, until it became one that is rewarding–for you, your customers, and your bosses. Thanks for sharing! (And for inciting a major pasta craving…)

    Reply

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