Looking for a motivated self-starter. Retail square footage: about two by four feet. Bicycle wheels in good repair. Bonus of travel.
I am talking about that most venerable of professions, the self-styled street vendor. It’s been a long time since I heard such things as the Dickie-Dee organ grinder music, or the bell of the man who strolled the neighbourhoods with his knife-sharpening cart, equipped with a hand-powered stone grinding wheel. Such a business owner had the best of all worlds. If he didn’t like his location, he could maneuver his gig to a spot more to his advantage.
One neighbourhood fixture when I was a kid was Nick the Pop-a-corn man. Not popcorn, POP-A-CORN, because that is what he would call out. “Hey kids, you getta-the pop-a-corn here ten cent-a bag”. He didn’t have any side lines. No sweets, not even drinks. He didn’t sell roasted chestnuts, just popcorn, in those tiny brown paper bags they used for kids’ lunches. His cart was not very big. Powered by a bicycle-like attachment, he would drive it up hill, down hill, out and about in the sun, wind, and weather.
You think about that when you are chained to a desk, rubbing your eyes, and looking for five o’clock. This guy had little overhead, and he was in great shape. I bet he didn’t even require any fancy municipal license, the kind that can hobble you.
I had a booth in the Calgary Stampede one year, and it was astonishing, how you can dig your own grave by following the rules. There was licensing to the Calgary Stampede for using their name or logo, rental space for a week, hydro if necessary, cost of what you are selling up front, license fee to the city. All in all, I was committed early in for some hard cash for which there was no guarantee of return. The powers that be picked your corpse while you were yet living. Turns out the Calgary Stampede was a bust that year, oil was down and people didn’t have much disposable income. Somebody sitting in a desk doing nothing made money from my entrepreneurial zeal. Me, I had to cut my losses.
It was a chance to talk to other like vendors. The guy beside me was a very funny ex-con who learned leather craft in the slammer and used it to go straight. No more jail cell for him. He had been busted for dealing cocaine and said in the end he liked leather better. Plus, he said, on the outside your girlfriend was better looking.
The girl on the other side was selling bead jewelry off a rack, rack being the operative term because she sold her wares wearing only a thong bikini although in Calgary you are lucky if you get a few weeks of T-Shirt weather in the summer.
Down from there, was a guy in a french-fry truck. He gave up and left mid week, cutting his losses. He said that he was losing money daily just on the hydro alone, and paying his staff.
The smart people, were self-styled with quick setup and collapse booths. If they saw the cops, they folded their booth and kept on moving. No licensing fees or rent for them. There was also one guy who wore his shop all up and down his arms, those glow sticks that light up when you crack the inner glass. He said he smelled out that this was going to be a bad year. He said our big mistake was price point. Everyone wants to buy a bauble for their kids to keep them happy, and like the dollar store principle, everyone has a buck in his pocket. He said twenty people would be much more likely to fork over a buck for some inconsequential novelty, than for one guy to fork over twenty bucks one item. He asked my what my buy-in was for the T-shirts I was selling. Price of T-shirt plus printing. Price point at twenty bucks, margin of profit, not too much. Unlike me, he said that his light wands were about seventy five percent profit, and no overhead. Off he strolled, here and there handing out a glow wand for a buck as he went.
Vendors are a peculiar sort, what they do requires a bit of canny street smarts, and the gift of versatility. They do what works, only. If it doesn’t work, they will change it on a dime. Kind of makes you think about those people who commit themselves to a long university degree, only to discover that their profession is not what they dreamed of, or worse, that technology has made it obsolete.
It can happen. I think of my own profession, graphic arts. I can remember the place I worked as a junior artist. It was all hands on, your ability to draw, key. You had to be able to come up with loose thumbnail concepts, tight marker renderings of proposed shots long before stock photos or the internet, and you had to be able to hand render type and do clean mockups to sell a client. I recall in the same agency, computers were discussed. The guy with signing power scoffed. Toys he said. Not good for much beyond nerds playing asteroids. Hence he committed a few million into high end linotech equipment to output black and white typesetting for paste-up artists. They were the guys on a drafting board who would use a T-square and radiograph pens to do tight black and white paste ups for the film house to reproduce. I can recall my first year there, doing a line of twenty-five barbecue illustrations toned with dot-by-dot stipple technique so that the art could be produced with blunt flexo printing on the outside of corrugated boxes. I think I worked on those illustrations for more than a month.
Gone are those days. First of all, I am now doing the work of a photo retoucher, typesetter, film stripper, paste-up artist and concept renderer all at once, and much faster, without being paid any more. Worse, the technology is “never fast enough”. Hence the work will start to drive you. You could turn over that job in three days? How about two and a half? How about two? How about one day? It’s never fast enough, just like the joke, would NOW be ok? It belies that idea of craftsmanship or technical skill after a while, all subsumed theoretically, by those machines which have become our masters.
But not so the street vendor. There are still a few around. One we used to patronize when my kids were small, had a concession stand about six by eight feet, to sell fries, and only fries. He had a bag of potatoes and two pieces of equipment, a fryer and a machine he forced the potato through to dice it into those long strips. Price point, pocket change, particularly when Canada switched to the looney and twoney. He had an enormous bucket of change going on the side, and I don’t recall him ever punching anything into a cash register. His stand was close to a public outdoor swimming pool so he had a steady stream of hungry kids and their parents. He told me that he spent his winters down in Florida. For a bit of entrepreneurial flair and no need of any particular training, he had a reliable cash flow. As they say, cash is king.
In a way, you cannot help but envy such a person. I see my kids go out for an expensive education. Society has been hobbled such that it seems you cannot choose any alternative to that, everyone wants that piece of paper. Still the whole setup quickly reaches a point of stasis, and then requires more to up the ante. BA not good enough? How about an MA specializing in something. No? How about a PHD? You could spend your entire life getting educated and broke, and nowadays, no real promise of a reliable return on your investment.
The irony is that the trades are suffering. Canadians have somehow got the idea that the trades are ignominious and nothing to brag about. My dad was this way. White collar to the core, he refused to sign for shop courses as electives in high school because it would put me with all the “two years” (those who dropped out of high school as soon as they hit sixteen). He said doing that stuff would put me on the wrong end of a shovel my whole life.
Back of a shovel is not so bad depending on who you ask. When I worked for the railway in a section crew building track, you were outside in God’s nature all day, feeling the sun and the wind. I still enjoy when the weather is warm, doing my work out in the yard, hauling out tools and sanding and cutting in the fresh breeze, with passersby sometimes stopping to chat and see what it is you are building. It sure beats the cattle stall with a computer that is now standard in most work places.
A profession is a funny thing. There is what you are inclined to do with yourself, your aptitudes. Not everyone is cut out for the same kind of thing. Then there is whatever craft or discipline you follow, learning the bones of it. And then after all that I think, is a bit of canny business sense to wend your way through it all, and most importantly, just some work ethic that means you will do what is necessary to put bread on the table.
Sometimes in that smoke and mirrors of it all, the purpose of why we do things gets lost. You see people, particularly immigrants, who find ingenious ways to survive. They start up with something, and sometimes continuity is your friend, coupled with your ability to take your place within a community and be counted reliable enough to get the tacit support that comes by word of mouth. They work to live, which might be the point.
They used to call it hanging out your shingle. Take your pick. It might be taking up your dad’s profession, or a real apprenticeship. They still do those over in Europe and they take great pride because when they are pronounced a journeyman, they consider themselves an expert.
Journeyman. Think about it. It comes from the French, Journée, a day. The day worker. It’s your per diem coming to roost. You are worth your day’s pay. Sufficient to the day, are the evils thereof, Jesus said. One day at a time, my friend.
Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves thinking out a profession, when in the end what comes by a little craft or luck serves the same ends. It brings me back to Nick the Pop-a-corn man. He has crossed my mind more than a few times. No doubt an immigrant, he came over here and had to find something to do with himself. At a certain point, he looked at one of those carts and said. “I can do that. Why not?” And so he did, figuring it out as he went. He was his own man.
I can still hear him calling out as his bike rolled through the neighbourhood. “Pop-a-corn. You getta the pop-a-corn here. Ten cent-a bag! Nice and hot.” And so he made his way, honest labour, a dime at a time, dimes turning into dollars. There are a million stories just like him, with different variations. It’s the original entrepreneur gene, the one that had moved human history throughout the ages. It would be pretty hard to criticize anyone engaged in honest labour no matter how humble that may be. If it puts a roof over your head, why not?