“Hi there, Mrs. Jones? My name’s Maggie. I’m the one who has been talking to all of the families here in Hanover this summer about those study guides to help your kids with schoolwork. It only takes a quick minute to show you. Do you have a place to sit down?”
I have recited that script about 10,000 times. It is seared into my soul. It haunts my dreams.
I prepared all spring semester, but the week before I was set to leave, my mom said, “Wait, you were serious about this?” I pleaded my case, “I’ll get to travel! I’ll make a lot of money! And I’m eighteen so you can’t stop me!” My mom begrudgingly relented. So, one Saturday morning in May of 1999, I packed up my Ford Taurus and caravanned with about sixty other students to Nashville for a week of sales school.
Yep, sales school. It’s a thing. It’s a thing for students who decide to work for the Southwestern Company. You go to their headquarters with thousands of other eager/foolish college kids to learn your sales pitch, be force-fed inspirational sayings and become part of what I now somewhat affectionately call “The Book Cult.”
As a member of The Book Cult, I learned many valuable lessons that, sadly, were not featured in the study guides I sold.
Lesson 1: How to find a place to live
At the end of sales school, my managers assigned me two roommates, and we headed to New Hampshire—without anywhere to live. Upon arriving in picturesque Hanover, home to the prestigious Dartmouth College, us three girls started, literally, knocking on doors, asking people if we could stay with them. Remember, this was not 1959; it was 1999.
Eventually we found a retired couple willing to let us live on the second floor of their guesthouse. The first floor was already occupied by their brother, Mounir, a hard-of-hearing, 91-year-old Syrian. We quickly learned to appreciate his incessant hummus-making and loud Arabic singing.
The following summer, my two roommates and I rolled into Cortland, New York during graduation weekend. There were no hotel rooms available. That first night, we wound up sleeping in a church rec room before hitting up mass and asking members of the parish to take us in. Would you believe four families offered to put us up? I still keep in touch with the older couple we lived with, Joe and Linda, and they still refer to the place I slept as “Maggie’s room.”
Also, once you’ve knocked on someone’s door and asked them if you can live in their basement for three months, asking people to buy stuff isn’t that big of a deal.
Lesson 2: How to manipulate mothers
Turns out, moms will buy stuff just because their friends do. Women let me, a perfect stranger, into their homes because I had a clipboard with names of people in their neighborhood. “A lot of families have been picking up these study guides for their kids, like the Smiths and the Johnsons and the Petersons, you know them!” I sold books to Woodstock, Vermont’s PTA president Debbie Conners. I’d drop her name, and—BOOM—moms would bust out their checkbooks left and right.
Lesson 3: How to gain twenty pounds in just twelve weeks
When you hear the phrase “door-to-door book salesperson,” you probably picture someone hoofing it from house to house, hauling heavy volumes, and walking miles upon miles. Wrong. I worked in rural areas and drove around all day, every day. The only exercise I got was walking from my Taurus to the front door and back. And I ate like total shit. PB&J, Pringles, and Sunbelt granola bars were my staples. I even started mooching off my clients, telling them I forgot my lunch. One time I interrupted a family’s movie night, gave them my sales pitch, then ate hot fudge sundaes and watched the end of “The Mummy” before moving on.
Lesson 4: How to live large
The key to being a high roller is to be a total cheap-ass. The more you spend, the less you save. Buying superfluous things like soda or nutritious food meant less money in my pocket, so I gave it up. My total haul for two summers of book-selling-cheapskate hell was more than $25,000. I bought a ‘96 Chevy Corsica with cash straight-up. I graduated without a single student loan. And to this day, I still don’t drink soda.
Lesson 5: Work hard, play hard
Our goal, Monday through Saturday, was to knock on our first door by
8 a.m. and keep going until 10 p.m. We were to give thirty sales demonstrations every day. “Each no gets you closer to the yes!” Then on Sundays, the sixty book kids spread throughout the area would get together for a day of organized fun.
We whitewater rafted in New York, we ate fresh lobster on the beach in Maine, and we wandered around historic Boston. And because I was kind of good at selling books–not to brag, but I was the No. 23 first-year salesperson–I earned incentive trips. First, a Carnival cruise to Key West and Cozumel, Mexico. The second year, it was a week in Thailand.
Lesson 6: How to not give a fuck
In sales school, you are taught to smile no matter what. Through barking dogs and slammed doors and threats to call the police and rain and heat and asshole dads and bitchy moms and bratty kids. Then somehow, through all that smiling, you really do stop caring what other people think of you. Plus, when you rock a turquoise fanny pack for twelve weeks, your ego pretty much disappears.
You also stop freaking out about stuff. On the drive back home to Nebraska, at the end of my first summer, I dropped my transmission thirty miles east of St. Louis. So, I left the Taurus at the mechanic’s shop and rode home with another bookseller in my caravan. Fucks given: zero.
Selling books wasn’t glamorous, and I spent a good chunk of time crying in my car over the constant rejection, homesickness, and self-doubt. But, I somehow made myself keep knocking on doors.
And the truth is, if I hadn’t sold books, I might never have had the balls to take jobs in Utica, New York or Des Moines, Iowa, without knowing a soul. Or to move to the city and switch careers at age thirty. Or to try storytelling or stand-up comedy or marathon running.
In the end, my Book Cult education actually did turn out to be worth its weight in study guides.