NEW YORK -- In two decades, Amal Martelli has sold 2,800 sets of World Book Encyclopedias and seems to be just hitting her stride. She sat on a couch in an apartment in Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan, surrounded by sales paraphernalia, making a soft, not unsubtle pitch.
"I'm here because of you, not because of your daddy," she assured 5-year-old Michael Hood. "You are the important person here for me."
She proceeded to compliment him on his grasp of letters and numbers, give him a poster and introduce him to Zak, a hand puppet. She unveiled what she called a magic pencil. "I have one of those," Michael said dismissively.
"It's not exactly the same," Ms. Martelli insisted. "It's the same principle."
She changed the subject. "Do you like animals, Michael?" she purred. "No," he answered.
The saleswoman, revealing no exasperation, turned her attention to the man with the checkbook, Dan Hood. She displayed such an array of educational aids it seemed impossible they wouldn't automatically spawn Einsteins.
The message rang like a bell. "A lot of families are interested in raising their children's intelligence," she said sweetly.
There was no immediate sale. She left them Volume A of the encyclopedia, as well as a quiz on its contents. She would return soon for them. Her foot was still decidedly in the door.
Ms. Martelli says one in three calls result in sales, compared with a national average of one in five for World Book sales people. The key is persistence, to plant a seed and keep calling back.
Her doggedness had been manifest earlier when the Hoods were late because of a broken bus. She made a beeline to the playground of the apartment complex, spotted a mother with twins and struck up a conversation. "What a unique experience twins must be!" she chirped.
She left brochures, and got at least part of the woman's name. "A little dent has been made," she said.
Ms. Martelli is part of an economic sector surprisingly insulated from downturns. Even as things get worse, overall sales hold up because more people are willing to go door to door, and push that much harder to sell everything from vacuum cleaners to toothbrushes.
"A slow economy is to our benefit," said Steve Wilson, zone manager for World Book Educational Products. "There is no such thing as a layoff."
And door-to-door sales are certainly no drop in the bucket. They exceeded $12 billion last year, up 13 percent from 1988, according to the Direct Selling Association.
In New York City, people are even willing summon the unimaginable courage to knock on the door of a stranger. "That's how you sharpen your wits," Ms. Martelli said.
Not that she doesn't take precautions as she makes her rounds of the entire East Side. When she feels an area or building might be dangerous, she never travels alone.
If some people are born to sell, this cheerful 57-year-old resident of Flushing, Queens, is not one of them. She was born in Argentina, the daughter of an engineer. She studied in Florida, and became a microbiology researcher at New York University.
In addition to English, she speaks Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German. Her drawing ability is such that she drew the intricate illustrations that accompanied her scientific team's articles.
But the university hired outsiders to do more of the drawing, and her income declined. A friend told her about the World Book opportunity, and Ms. Martelli sold her first set of encyclopedias in 1972. She continued part time until 1986.
She then started full time, and her responsibilities came to include supervising a sales staff of 25. She received medical insurance, a pension and other benefits in a position that World ++ Book says pays some more than $100,000 annually, including commissions.