Chasing cash with a joke and a smoke Traveling man sells old way, store by store

August 01, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Summer, and the selling is tough, but Bobby Spisler is out schlepping.

He is driving his second-hand, 7-year-old U-Haul truck down Interstate 83 out of Cockeysville, roaming the countryside in search of a sale.

In an age of Fax machines, cellular phones and overnight mail, Mr. Spisler sells men's clothing the old-fashioned way -- store to store and city to city from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia.

He is among the last of a hardy breed, a traveling salesman who lives on cold coffee, stale cigarettes and tiny commissions.

"Every day is deja vu," he says. "I've seen it all. And heard it all. And sold it all."

Today, he's hawking men's sportswear, the kind of clothing seen in rap videos on MTV. But Mr. Spisler is selling strictly imitations. These are the off-shore knockoffs that pour into the inner cities of the United States from South Korea and Central America.

"My sales pitch is that everything is just like a . . ." he says. "Like a Boss. Like a Perry Ellis. Like a Carhartt. Like a Coogi. I don't have to be an original. I'm happy being a knockoff. I don't need a title. Just sign my name to the back of a commission check. That's my title."

First stop is Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. It's not even 10 a.m., but Mr. Spisler, 43, is already sweating inside the cab of the truck -- not air-conditioned. He is dressed business-casual, the clothes clearly off-the-rack.

He loosens his striped tie, rolls up his sleeves, checks his gold watch and adjusts his gold pinky ring. And then he smooths his gray and silver hair with the palms of his hands.

He's ready to sell.

And Barry Gerskov, the vice president and general manager of Robert C. Richards Ltd., is ready to buy.

This is a restock job. Nothing complicated. The Jekel line of brightly colored cotton twill shorts and vertical-striped shirts -- sort of the television test-pattern look -- is hot this summer. Can't keep the stuff on the racks.

The buyer and the seller speak in a code, rattling off letters and numbers, writing up a $600 order in less than 10 minutes.

Nearby, Manny Grossman, the store owner, watches and calculates.

"I've been in business since 1946, and I've never seen it like this," he says. "We've been in a down slope the last three years. But it will come back. I don't feel totally depressed."

Mr. Spisler is smiling. He walks out of the store with the sale and checks next door at Seif's.

He doesn't even make it through the front door.

Frank Caplan, the store manager, shouts out, "Don't want anything. The woman of the house is not home."

No hard feelings. It's just business among old friends.

Still, it's a good start. Two stores. One sale. A $36 commission.

"Most guys hate rejection," Mr. Spisler says. "Even though we live on it, we hate it. But what have you got to lose? The worst thing they can do to you is say, 'no.' "

Culture's dinosaurs

Traveling salesman. The butt of jokes. The tragic figure of the American stage. The symbol of a long-lost way of doing business in America.

To be on the road selling wares in the 1990s is to be caught in a fight against the future.

The traveling salesman has been malled and cataloged, squeezed in a retailing revolution of discount chains, mail-order merchandise and home shopping via cable television.

Who needs the middle man when Wal-Mart can get it for you wholesale?

"We're the dinosaurs," Mr. Spisler said.

Take one business: apparel. During the late 1970s, there were 20,000 manufacturers' representatives working the country, selling men's and women's clothing. Now there are 9,000, according to Mike Blackman, director of government operations for the National Bureau of Wholesale Salesmen.

"There is a bottom line, and we have more or less reached it," he said.

Survival means finding a niche.

Those who go on the road to sell men's clothing are usually male, Jewish and middle-aged, following a tradition that has held for almost 100 years.

Some sell to the big stores. Others the specialty shops. Some carry one line. Others go multiple.

And then, there are men like Mr. Spisler, a schlepper, a pusher, a salesman who works a nether world of inner-city shops and faded strip malls, selling goods to the old-line Jewish merchants and the new wave of immigrant shopkeepers from South Korea and India.

"I love this," he said. "I know nothing else since I'm 15 years old. They say a salesman can sell anything. But I can't sell insurance or cars. I'm a professional. One of the few left. I know yarns. I know fabrics. I can't sell a piece of paper. I've got to sell the romance of the thing."

Chasing cash

A day in a life of a traveling salesmen is a series of small victories and defeats.

On the road early. A missed lunch. A couple of leads to nowhere. A confirmed appointment. An early dinner of beer and chicken wings.

It is a never-ending chase for cash.

Mr. Spisler works strictly on commission. Six percent of each sale. From that, he must cover all expenses from gas to food to lodging to insurance to parking tickets to auto repairs.

There are no paid holidays.

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