I struggle with my legacy as the son of a bargainer

My father is a bargainer par excellence. I can still recall a scene from my childhood when I first saw him in action. We were in a department store in New Jersey looking for a fishing pole. There were three in the rack, all alike, except that two were priced at $14.95, and the tag on the third read $10.95. Naturally, this was the one my father took to the cashier.

An interesting scene followed. The cashier immediately saw the discrepancy. "I'm sorry," he said. "This rod is actually $14.95."

My father spoke up, quietly and clearly. He drew the cashier's attention to a sign in the store: "All items priced as marked."

The cashier stood fast. Dad pointed to a minor inconsistency on the tip of the rod. "This is a blemish," he said. "Maybe that's why it's discounted."

The cashier shuffled his feet and bit his lip. He was beginning to crack, but he still had enough resolve to shake his head and throw up his hands.

As a last resort, my father launched his nuclear option, a devastating three-point offensive: He asked for the manager, raised the prospect of writing a letter to the newspaper, and foresaw taking all of his business to the competition next door.

That was it. Two minutes later, we walked out of the store with a new fishing pole for $10.95.

I was only 7 at the time, so all I could do was observe in patient wonder as my dad parried with the unfortunate cashier. But I never forgot that event. In the ensuing years of my childhood, I witnessed my father's bargaining maneuvers on many occasions. He could wrangle discounts on everything, from stereos to garden tools to roast beef. For him, bargaining was like waxing a car: circle upon smooth circle, with a clean, soft rag, over and over, until it shone to his liking.

Kids are not in a position to bargain for anything. They're like people without a country: no land, no money, no stature. However, I remained mindful of my legacy as the son of a deal-driver, and I was eventually put to the test.

It came to pass that in my senior year of high school, I went on a class trip to Spain. It was my first time out of the country. As we prepared for departure, our Spanish teacher pointed out that bargaining was not only acceptable in Spain, but expected, especially with street vendors. Something deep inside me resonated, ever so subtly, to this news.

We arrived in Madrid on a hot, sunny morning. After settling into our hotel, I went outside to get the lay of the land. I spotted a street vendor selling sunglasses and was inspired to act. It was as if my father's voice were whispering, "Offer him 50 percent."

I approached the man and, in fledgling Spanish, pointed to a pair of sunglasses and asked, "How much?"

"Two hundred pesetas," he said. I replied, instinctively, "I'll give you 100."

The man blanched, began to wave his arms, and finally threw the glasses at me. What could I do? I slunk away. For some reason, I felt the need to apologize to him, so I returned and offered to give him what he was asking. Two hundred pesetas. To my amazement, he grew even angrier, upping his price to 300. Clearly, I was not my father's son.

That experience seemed to set the pattern for a lifetime of frustration in wheeling and dealing over prices. If my dad is the Dr. Jekyll of success as a haggler, I am the Mr. Hyde of the botched attempt. Even when I see a newspaper ad for an item that says, "Make me an offer," my offers are rarely accepted, even when I know they are fair. Such was the case when I went shopping for a canoe. I saw the canoe I wanted, very used, for sale in the local paper. The seller was asking "$400 or best offer." I called and offered $350. The seller's response? The click of the receiver.

I fare better at venues such as yard sales and junk stores. But when I do succeed at whittling a price down, the seller tends to make me feel as if I am bankrupting him. Only last week I pulled over for a garage sale. Picking up a packet of tomato seeds that still bore the original price of $1.79, I offered the woman 50 cents. She clutched her heart and took a step backward. "$1.50," she countered. "But that's almost as much as the original price," I said. She finally relented at 90 cents, but not before saying that I was taking advantage of her.

I don't know. Maybe it's me. I don't think I come across as unfair or predatory, but when I try to bargain, people raise the barricades. I called my father in New Jersey to tell him about the seed debacle and to ask for his advice. "You want me to come up there to Maine?" he offered, ready to pack his bags.

"No," I said, "it's not worth it. It was only 90 cents."

"Yeah," said my dad, "but I could have gotten her down to 50."

Without a doubt.

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