Art of the [Small] Deal

I'M going to let you in on a great investment. For a dime I got a piece of quartz the size of a fig. I'm bullish on quartz futures. In my book, quartz is going to take off. I buy my quartz from my son Spencer. It was only a matter of time until he discovered the thrill of sales, and then only a question of finding the right commodity to sell. He had been looking for his niche ever since the kids down the street where we vacationed opened their lemonade stand in early July. But it wasn't until he found quartz pebbles on the beach that he opened his store.

Late one afternoon, just home from the shore, he began washing the rocks on the back porch, removing sand and seaweed, then sorted them according to size and color and loaded into his red Berlin Flyer wagon. At 8:30 the next morning he started off down the sidewalk, just as the steeplejacks were getting to work up on the Unitarian church next door, and other folks, mostly men, were heading down to Gail's Variety for a paper, coffee, and donut.

A voice resonant with seven-year-old authority sang: ``Quartz for sale. Ten cents! Quartz for sale. Ten cents!''

Soon his sister Hilary augmented the chorus; then her friend Julia. However the girls' only interest was the chance to sing up and down the early-morning sidewalk. Actual quartz sales were unimportant.

``Quartz for sale. Ten cents! Quartz for sale. Ten cents!''

What is the allure of storekeeping or door-to-door sales? Money? Only in part. More significantly, there seems to be a brief moment in childhood when kids, American kids at least, want to run a store.

Storekeeping leads to the next phase in which kids make deals. I rue some of my early trades. I paid too much for that three-horsepower minibike held together by electrician's tape. My first jackknife was not worth the chandelier crystal and 50 cents for which I settled. At least I never gave up my frog in exchange for whitewashing a fence.

Why did I feel simultaneously embarrassed and proud when my kid set off to sell pebbles to strangers and disrupt the peace of a small town in Maine? I learned something about myself from the reactions of other adults that day.

Some folks can't be bothered to stop and inspect the merchandise. They, in effect, rebuff the kids' earnest effort. They are embarrassed. Others smile graciously, but have places to go and things to do. And then there are those who know a good investment.

The workmen on the church next door ignored the cry of ``quartz for sale.'' They were too busy singing ``Doo Wah Ditty Ditty'' with their radio. Several older men passed by on the other side, hurrying to get the morning headlines at Gail's. ``Sorry,'' they said, ``I don't have any change.'' It was just as well, since Spencer doesn't know how to make change and simply raises the price or adds more pebbles to the deal to earn a buck.

One man said that he would return when he had coins and, sure enough, he did, in time to procure a medium-sized quartz pebble before they sold out.

A thin man in jogging shorts, walking with sinewy intent up the opposite side of the street, was caught off guard by Spencer's verbal tact. ``Sir, Sir!'' he said, traipsing along his side of the street, ``would you like to buy some quartz?''

``No thank you...sir. But I appreciate the offer, '' he replied genuinely. SOON Robbie, one of the lemonade dealers, ventured out to see who was selling on his turf. He balanced on the fire hydrant inspecting the rocks and watching the reaction of the grown-ups walking by. Soon he started hawking the goods. Five voices now: ``Quartz for sale. Ten Cents!'' They seemed to have established a quartz district in Castine, Maine. On the way back to the house Spencer stopped in at the library, and, with the help of the librarian, looked up dia- monds; specifically how to cut gemstones.

The next day there was a fair at the Unitarian church next door and Spencer saw the relationship between increased foot traffic at the end of our driveway and in creased revenue for him. We didn't allow him to put his card table right next to the women selling potted plants, since it wouldn't have been fair competition, so he had to be satisfied with sitting on our lawn rather than on the fairgrounds proper.

He made some money and spent it on Slush Puppies at Gail's, but the art of the deal still eluded him. He was a shopkeeper not a trader. That night, a 9-year-old smooth-talked him into selling baseball cards for below market value, and then talked him out of the very money he had earned in the deal. He used that old line about needing ``a license to sell stuff outside.'' Spencer was confronted with an altogether different level of cognitive and moral development. I'm reluctant to call it ``more advanced.''

Spencer came running to find me, exclaiming that he needed a vending license in order to be legal and ``some kids were going to tell the police'' if he didn't get one. He felt no chagrin when I explained that he had been duped but marched right back to the older guys and somehow got satisfaction: $1.65 plus some of his favorite candy. To his sense of value he had won - without having to use the line I gave him, that his father was going to have the Board of Health look into their permit to sell beverages within 10 feet of a stop sign.

THE quartz collection came home with us and for a few days Spencer maintained his store out in front of our house. But there isn't much foot traffic, the mailman won't tumble to many of his offers, and the sidewalk is too steep for taking the wagon door to door. School has started and the quartz inventory will probably be relegated to the back of the closet.

There's no sense saving it for next year's store since being a shopkeeper happens but once; it's a brief season of opportunity. But second grade looks promising. The math curriculum includes learning to make change. Then I'll be able to talk him down to 65 cents for one of the big nuggets.

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