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February 9, 2011

"How To Sell" — by Clancy Martin


This antic novel is sui generis and no — I'm not talking about a philanthropic pig.

That's a joke I made up many years ago, see, but I'm the only one who thinks it's funny. Who knows, maybe I'll get lucky today and elicit a chuckle from someone — yes! I heard you laugh, don't pretend.

But I digress.

So I will let the book speak for itself in the form of some excerpts that I found particularly choice, after one more digression.

The novel is heavily autobiographical and based on the author's youthful experiences as a fast-talking jewelry salesman.

He's now the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where he specializes in 19th and 20th century European philosophy and the ethics of advertising and selling.

You could look it up.

Should you Google him, your first page of results will include a link to his 2009 essay in the London Review of Books which begins as follows: "In a small, frightening room in the psychiatric hospital where my wife had recently incarcerated me, I explained to the staff psychiatrist about Olivier Ameisen and the drug baclofen."

Excerpts from "How To Sell" follow.


Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old, but the first time I considered jewelry was the morning I stole my mother’s wedding ring. It was white gold. A hundred-year-old Art Nouveau band with eleven diamonds in two rows across the finger, garnets that were sold as rubies in the centers of tiny roses on both sides, and hand-engraved scrollwork on the underside where it held the skin. It was the only precious thing she had left. It was never from her hand. But there it was on the sill of the window, above the kitchen sink, next to a yellow and green plant she kept.

I needed the money. My girlfriend was leaving me for a grocery store produce clerk named Andrew, a high school basketball forward, and I knew I could buy her back. So I took the ring and put it in my pocket. I removed the red rubber stopper from the drain so that my mother would believe the ring had flushed into our plumbing. For good measure I ran the water to wash it down. She might be in the other room listening.


The hands on the watches in a showcase are motionless. Even with the quartz watches you withdraw the crown so that the watch will stop and the battery will last. It stimulates the customer when you give an automatic watch a twist before placing it on his wrist and it begins to run. Popping in the stem with a quartz has the same effect.

My first job at Fort Worth Deluxe Diamond Exchange was setting the Swiss watches at ten past ten. With automatics the hands are still unless the watch is moved, and winders you only wind every few months, so that the oil does not settle and clog the movement. Rolex began displaying their watches in photographs with the watches set at that time. If you try different hand positions on the watches you will see they got it right.

At the end of the day in any jewelry store many of the watches have been shown and so their hands have moved, which means that in the morning someone must reset them. Also the automatics may be quickened into motion by being shuffled in and out of the cases. They rest in trays, and the trays are placed in plastic tubs that stack when you put them in the safes. They move again when you remove them from the safes in the morning.


He admired the watch on his wrist. He had slender, muscular wrists and the elegant Patek looked right on him. The pale platinum belonged on his leathered skin. He could see himself feeding his enemies to the crocodiles in the moat behind his mansion. The Polack returned with the mirror and angled it on its brass stand to show him the watch on his arm. There they were, the three of them, together in his own country. The deep jungle. Tigers coiled and watchful beneath the shadowy canopy. Hot wind in the saw grass. The rain boiling in the low clouds.


When the buy counter was slow or our regular man on the runs — a fellow who called himself the Wizard of Oz — got overbooked, Mr. Popper told Jim to send me out to bat cleanup. I wore a backpack, like a high school kid, full of diamonds, checks, bullion, sometimes cash, Swiss watches, and other precious goods that we ferried back and forth between Fort Worth and Dallas. Much of our business was conducted this way. I kept a pair of blue jeans at the store for when they sent me on the runs because you did not want to attract attention. The regular runs guy, the Wizard, drove a bruised Toyota pickup truck for the same reason.


"And keep both eyes open. You never close one eye when using a loupe."

"Let me show you. This is how it is done. You never start from the top of the stone. If you were buying the diamond, already the man you are buying from knows he can cheat you. Start from the bottom. Then the side, the profile, all around the diamond, like this. then you look through the crown. Finally the table, but there you will learn very little. The diamond is designed to hide everything one might otherwise see. That is the specific virtue of the cutter. That is the function ofthe diamond. Like a woman's beauty. To hide its own flaws."


Years after, when Jim and I were partners in our own store, I might tell a version of this story to one or another customer I liked — they do exist — and the customer would say something along the lines of: "So that's when you finally knew your dad was insane?" Then I felt an unfamiliar obligation to assert myself: not in defense of my father, and not for my own sake, either, but on account of the truth. I wanted to reply: What the hell makes you think he was crazy? Because you've never seen another world, you know it doesn't exist? That's called an argument from ignorance, and of all the twenty-two logical fallacies it's the easiest to understand. Look, I don't expect that when the curtain goes down, and I am alone in the hospital room, with the lights fading, and the world, the whole world, is vanishing into the dark, that, suddenly, like the best birthday surprise you ever got, the fluorescents will spark back on and everyone will shout, "Surprise!" — all the dead people I've ever lost and thought I'd left behind, there, ringing my bed, with gifts in their hands, or with their arms open to receive me — and I will rise from the white hospital sheets and they will give me my compliementary custom-made gold-vermeil-and-carved-ivory wings.... But I do not know that it cannot be true.


I looked up from the buy I was weighing. It was a Tiffany sterling set from the 1930s. It was a huge set, over four hundred pieces, soup ladles and onyx-handled hot chocolate tureens, and even a samovar. We paid four dollars an ounce — after deducting the estimated weight of the onyx, inlaid mother-of-pearl, and ivory — which was exactly what a smelter would pay us. We could have paid as much as twelve or even fifteen dollars an ounce, but it was brought to us by one of Jim's oldest and best customers and we knew she would take whatever we offered her. That's how it works with regulars: because they are already sold they are much easier to screw. But you have to screw them, to make up for all the skinny-margin deals you did to get their business in the first place. If you don't screw your regulars you won't be around for long.


Read the first six pages of the book here.

Or go wild and read the entire first chapter here.

In-depth author Q&A here.

Martin's article in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal about his Nicaraguan family vacation here.

And because you were persistent and/or bored enough to sit through the entire thing, here's a 2009 interview

with the author.

February 9, 2011 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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