How I Learned The Art of Selling with a banana in my hand, and bacon in my mouth
A Journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step…..right after a few beers and a Bacon Sandwich.
Sudbury in Suffolk is where I spent much of my time growing up, it’s a really quaint market town with very small streets, big stone churches, breathtaking countryside and the unusual reputation of being able to see at least two pubs from any street corner in town. Many great churches and houses were built over the decades giving this small town a major historical legacy.
Sudbury’s history dates back into the age of the Saxons, the town’s earliest mention is in 799 AD. The town is also mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as a market-town where the local people came to barter their goods. The market was established in 1009 and is still vibrant today.
During the 18th century Sudbury became famous for its local artists; John Constable painted in the area, especially the River Stour. I recently visited the Met in New York where one of the largest collections of Constable’s work was on display, from collectors all around the globe. It was stunning, so many pieces took me back to the places I hiked, canoed and camped as a kid.
Also the world famous Painter ‘Thomas Gainsborough’ was born in Sudbury in 1727; he is known all over the world for his painting of the “The Blue Boy’. I have seen copies of “The Blue Boy” hanging in some of the most unlikely places. One time I saw a wrinkled copy hanging on a mud wall of a home in a tiny village in the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Imagine that?! Another copy was in a public toilet in Venice Italy… go figure.
During World War 2 an American squadron of B-24 Liberator bombers of the 834th Squadron, 486th Bomb Group, from the 8th Air Force was based at RAF Sudbury. This squadron performed many important bombing and photographic missions during the war, but is perhaps best known as the “Zodiac Squadron”, as its bombers were decorated with colorful images of the twelve signs of the zodiac.
When you walk through Sudbury on market day, which happens twice a week, the sounds and smells and sounds of fish mongers, grocers, bakers, butchers, and every other conceivable vendor packs the town square; each one has their own way of attracting punters to come to their stalls and fill their shopping bags. The sound of their voices calling out the specials of the day, their dialects as colorful as their faces, etched by the years of being in the elements, their voices musical and bold, responding to the flow of the shoppers as they passed by, each stall owner knowing that a shopper will only make so many buys a day. With so much competition the chorus would stay constant from first light until just after dark.
I worked for one winter on a fruit and vegetable stall in the next town, ‘Bury St Edmunds’ which is known for its brewery and malting operations and its sugar processing factory. It is one of the main retail centers in West Suffolk boasting the smallest pub in England. The Nutshell measures 15 x 7ft. On a good day you can squeeze 10 -15 patrons in the pub! However every year they attempt a new record and in 1984 a record-breaking 102 people squeezed into the pub.
It was one of my favorite tourist stops whenever we had out of town guests and a real curiosity piece. The public bench outside the pub saw its share of patrons who were squeezed out onto the street.
The stall hours were long and I would have to drag myself out of bed at 4:30 am. With no central heating in the house, old creaky windows, and open fire places in all the rooms including the bedrooms, I would be reduced to turning on a little electric heater next to my bed for a tiny bit of warmth. It would be freezing, I could see my breath as I held my long john and T-shirts to take the edge off them. My clothes would be almost stiff and I knew how cold I would be all day so this little indulgence, while not incredibly effective, was good for the soul.
My girlfriend Jan would lay sniggering behind me as she said I look ridiculous, like a scene out of Dickens, or she would yell to wake me up as my long johns started smoking or one time actually caught fire!
I only had a motorcycle license at the time but found a loophole in the system that allowed me to drive a three wheeled car, (a Robin Reliant) on my motorcycle license as long as reverse was not used. Whatever, I used mine. Mind you the car was small enough for me to manhandle if I was ever questioned about breaking such an important law like using reverse on my three wheeled roadster.
So my 3-wheeled Robin Reliant (thats right, one wheel at the front and two at the back) was really old and incredibly temperamental, especially on cold winter mornings.
In order for it to start on a cold morning I would have to bring my car battery into the house at night. I kept it next to the fireplace in the living room, making sure that I stocked the fire with ample coal before bed, so that when I came down in the morning at least one room had heat and my battery would be happy enough to start.
Incredibly at the time I had a collection of old oil lamps and would light one and carry it and my battery down the garden to my car. Shivering and swearing I would balance my oil lamp on the engine and proceed to re-attach my battery and then pray that it would start. I am laughing as I remember how many sweaters or jackets I owned with little holes in the front from the battery acid that would spill out as I fumbled around in the dark, freezing my ass off.
Once I arrived in Bury St Edmunds, it would be all hands on deck as we set up the stall and arranged all the fruits and vegetables; it really was a work of art.
The sounds of so many stalls being assembled, the metal pipes, used as frames for the stalls, would echo through the town square as they were unloaded and manhandled. All of this was accompanied by the sound of generators, laughter and lots of colorful language.
By 6 in the morning the market would take shape, and the characters that owned the stalls, who were a rare and colorful breed, would begin to Stuff cash into each of our aprons and into plastic bags stapled to the wooden shelves.
My boss ‘Ace’ was in his early 30s; he had no teeth in the front, and always had a smile in the corners of his eyes. He always looked like he had drank too much coffee and was constantly moving, and sucking on a cigarette. He would put half the cigarette in his mouth, way past the orange filter and suck really hard, the smoke would come bellowing out of his nose and already he would be sucking again. I swear he could finish a cigarette in a matter of minutes. Many times he would simply light his next cigarette with the remains of the last one.
His big round belly was always showing out the bottom of his t-shirt, and even though the rest of us would be freezing, Ace would often throw off his jacket and mittens and be working in just his t-shirt. He never stopped, never complained, and his mind was always racing ahead to the next task.
Once everything was set up and the big trucks had all been taken away and the empty boxes stacked and hidden from view, the early morning light would creep across the sky and the first customers would appear as if by magic, shuffling in the cold morning air, their shopping bags hanging from their wrists, their faces almost completely hidden by their caps, scarves and balaclavas.
As they passed by a stall, the stall workers would begin to sing out the specials of the day and attempt to entice the shopper to, hold, touch, squeeze or even taste whatever they were selling.
There were 7 of us who worked our stall and ‘Ace’ had set up a deal with a large banana wholesaler who would drop off hundreds of boxes of bananas at our stall, Ace would only have to pay for the ones that we sold. Any unsold ones would be taken back and off the bill. My primary job was to sell as many pounds of bananas as I could in one day.
Standing in front of the stall, I would hold out a massive bunch of bananas in each hand, as the throngs of shoppers shuffled from stall to stall, I would begin to sing “Nanna, Nanna, Nanna, 50 a pound bananas, come on darling, 50 a pound, 50 a pound, 50 a pound bananas”. Over and over, attempting to get eye contact and break a smile on someone’s face, if they looked then I would bust into song, and do everything I could for them to concede and open up their bag and wallet.
The tone of the song would change, sometimes it would sound almost like I was begging…It was a dance of wills and I knew that sometimes if I followed them a little ways they would give in.
There was no time to weigh the bananas, I would place large bunches in peoples bags. And if they asked questions or gave me a look of “is that it” I would throw a few extra in their bag. As I was giving change, I would already be singing out again “Nanna, Nanna, Nanna, 50 a pound bananas, come on darling, 50 a pound, 50 a pound, 50 a pound bananas”.
Of course there were the regulars who would love to hear their name being bellowed across the square; I was careful to always do a little more for them, to give them a little wink as I slipped an orange or a big juicy pear, and whispered that it was for the bus ride home.
There were the little old ladies who always had less money than order; we would just take what they had and toss it in the bag, give them a little wink or kiss and send them on their way.
My feet were cold from the time I got up out of bed, right until I got home 16 hours later, halfway through the day I would regret that I had still not invested in a decent pair of boots and socks and swore that I would do it next week. I never did and if I close my eyes and concentrate I can recall how painfully cold my toes would be. ‘shudder’
I always wore a pair of brown wooly gloves with the fingers cut so I could handle the cash, by the end of the day my apron was stuffed with cash, as were the plastic bags hanging all down the stall.
The girls that worked our stall would slip off and bring us all a hot cuppa tea and a bacon sandwich on white bread. I would be stuffing a hot bacon sandwich dripping in butter into my face while waving bananas with the other hand.
Each of the stalls was as colorful and vibrant as ours; occasionally if we slowed down a little I would wander through the market, listening to all the different callers, picking up tips and nuances of how to attract and sell to someone walking by.
The worst part of the day way breaking the stall down and repacking the truck.
it was 6 at night and I would be chilled to the bone. The thought of handling the scaffolding, restocking boxes and carrying and loading the truck was always a nightmare. Ace would have his sister sit in the warm cab and sort the bags and aprons of cash, and he would want the truck packed ready for the next day.
The good thing was it also meant that we would soon be jammed into one of the local pubs with all the characters from the market, wads of cash stuffed into their pockets. Hoarse and thirsty, we would all drink a few pints, tell a few stories and then Ace would stuff a handful of crumpled bills into my hand and give me a toothless smile “Ey Ya did good t’day lad” buy your missus sumink nice”. He would also load my little car full of fruit and veggies.
He never told me how much he made on the bananas, but I had a feeling that I was selling a lot more than even he had ever expected.
Heading home, the heater on my 3-wheeled jalopy was virtually non-existent, however after 16 hours out in the cold and a few beers in my belly, it felt like a tropical beach. I would drive the 40 minutes home through winding English countryside, reliving all the faces, toothless smiles and gossip that I had witnessed that day. Knowing that the secret to selling bananas had little to do with a technique or the right song, it was all about making people’s day, making people smile, feel, seen and appreciated. It was about me being bold, about being unafraid to look silly or act foolish, and about me having loads of fun and taking pride in what I did.
I was dedicated and worked really hard and knew that our stall only sold more bananas than all of the other stalls combined because my boss Ace knew something that everyone else did not: his sales were never limited by a lack of inventory or imagination. In fact where most stalls would bring 30 or 40 cases of bananas for the day, Ace would bring a tractor trailer load, hundreds of boxes plus all of his regular inventory. It never ceased to amaze me how driven we all became to sell every case before heading to the pub.
As I pulled up at my house, I grabbed the tools from under my seat and unhitched the battery and carried it back to its place by the roaring fire, put the kettle on and made myself a nice cup of tea.
“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
William W. Purkey