The Story of the Fakirs
THE STORY OF THE FAKIRS
BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS
AN ODD CHAPTER IN TUB ANNALS OF MODERN COMMERCE—THE PECULIAR WAYS AND WARES OF THE STREET VENDER, AND HOW HE S0METIMES MAKES A FORTUNE FROM SOME CATCHY TRIFLE
A TWELVE year old boy was sitting at his desk in the public school at Cortland, New York, one day a few years ago, wishing he had something else to do besides studying complex figures. He had a bit of cardboard, the back of a paper pad, and in his abstraction he punched a couple of holes through it with a wire bent to the shape of a wide flat i_i which he happened to have in his pocket, and strung the wires through the holes. The wire stretched half way across the top of the cardboard, the ends sticking out at the back, so that a bit of paper put under the wire was held there flattened out. The idea of making the wire snap down with a spring on the cardboard, purposely to hold note paper, came to the boy, and when he got home he told his father about it. The arrangement was called a bill file, or school card, and patented; but stores did not take to it and thousands more were made than could be sold. The boy's father knew a man in New York who sold goods from a wagon on the street—a vender, or "fakir," that is. The fakir took the school pads and sold them, and the boy got enough money to start a store as soon as he was of age.
A man who had passed half his life in penury was showing his children how to make a stick climb a string when he happened to think that it might not be a bad idea to have the stick of wool, and shaped like a monkey. He rigged the monkey, put a red cap on its head, and got a patent on the arrangement. That was two or three years ago. The man has received more than $240,000 in royalties from the monkey notion, and still gets an income of about a hundred dollars per day. His patent toys are to be found in all parts of the world, and more than ninety nine per cent of them have been sold on the street by venders.
The story of the modern street "fakir," vender, peddler, or street man is one of the curiosities of business. The tradesfolk who stand on the curbstone and in the public ways and places have never been held in very high estimation by society, but they deserve more than the ordinary attention which is paid to their craft.
Twenty six years ago, the first boss fakir in New York, who was then a lad of thirteen years, went to the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets with a pocketful of cheap penknives, and held them up for the inspection of passers by. No one paid any particular attention, so he raised his voice and called out that he had knives to sell. What he said has been forgotten, but his voice was musical and could be heard above the roar of traffic. A crowd gathered around him, and the knives were rapidly purchased. The presence of the crowd encouraged the boy to make facetious remarks about his wares, and the sales increased in proportion as he made the crowd laugh.
Next day he brought another pocketful of knives, and then came with a basket of knives and tooth brushes. His business rapidly increased, and he frequently made eight or ten dollars in a day. Ho had the field to himself, and no one realized the money there was in it for several years. At last he took a younger brother with him, then the sons of a neighbor, and finally he had more than twenty boys selling goods which he purchased himself, paying them by giving them a share of the profits. Finally he left the street himself, and merely dealt out the articles to the sellers.
But a reverse came, and the vender went back to the curbstone again. Some of the youths whom he had trained now went into the business on their own account, and competition was great at the favorite corners. The list of useful articles which could be sold on the street was limited, as well as oversold, and trade fell off. Something new was wanted, and Stivers, the vender, found it. He was walking past a penny toy store one day, on his way to a hardware store to get some files to sell. He didn't have very much money—only enough for the files. In the shop window he saw a jumping jack, painted red and yellow, the figure all ready to pop over the top of the stick. The fakir instinct led the lad to buy the stock of jumping jacks at half their cost, for the shopkeeper had found them unsalable, and to take them down to Wall Street. They "went," and so fast that Stivers bought all the jumping jacks in the city, including some thousands which the manufacturer had in stock. The basket was not large enough, so he took a load in a large handcart with four wheels; and that was the first handcart in the fakir business. He got on his feet, financially, by means of the jumping jack trade, and soon had a lot of boys selling for him again.
Stivers used to lie awake at night thinking of things he might sell, and he hunted in all the stores for things which the storekeepers could not get rid of and were willing almost to give away. His instinct told him that there was a vein of nonsense in the crowd that followed the streets, and that his road to their pockets led along this vein, so he looked for something ridiculous, or novel, and cheap—always cheap—and, if possible, a little useful. That is how it happened that he got into a little store down town one day whose proprietor imported goods from the Fatherland. There were some emery sharpening stones in the window which looked cheap and were certainly useful. The importer could not sell them, but the fakir thought he could, and he did—hundreds of thousands of them. Now the trade in them is off the street and back in the stores again.
One day the fakir felt his heart leap for joy. A friend of his made a doll which would clap its hands when one squeezed it. The fakir patented the scheme and placed orders for a hundred thousand dolls. He sold them faster than he could get them made. He went to the curb himself, because he liked to do that kind of business, and sold them. Then he put a pair of brass cymbals in the hands of his dolls. They sold faster yet, and the fakir rolled in wealth.
A manufacturer of furniture invented a folding chair, and got a stock of several hundred thousand on hand without being able to sell many of them. It was about the time the "bargain craze" symptoms first appeared, a craze which was partly an-outgrowth of the fakir's cry, "It's useful an' it's cheap; step right up, gents, 'fore it's all gone!" The furniture man's capital was all in his chairs and he couldn't get it out. He went to the boss fakir, and said:
"Look here, I've got a warehouseful of chairs in every city in the United States. I can't sell them; can you?"
"Well, I reckon," the vender said, and a bargain was struck. The vender went to the corner of Park Row and Ann Street, the gateways of the east and west sides of lower New York, with a wagon load of chairs. He sat on the top of it in one chair and began to talk. In ten minutes he had the crowd "going." Then he came down to the street level and sold the whole load in less than an hour, at a dollar per chair. He sold five thousand in less than a week, and went all over the United States to sell the others.
But the money which came so easy went without friction, and a few months later the vender wandered into a Broadway hat store, near Fulton Street, to have a talk with his friend there. His tale of woe brought out the hatter's remark:
"You think you're hard up, do you? Well, I've got three stories over this store full of hats that I can give away. What will you pay for them?"
The fakir offered two hundred dollars and got five closely packed truck loads of hats, anywhere from one to fifteen years out of date, but all in good order. H e took one load to the corner of Ann Street and Broadway. He had Derby, felt, silk, and straw hats of all shapes and styles. He stood on the wheel of the truck, and, with a straw hat in one hand and a silk one in the other, he began:
"Here y'are! Finest hats in the city! Got the trademarks inside to prove it! Five dollar and twelve dollar and ten dollar hats, all at fifty cents each! Only half a dollar! Step up, everybody!" Pretty much everybody "stepped up" every day for a week. Meanwhile, customers of a leading hat maker were asking questions about the sale of his five dollar hats for fifty cents each. The maker went to the vender and gave him a hundred dollars to take out the marks of the hats still in his possession. Another hat manufacturer was caught in much the same fashion, and had to buy his hats back at fifty cents each. Old style hats are no longer for sale at a big reduction.
There is now a good deal of competition in the fakir and novelty business, and on Ann Street there are several shops, up stairs, where small venders buy their stuff by the dozen or gross. These shops import goods from India, parasols from Japan, and odds and ends from every trading nation in the world. They buy or make the running mice, the squeaking dolls, the mechanical cars, the walking or running animals, and similar articles which are found in small shops and in hand baskets or push carts along all the great thoroughfares, especially in the shopping districts. Many of them have a sort of conservatism which does not hold with the boss fakirs. The boss fakir likes the novel and strictly new rather than the staple article, and he prefers the rosy hued mirage to the more substantial certainty. That is why the boss fakir loses seven thousand dollars on a Columbus day and makes thirty thousand dollars selling celluloid buttons.
The line between the legitimate notion wholesale house and the fakir is not very well marked. Both have large warehouses in which to keep their goods, and their salesrooms and account books show the same jumble of miscellaneous articles. They have buyers all over the world on the lookout for trinkets that might "take" as salable oddities in the great cities of civilization.
A list of the stock of either the fakir or the trader would be of imposing length. One difference between them is the fact that the fakirs' lists contain articles which will not find their way to the traders for weeks or months hence. There are more than ten thousand different styles of articles in the trader's stock. The fakir has only two or three thousand. One would think that the possible forms of paper, tin, brass, leather, shells, and what not, must long ago have been exhausted, but a hundred new ones spring up in a week, most of them to die in a day, some to revive in after years, some few to live for years and possibly forever.
The shops of the fakir and trader are both in unkempt condition. There are scores of shelves, piled with hundreds of pasteboard boxes; two or three rough board counters, great packing boxes, besides walls hung with samples, and a floor inches deep with twine, paper, and rags. A small but substantial bellows hangs over the leather heaped desk, in place of a feather duster. The stock is too fragile for ordinary dusting. There are accumulations of samples, many of them broken or out of order, kicking around in crannies where they are out of the wind and the way.
From this mass the true fakir selects what he feels in his bones will sell that day. He claims to be a thermometer of public caprice, and attributes his own vagaries to that. He sells a dozen gross of little iron dogs today, and tomorrow takes out a supply of rubber faces and balloon squeaks; seldom more than one kind of notion, almost never more than two, at a time. The boss fakir—the feeler of public opinion—sends out twenty five men today and one hundred and fifty tomorrow for no apparent reason. If it is a Dewey parade, or the day before Christmas, he sends out five hundred or a thousand, because there is reason in that. He supplies his men with toys—sometimes every one gets the same kind—and tells them what catch phrases shall be uttered that day. He even shows the street men how to gesticulate, and how to make faces—a startling face sometimes goes a long distance in getting trade for a street man. He invents traits of character, curiosities of dress—not too pronounced; he is the best imitation of a lame man of them all.
A good puzzle which takes plenty of action to solve is the fakir's pet, for the fakir is an actor, as has been seen, and puzzles of that kind sell well. The old ring puzzle, and the pigs in clover, were good ones from the fakir's viewpoint, and he made them famous.
The street man gets two thirds of the profit; the boss fakir one third. The street man does not need a cent to start with, and only has to have a vender introduce him to the head man to get a stock of wares. Of course some stock goes astray, but not much, considering the men.
A five cent toy is preferred to a ten cent one on general principles. The toys and notions are all sold at either five, ten, fifteen, twenty five, thirty five, or fifty cents. It is a bother to make change, not to mention the hoodoo supposed to lurk in some numbers.
Every kind of individual patronizes the fakir, but as a rule nonsensical articles sell best with men able to buy them. For instance, a man in Newark, New Jersey, a laborer, heard the song "If the Soldiers Only Had Razors in the War," at that time very popular, and he conceived the idea of a razor a foot long with a thin blade and a red handle. He put the razor in a fakir's hands, and in less than a week the floors of various stock exchanges were enlivened by brokers engaged in mock "razor scraps," to the amusement of spectators and participants. It lasted only a few days, but this inventor has "lived on velvet" since, as a result of the run.
A manufacturer had a warehouse full of flags several years ago. He tried to sell them, but for five years the flags were packed away. Then came a political campaign, in which American flags were the chief spectacular feature. The fakir felt it coming. He got the right to sell all the flags he could, and sold millions of them, because he had cornered the market, to the dismay of decorators, who didn't even know where the flags had gone to.
The fakir had a thousand different emblems for the Dewey celebrations, and Busied himself for months getting them ready. A woman, a jeweler, and a boy furnished the idea from which the most successful articles were made. One fakir boss followed Dewey wherever he went, with fifty men to sell souvenirs, and practically monopolized the market for cheap emblems.
The Christmas holidays are always a prosperous time for fakirs, and as that season does not depend on the weather for sales it is the surest. Then the fakir does not deal so much in the novel as in the staple article. The Christmas crowds buy pretty much the same thing from the venders every year. Furry dogs and rabbits sell then as they would not sell in the summer. Queer creatures with wabbling heads, toys with clockwork interiors, and Santa Clauses in all shapes and sizes are among the most attractive things. There are fads at that time, but they do not come to any such proportions as those of summer, which is proverbially the silly season. So the fakir has to come as near as he can to the trade which goes on in the stores. He would rather have the summer trade; dealing with sad eyed women, counting pennies, has its effect on him as it would have on any one else. He wants his customers to be the men who pull out a handful of change, and toss the nickels and dimes to him. Nevertheless, the Christmas season is a prosperous one for the boss fakir and his street men, for it gives him an opportunity to get rid of the toys which accumulate in his storerooms. Elaborate preparations are always made for it, and novel mechanical toys are sought for up to the very last day.
The inventors begin in August to get ideas for Christmas toys. Last year one man invented a snow storm in a glass ball. He made a liquid full of white specks which settled to the bottom. He put in a little doll and some bushes, and when the ball was shaken the snow whirled and fell slowly. It was to be used as a paper weight.
The boss fakir will put out novelties in any way the inventor or manufacturer wishes. He will hire out street men with baskets or carts to a man who has a novelty to sell. He will take charge of the sale himself, on commission, or for a stated sum. He will buy some ideas outright, and will back an inventor with his experience, or even with his capital. He makes contracts of all sorts, and there is hardly anything he will not undertake to sell. But some things his instinct tells him not to touch, and he will not have them. He buys old stocks for mere songs, and holds them till the caprice of the public slants that way and the things go with a rush. Sometimes, in such cases, the sale comes in a week, and again not for a dozen years. Two years ago palm leaf fans, which had enjoyed a sober trade in the rural districts, came out with a whoop in all the overheated cities of the United States.
The inventors of the notions are a curious lot to deal with. They are of all sorts of dispositions, and some think that a quarter million of their kind of toy would be none too many to start with. When these men put all their money into their idea they usually come to grief. It is the man who has had a notion for a dozen years, and happens to meet the fakir, that gets the greatest success. Considering that a successful trinket nets at least ten thousand dollars, there are naturally hundreds who devote their lives to the trade. Some of them come out with fortunes, but many see others reap the reward, as in the case of the m.an who made a lunch box in the shape of a camera case. Five millions of the boxes were made, but the inventor got only a few hundred dollars from his idea, because he was not careful to cover the field by inclusive patents.
There is no precise limit to the class of men who become fakirs. Some prosperous business men got their training in the streets; others have gone there when reverses came. But the true fakir begins as a boy, and never deviates from his course except to return either as a street man or as a boss fakir. He lives in all sorts of places—in dismal tenements, as a rule, but occasionally in country mansions and city houses. Fast horses and speculation are his chief troubles, and he wins and loses half a dozen fortunes in the course of his life. But no matter where he happens to be, he can always make a living by simply lifting his voice with:
"Here y'are! Step this way! Never such a thing as this on sale before! What is it? What is it? Buy it and see!"