I never thought of myself as a door-to-door salesperson. But that’s exactly what I was as a kid. I’ve spent so much of my adult life writing for the trade about how to market and sell jewelry, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized… I’ve done it myself. On a very small scale.
I was 9 when my family moved to New Jersey. It was the third state and fifth neighborhood we’d lived in as a family, so I was used to navigating strange terrain. This one was a suburb commuting distance from Manhattan.
My brother hated it there. He missed his friends, as well as the woods and fields of the remote area we’d lived in last. To console himself, he took up polishing gem rough in a stone tumbler and making jewelry from it, gluing the stones into findings. He wanted to sell it but there was no way he was going to do it himself. So my mother suggested he bring me in for a 7% cut.
My brother and I were desperate for cash. We got an allowance of 25 cents a week. A quarter may have gone a long way when my parents were kids but it wasn’t doing much for us. I wasn’t even old enough to babysit. So I said, “Sure!”
I was already collecting payments for him. He delivered newspapers and couldn’t stand going door to door. Eventually he handed off the entire route to me. Those papers had to be delivered to the doorstep, not thrown, and I wasn’t big enough to carry them under my arm.
So my neighbors knew me as the papergirl who carried newspapers on her head. Who wouldn’t invite that girl into their homes? I mean, just out of curiosity.
By helping turn her kid’s hobby into a family business, my mom was unintentionally recreating her own childhood. Her mother did the same thing after she began making jewelry as a kid, bringing my uncle in and building up a profitable little beachside business. I wrote about that here.
Suburbs can be isolating, but they were especially so in those days, inhabited by housewives most of the time. If they ever had careers, most had abandoned them when their husbands’ took off. My mother was one, a teacher who put her husband through MIT then retired for two decades to raise a family.
Every few months, when my brother had a new collection ready, I’d set out during business hours while the husbands were at work.
I would have made a lot more if I’d bought my own tumbler and findings and created my own jewelry but I didn’t even think about it. This was my brother’s gig. Besides, it was easier to sell someone else’s handiwork door to door than my own.
I didn’t love ringing doorbells but it was something to do. I remember the surprise when someone looked down at me for the first time. I would clear my throat and deliver my pitch: “My brother makes jewelry from tumbled gemstones. Would you like to see some?”
Sometimes I describe this to my brother just to watch him cringe. The idea of what I did to sell his jewelry literally pains him. I just laugh. It wasn’t so bad. I learned a lot doing that, and it opened all kinds of doors for me – literally.
The women were almost always gracious, even if they didn’t invite me in. What the hell were they supposed to say? “Go away. Did you not see the ‘no solicitation’ sticker on my door?” How would I know what solicitation meant? I was 10.
If I made it through the door, I was golden. They always bought jewelry from me.
After a while, the ladies began to recognize me and greet me warmly. Looking back on it, some of them must have been bored out of their minds. But they always seemed to have cash. The jewelry wasn’t expensive and it wasn’t half bad. Why not help a kid out?
I learned, at a young age, the way to break the ice with a fellow female is to find some jewelry and play with it together. It doesn’t matter how many decades separate you.
I would watch their eyes drift to certain pieces and encourage them to try them on. “I like that one on you,” I remember saying shamelessly as someone would drape a bracelet over a wrist. I said it as much to make them happy in that moment as to make a sale. It’s a benign game women play and I was practicing early.
I loved that part. It wasn’t just about making a sale, although that was gratifying. It was the ritual of sitting in their living rooms playing with jewelry. This particular jewelry was all about the stones, which many years later, became my specialty as a writer.
Even at that age, I knew the difference between tiger’s eye and sunstone, chalcedony and labradorite. Most of these women weren’t familiar with those stones. Maybe they were just being nice, who knows? But I think some were genuinely interested.
It must have been a hoot to learn a little gemology from a 10-year-old and play dress-up at the same time. My knowledge of the inventory leveled the field between us, at least a little. Plus, I was enthusiastic about my product. I’m not sure if the craftsmanship would hold up if I saw them today but at the time, those stones seemed super cool to me and the transformation via tumbling was amazing.
And my brother, who would later become a skilled woodworker, has always been a meticulous craftsman with a good eye. Even then, he would have been a perfectionist.
Our neighborhood was built on a hillside that sloped up from the banks of a manmade lake. By the time I made it to the top of the hill, I’d usually run out of the good inventory and was down to the muddy agates, the stones that looked like polished turds. I kept going though and was mildly surprised when I’d make a sale. By then, I suppose they were donating to a cause. I’m not sure what that was. Putting cash in the McCarthy kids’ pockets?
It turned out, there were some fascinating women up there. At least one became a cherished friend, a widow from Montreal who lived alone at the top of the hill. I liked her so much, I began to visit her without my jewelry case. She let me play her piano, showed me pictures of her world travels, fed me exotic foods. She told me her crazy life stories and I told her mine, usually about the trouble I got into. I made her laugh.
On my 11th birthday, Mrs. Malcolm surprised me with a collection of seashells from around the world, nestled in tissue in a giant department store dress box. Each shell was a thing of beauty and had its own label, penned by her, with name and place of origin. It was one of the best gifts anyone ever gave me. I kept those shells for years with their individual labels. Like the gems in the jewelry I used to sell, they represented the wonder of the great wide world, out there waiting.
It’s amazing what can happen when one female lets another into her private domain and they start talking gems and jewelry.
This is probably the secret to selling anything: know your product, love your product, and find a way to make an authentic connection through it with others. I don’t know if I would call myself a people person but I’m at my best, to this day, when there is something beautiful to focus on.
And what better object of focus than something made by hand, using material that holds a thousand ancient tales and the natural wonder of the earth? A microcosm of the world. And you can try it on!