Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: The birth of a salesman
Bohnings store, the Coyote Bar, and Parkies Drugstore were the distinguishing businesses on Harrold’s main street in the 1950s and 60s. My life changed forever when my folks bought the drugstore.
It wasn’t really a drugstore anymore, the local doctor put together his own prescriptions, so Parkies became a sundries store, with a soda fountain, an insurance agency, patent medicines, vet supplies, paint, greeting cards, a juke box and the city liquor sales. It was the hot spot for high schoolers after school and on weekends, and the backroom was as far as some of the off sale liquor sales ever got, with men gathering to have mixed drinks, topping off bottles of Coca Cola with Seagram’s Seven. Not a legal activity, but very popular.
When the folks bought the store, it became a family project. I learned how to make malts and floats the first day and moved on to making coffee and frying burgers. I was in the eighth grade, and shy, having trouble talking to adults and especially to teenage girls. The girls seem to recognize that and spent time teasing me when they ordered a malt or a Coke. The businessmen gave me a good-natured ribbing every morning when they came in for coffee and a doughnut. I usually struggled to find something to say past, “may I help you?”. That phrase was one my mom insisted I use no matter who came in the door. It seemed strange to say it to people I had known all my young life, but it soon led to conversations about other things, sports, the weather, school, all ordinary topics that filled the quiet moments I dreaded. Pretty soon I was initiating conversations, asking farmers about their crops, ladies about their kids and discovering that girls weren’t so scary after all. In fact, I figured out an extra squirt of chocolate syrup on a sundae usually brought a big smile to a young girl’s face.
Saturday nights, summer or winter, usually meant the soda fountain would be swamped with folks coming into town to shop, buy parts, get a haircut in the back room of our store, and to catch up with all the new gossip in the area. Since Dad was cutting hair all night, Mom, I and my cousin Carol ran the soda fountain, one making malts, one frying hamburgers and the other washing dishes. Keeping the coffee pot full was always a challenge, and when the bustle and noise of the teenagers was accompanied by the jukebox blaring, it was a wonder the ladies sitting in the booths could hear all the current gossip.
I gradually learned how to deal with all kinds of people, young, old, pleasant, grumpy, and some intoxicated. I learned that if I asked a question and was interested in listening, I usually got along well with everyone. I became fascinated with some of the older bachelor farmers who came in. They would tell me about themselves and their lives with just a little encouragement from me. I learned that people love to share parts of their lives with someone who will listen.
Years later, after college, I was teaching high school English. During my practice teaching semester, the old shyness returned, seeing rooms full of strange faces was a daunting moment. After stumbling a bit the first week, I remembered the conversations I had with the old farmers around Harrold, and how they became open and friendly when I showed interest in them. I started asking my students about themselves, and pretty soon, without either of us realizing it, we discovered we shared common interests and stories. We both became teachable.
I moved on from teaching to selling insurance after nine years, taking with me the one never changing secret I had discovered about dealing with people. If I showed interest in them as individuals, they became a friend, and my life became fuller and more colorful because I had become a student myself, learning about the lives of so many people who were no longer strangers. I never considered myself a salesman. I hoped I had become a friend and confidant to the people I worked with. Life is so much more rewarding, it seems, when we share ours with others. It is rewarding to see someone on the street and have them greet you like a familiar friend.
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