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In Which Uncle Ralph Peppers the Town

My country store-keeping uncle, under whose snug tutelage I studied merchandising and angling for one week each summer vacation from grade school, sometimes used black pepper as an example. "If'n you don't have black pepper on the shelf," he'd say, "it's likely you won't sell a great deal of black pepper." Since black pepper goes a long way, it is not a fast mover, and it was a good example of all the items seldom called for that a smart merchant always keeps in stock.

I never heard my uncle tell a customer, "Nope, sorry! I'm fresh out." Yet when I do shop, or help shop nowadays, in almost every store is heard the exasperating excuse, "I don't have any." Today that's because the reorder button wasn't pushed, but in may uncle's time he always had what you wanted because his inventory was in his noggin and he knew his trade.

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Today, any grocer orders computerwise. He telephones, and doesn't talk to anybody. I can only imagine what Uncle Ralph would say about that. His business depended on the regular calls of salesmen who took his orders. It was by way of the salesmen that Uncle Ralph found his specials, and around whom buying and selling revolved. They'd come in bunches on the same train and wait their turns outside my uncle's "private" office between the hardware counter and the ladies' shoes.

The test of a good flavoring extract salesman was the "special" he could offer that would set up my uncle for a sale. He loved sales because he would "work off" a lot of oddities not otherwise in demand. So many a time the salesman for P&G would, as he really did one trip, suggest a bargain on pianos. A music store in Portland could be had from the receivership at make-me-an-offer. Then Uncle Ralph had a big sale on barbwire to make room to store 14 pianos. Thirteen, that is, as he put one inside the front door by the cookies so customers saw it first thing.

I do not wish to suggest that my Uncle was entirely honest in all his ventures, but will insist that honesty is relative in the business world, and "snedricks" can be adjustable. A snedrick is a snide trick. Uncle Ralph made a call on Liz Adams, an elderly young lady who played the organ at the Free Will Church and gave lessons on the pianoforte. Liz came to the store to see the pianos and tickled the one on display to the delight of customers. She also agreed to give 10 free lessons to anybody who bought a piano, for which my uncle would pay her $10. After that, the customer was all hers.

Liz naturally began urging folks to buy a piano for their children, and most afternoons she would come to the store and play a few tunes to stimulate interest. Uncle Ralph sold his first piano to Ulricht Shute, who had eight children and (more to the point) 15 tons of sweet-meadow clover hay that, when pressed, was in great demand in Boston. Uncle Ralph owned a steam hay press.

All the Shute children became pianists, as the oldest, Tangerine, took 10 lessons and then taught the others.

The pianos have nothing to do with black pepper, except to show how Uncle Ralph kept things in hand. Another salesman, back during one of our ration-book wars, told my uncle about the pepper. This salesman had the cornstarch and baking-goods line, and when Uncle Ralph asked him about a "special," he laughed and asked, "How are you fixed for black pepper?" Uncle Ralph laughed and said a pound of pepper goes a long way, and the salesman said, "That's the whole point!"

"Tell me more," said Uncle.

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Out in western New York State, a small grocery chain, very much local, had a warehouse with about three tons of black pepper, all in one-pound packages. This came about over a long, long time. As pepper was bought from the spice people, it came in different-sized packages, one-half ounce and so on, up to a pound. But mostly the pound size didn't sell and accumulated in the warehouse. The pepper arrived three days later by rail freight, and Uncle Ralph stacked it and contemplated the opportunities.

THIS was, if you were paying attention, in wartime, and many things were strictly rationed, but not pepper. So my uncle began a whispering campaign, and asked everybody how he was fixed for black pepper.

When he went to the post office for his morning mail and a crowd was around, he would call to the postmaster, "Mornin' Hank! Have you heard anything about pepper?" It took a few days, but the seeds sprouted. Thinking that pepper was about to go on ration stamps, everybody bought some. Uncle Ralph was in a position to let a whole precious pound of pepper go for a little or less, and he made a special price when Joe Lafebre, who ran the town's Greasy Spoon Cafe, asked for five pounds. Every store in 20 miles sold out its pepper, and storekeepers came in to buy more from Uncle Ralph.

Uncle Ralph did say his territory was now so completely peppered he expected not to sell any more, ever. And he was delighted to read in the newspaper, late in his life, that Bowdoin College had rented space in the Hannaford Brothers computer. Hannaford is a wholesale grocer as well as retail, and although every phase of its business is in the machine, it still has space to rent. Bowdoin College accordingly entered its academic records, and that next commencement the summa cum laude got all A's and two cases of black pepper, my uncle said.

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