Please Observe Me If You WIll, I’m Professor Harold Hill

Encyclopedia britannica

During the summer break from Penn State in 1969 I was having a problem finding a job. In 1967 I had worked at the Lebanon VA Hospital and the previous summer at my uncle Allen’s drug store, but neither of those options was available that year, and I couldn’t seem to find anything suitable. Well, anything really.

Then I came across an ad that seemed to promise unlimited riches for a minimal amount of work, or something like that. The downside was that it was based in Reading, which was over a half hour’s drive away, so it would mean a lot of driving back and forth each day.

But it promised unlimited riches! Well, not really, but the ad did make it sound very attractive, although it was light on details. In fact, there were no details about the actual work involved, but it seemed worth a shot. I had been seduced by unlimited riches

While I no longer recall exactly what the ad said, it implied that there was no actual limit to what one could earn in any given week for those who applied themselves.

So I drove to Reading to see what the pitch was.

As it turned out, they were pitching encyclopedias. The Encyclopedia Britannica to be precise.

I was run through an orientation process where I was given a loose leaf notebook and a written out sales pitch which I was supposed to learn verbatim. As I went through the pitch there were directions on exactly when to turn the pages of the notebook, which I was to show to the potential customers, and sometimes even when and where to point on a specific page.

For example, at one point in the spiel, I was to turn the page and there would be a picture of the Encyclopedia Britannica in a bookcase with the price of $799.00 printed in bold type beneath it, and I was to point to that and say, “The Encyclopedia Britannica, 799 dollars.” Then pause, to let that sink in for a moment, then turn the page and continue with the spiel. As I said, it was all very carefully orchestrated.


Here’s the thing. We weren’t selling encyclopedias according to the pitch. No, we were placing them in selected folks’ homes with the idea that after they had had the sets for a few months, they would write a glowing letter of recommendation to the company about how much they enjoyed the encyclopedias, how much the books helped their children in school, etc., etc. Then the real salesforce would take those letters and swoop in and try to sell the encyclopedias to their neighbors, presumably for the full retail price of $799.


And you probably saw this coming. As a measure of good faith, we, the P.F. Collier Company, would throw in some additional goodies including the Harvard Classics, as well as a few other sets of books that I no longer recall, and all we asked in return is that the marks, I mean the good folks, all we asked is that they pay for these additional sets of books, just as a token of good faith. The total price came to well under the retail cost of the encyclopedias alone.

Of course, this was all presented very carefully in the spiel that I had to learn and was supposed to recite word for word to the potential customers.

For every set that I sold, I mean placed, I’d receive a commission of about $100.

Not having any other prospects, I decided to give it a try. I mean, if I placed even one set a week, that was $100 per week, which was more than I had earned in my previous summer jobs.

To be continued… 

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