Tuesday, July 31, 2012

True Grit

It was also at Corflu in a conversation about comic books when Dan Steffan mentioned he’d always been curious about GRIT, America’s Greatest Family Newspaper, advertised in most comics from the 1940s to the 1970s. “Boys!” screamed the headline. “Sell GRIT! Make money! Win prizes!”

“I used to sell GRIT,” I said.

People who know me as fairly introverted are somewhat surprised to learn about my background in sales. I not only sold GRIT, before Christmas I also sold greeting cards for the Cheerful Card Company, another comic book advertiser. For several years, GRIT and Cheerful Cards were the sole source of my spending money. GRIT sold for 20¢, and I kept 7¢. I could even strip the unsold copies and return them in lieu of payment.

My first experience in sales came from my brief days as a Boy Scout (I made it all the way to Second Class before I got kicked out for missing too many meetings — they conflicted with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on Monday nights). There was an annual Scout Jamboree, and tickets were 50¢. If you sold 50, you got a free tent, and I sold about 65 or so. Some of the buyers gave me the money but declined to take a ticket, so I made a few extra bucks on the side as well.

I worked the concessions for a Shriner-sponsored event featuring the Flying Wallendas, a big act for small-town Decatur, Alabama, and moved a lot of merchandise. Somewhere I have an autograph of one of the Wallendas. So I was primed to Make Money and Win Prizes when GRIT came along.

GRIT was a weekly newspaper founded in 1882. Originally, it was just the Saturday edition of the Williamsport (PA) Daily Sun and Banner, but it was purchased in 1885 by a German immigrant named Dietrick Lamade, who built it up to a circulation of 20,000 within a few years. By the mid-1930s, circulation reached half a million.

GRIT wasn’t like other newspapers. Aimed at rural and small-town America, GRIT was a good-news newspaper. Here’s Lamade’s editorial policy:
“Always keep Grit from being pessimistic. Avoid printing those things which distort the minds of readers or make them feel at odds with the world. Avoid showing the wrong side of things, or making people feel discontented. Do nothing that will encourage fear, worry, or temptation... Wherever possible, suggest peace and good will toward men. Give our readers courage and strength for their daily tasks. Put happy thoughts, cheer, and contentment into their hearts.”
I liked GRIT for the extensive comics section, containing next Sunday’s comics. They were, unfortunately, in black and white, but I did get to read them several days early. (GRIT arrived Thursdays, and I sold them on Fridays.) A number of the strips weren’t carried in the local paper, the Decatur Daily at all: Mandrake, Prince Valiant, and Terry and the Pirates, among others.

As a salesman, my big advantage was that I had access to my father’s office building. He was a vice president of Mutual Savings Life Insurance, one of the largest companies in town. Mutual Savings occupied Decatur’s only skyscraper, towering six full stories over Bank Street. I started on the first floor and made my way up, and quickly reached a circulation of over 50 copies a week — more than $3.50 in income. I was a rich man; paperbacks cost 35¢ to 40¢, so I could buy five books a week with plenty of cash left over.

Most of GRIT’s customers were secretaries and clerks, many of whom I think actually enjoyed the “good news” paper. The executives on the sixth floor, I think, by and large bought it as a courtesy to my father, but that was okay by me. The fifth floor was most fun; it was home to WMSL Channel 23, the NBC affiliate and sole TV station in Decatur. The guys in the control room bought copies; the anchor of the evening local news bought a copy, and the kid show host, local legend Benny Carle, bought a copy. He did a publicity shot with me that appeared in an issue of the GRIT salesman newsletter, my first major media exposure.

I had a few customers not in the Mutual Savings building, so my mother would drive me around on Saturday mornings, then drop me off at the book-and-Hallmark Card shop where I’d pore through the limited selection of science fiction and get my reading fix for the week.

I sold GRIT for about two and a half years, starting in 1964, when I was in sixth grade, and continuing until the summer I started ninth grade, when I got a job as a page in the local library, where I worked for the great sum of $1.00/hour all the way through high school.

But that’s another story.

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