© January 13, 2012
I never received an allowance as a child. I always had to earn it myself. So, I was motivated.
At age five, I dragged a red wagon behind me, walking about half a mile to a vacant lot across from a high school where I discovered there were seemingly endless empty pop bottles thrown there by the students which I could collect and deliver to my nearby drugstore for instant cash, at two to five cents per bottle. Many of the bottles were broken and it was risky to go after the good ones, but I felt the reward was worth the risk. Evidently, no other kid did. I had the bottle harvesting market to myself, in 1955. Learned, at five years old, that there is money to be made almost everywhere if you are astute and can evaluate the risk, reasonably.
I also taught myself carpentry at age five, being the grandson of an immigrant carpenter, and built a tree house in my backyard. Later, an actual boat. I had a large collection of tools and was well versed in using them. Two years ago, at age fifty-nine, when I reopened my collectible periodical business with no funding whatsoever, I built all 700 running feet of shelving by myself. It took me seven weeks, always working alone. You never know what skill you learned long ago that will save the day some future time when you have no other options open to you.
At age twelve, in the winter of 1962, I went from door to door asking homeowners to pay me to shovel their snow-covered walks. It took me three houses to establish the going rate, which I didn’t know when I started out, and that older women were far more likely willing to pay for my services than older men. I learned that gender really matters when I wanted to sell something.
At age thirteen to fourteen, I was dating a cute girl from down the block whose father, I discovered, worked for Whitman Publishing Company in Wisconsin. They produced the well known “Red” and “Blue” books which were widely respected by coin collectors to establish the wholesale and retail price of coins. They also made the blue folding coin collecting boards that actually held the particular coins found in chronological order, with the missing dates printed below each spot to tell the collector what to look for.
I bought all three items wholesale from my girlfriend’s dad, who was very amused that I thought I could actually run a business while still in seventh grade. I felt I could sell the books to my classmates when coin collecting was becoming a mania in America because of the newly minted Kennedy half-dollar, after he was assassinated the year before. Then, gradually, I became a coin dealer myself, to supply my customers with a reason to buy my coin folders and books. I subscribed to two adult coin newspapers and educated myself about the history of coinage, and what was worth how much, and why. Also I learned about grading.
As I began supplying more and more students with coins and supplies, my own collection began growing. When the boys lost interest in collecting, I bought their collections at wholesale prices, sometimes less than that because it was a buyer’s market in grammar school.
My own collection, logically, skyrocketed in quantity and value. When I graduated grammar school, I stopped collecting, boxed up my collection and hid it away, to sell for some real emergency in the future. By educating myself completely about what I was doing, I knew the actual value of what I had and what it was likely to be worth in the future. I learned the value of targeting my education. My girlfriend’s father stopped laughing when the money I earned from my sales was spread over his kitchen table. My success changed his perception of me. That’s usually the case. I always had to prove myself to disbelieving people before they would help me.
At the same time, in 1963 at thirteen, I also found a cooperative druggist who illegally agreed to sell me Playboys for fifty cents each. I cut pictures out of each issue and sold them one by one for various prices, depending on both the kid and the picture. Almost fifty years later, I am the last store in America with a complete collection of 695 issues of Playboy and I sell back issues to collectors almost every day. However, I no longer cut the pictures out. The adults don’t like that and you have to adjust to your market’s desires, as it gradually mutates. I have twenty thousand Playboys.
I left home at fourteen and started a newsstand with a good friend from my grammar school, Richard Munden, after my freshman year in high school. I built the newsstand myself, because I had no money to buy one. I used scavenged wood from construction sites. I had an old bicycle and was mobile so I could find out where those sites were. The only thing I had to buy were the metal hinges for $2.00.
Twenty years later, in 1985 when my decades-old newsstand business closed in Chicago’s Hyde Park, I sold my teenaged coin collection for enough money to create a mail order poster company to sell international posters, giving birth to what I am still doing today.
Lastly, in the politically turbulent Sixties, specifically 1967, along with that same old friend from grammar school, I bought thousands of protest buttons to sell to my more financially independent classmates at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, with the school’s blessings because they admired my “entrepreneurial spirit”. They gave me two weeks to sell my buttons. My friend in Bowen,however, a Chicago public high school on the old South Side was discovered selling the controversial buttons to his classmate and was suspended from school. I am still selling buttons, forty-five years later.
The difference in our situation? I learned earlier that people in authority liked to be asked for permission to do something. It is a way of their manifesting their power over someone to say yes, from someone who really needs that “yes”. It also depends on how you ask them for what you want to do. I showed my respect to their position and gained their approval. What I learned about dealing with people in authority while in high school served me very well in navigating Chicago’s incredibly corrupt political machine which controlled my newsstand license.
I learned who to pay off, how much and how to find a local political power to protect me and control how much my payoffs would be. I learned at sixteen that corruption in local government was absolutely everywhere, and my knowing how to navigate that fact gave me at least some control over my vulnerable business and how to survive within the Chicago power structure.
The lesson? It doesn’t matter how pure you are in every way. Look what happened to Jesus Christ. You have to learn the real life situation before you decide to buy or open a new business and if the risk is worth the reward. You don’t want to ever be blindsided because you didn’t take the time to find out the invisible political local realities behind the seemingly secure surface.
Criminal corruption is a cold hard fact and should never be discounted in making your plans.
Lastly, organized crime is an invisible world living all around us. Unlike the movies, you never, ever want to be friends with them or ask for help from them when there are no other legal options. They help you, and then they own you. Remember that. There is no way out of that situation. There is nothing called friendship in organized crime. It doesn’t exist.
About the writer and his other life in Skokie, Illinois:
My Store Twitter: @MagazineMuseum
My stories Twitter: @ChicagoKatzman
Bob Katzman’s Magazine Museum: 100,000 periodicals back to 1576!
Wall of Rock: 50 years of cool Rock periodicals on display & for sale
4906 Oakton St. (8000 north and 4900 west) Skokie, Ill 60077
(847)677-9444 Mon-Fri: 10 am to 5 pm / Weekends: 10 am to 2 pm
Katzman’s Publishing Company site: www.FightingWordsPubco.com
Katzman’s online non-fiction stories: www.DifferentSlants.com
Poetry? For me, writing poetry is not an option.
It’s a response to emotion. Like cigarette smoke,
it’s fast-flowing, shapeless and with little time to capture it.
Writing poetry in an imperative. I say what I feel compelled to say.
I sell my five published books via mail order and accept major credit cards.
I don’t use PayPal. I just talk to people on the phone.
Fast, reliable service. Read my stories and see what you think.
I’m also available for hire to read my true Chicago stories to organizations
and answer all questions. I autograph my books when I sell them.
I am currently seeking an agent to do more readings.
Feel free to call me at the number above.