Saturday, March 21, 2009

Business for Hard Times


I know people don’t have time to read long articles these days. They’re too busy tallying up their massive profits in the stock market, selling their homes for astronomical prices, and deciding which yacht or private plane to buy---but if you can bear with me, you might glean a few data-McNuggets re how the financial world works.

And you could learn something about how to start a business that will make you rich without turning a profit.

I know. That sounds like a contradiction.

Have patience. Read on.

The first thing you have to do is find a wonderful product that people can afford. And I have one.

number 9 dream. Never heard of it? A novel. David Mitchell wrote it in 2001. Sensational reviews in England. I bought all 418 pages of it at Book Tales in downtown Encinitas for two bucks, used. That’s a little over half a cent a page.

And on page five and six, we have this:

“I sip my coffee foam. My mug rim has traces of lipstick. I construct a legal case to argue that sipping from this part of the bowl constitutes a kiss with a stranger. That would increase my tally of kissed girls to three, still less than the national average. I look around the Jupiter Café for a potential kissee, and settle on the waitress of the living, wise, moonlit viola neck. A tendril of hair has fallen loose, and brushes her nape. It tickles. I compare the fuchsia pink on the mug with the pink of her lipstick. Circumstantial evidence, at any distance. Who knows how many times the cup has been dishwashed, fusing the lipstick atoms with the porcelain molecules? And a sophisticated Tokyoite like her has enough admirers to fill a pocket computer. Case dismissed.”

I paid roughly an eighth of a cent for that paragraph. Not bad. (If you cajole people, some of them will give you pennies.)

The whole book has, so far, taken up three hours of my time. I’m moving through it slowly. I’m on page 87. Three hours, at a total cost of, let’s call it, 43 cents.

If I go to the movies, I’m paying at least ten dollars by the time I’m out of there, not even counting mileage in the car, and I’ve usually logged only two hours of screen time. And nobody on the screen is saying, “the waitress of the living, wise, moonlit viola neck.”

The Encinitas public library is a well-designed low-slung building with lots of big windows. You can even sit outside on an elevated deck and read. Of course, you can check books out of libraries for nothing, but I don’t count that, because I like owning a book and keeping it around for years. I like underlining passages and making notes in the margins. So I use the very nice bookstore the Encinitas library maintains next to its front door.

For two dollars, I bought a hardbound 1963 Grove Press edition of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. And I got this brief chunk of poetry for what I estimate was a fifth of a cent:

“The tide washes up in front of the curved tracks and splits like glass combs. Under the wet headlines are the diaphanous legs of the amoebas scrambling on to the running boards, the fine, sturdy tennis legs wrapped in cellophane, their white veins showing through the golden calves and muscles of ivory. The city is panting with a five o’clock sweat. From the tops of skyscrapers plumes of smoke soft as Cleopatra’s feathers. The air beats thick, the bats are flapping, the cements softens, the iron rails flatten under the broad flanges of the trolley wheels.”

A fifth of a cent.

Maybe these two passages smack of literature, for you. And for you, literature is crap--although at these prices nobody should be arguing. But all right. At the outdoor racks of used paperbacks at the Cardiff Public Library, I picked up Elmore Leonard’s Pagan Babies, a sensational crime novel set in Rwanda and Detroit, for 25 cents. Another three hours of reading. I haven’t seen three hours of television or movies in the last few years that stack up to Pagan Babies.

In a small shopping plaza off San Eliho, in Cardiff, there is a thrift shop. I found a few Jack Higgins thrillers there. Wonderful spy-crime writer. I bought an old Physician’s Desk Reference for four dollars. And one of the Isaac Asimov Foundation novels for fifty cents.

Marvelous. Wonderful. Such a fantastic product. Used books.

So I got to thinking…and the thinking produced this business----

I rented an old storefront in Encinitas. It had broken windows and cracked floors. I made some shelves and went to garage sales and bought old books by the foot and stuck them on the shelves.

I taped a big sign on the broken window: FREE BOOKS.

When people came in, I told them this wasn’t precisely true, but they could take as many books as they wanted if they signed an IOU. As long as they could legibly write their names, phone numbers, and addresses on a piece of paper or a rag or a stick of wood, they could have books. They could pay me later.

Well, this took off like a rocket.

I found two partners who had a modest amount of cash. We rented and opened eight such bookstores in the San Diego area and they all started doing gangbusters business.

Eventually, we took over 11267 bookstores from coast to coast and we did the “free book” thing with all of them. We got on Larry King and Nightline and Today.

We went to a bank, a big bank. We told them we had packages of IOUs. Bundles. Tons. We would be willing to sell them.


We walked out of there with the kind of cash I had previously only dreamed of.

The bank manager called me three weeks later and told me he’d sold those packages and bundles and tons of IOUs to a guy in Belgium. And a month after that, the Belgium banker sold the tons to the investment honcho at AIG. After that, I don’t know what happened.

But I’m now living in a mansion on a Greek island and I have a 300-foot yacht.

I figured I should hire a security company, you know, to protect my assets, and a veteran with Special Forces training recommended bringing in a hundred dogs, three hundred armed guards---and he built electrified fences around the property. It all seemed a bit excessive to me, but he assured me this was the way to go.

I’m now writing my memoirs. The first line is:

“I never made a penny, but I made 400 million dollars.”

This is why America was created. This is the meaning of liberty.

No comments: