Salesmen of the Third Kind

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Germany’s
rural areas often have the look of a canvas painted with acres of sunflower fields
and wild flowers. Between the wildness of the flowers lie cultivated fields of
grain, maize, beets and potatoes. A bicycle ride along a deserted road through
the hinterlands of the Bavarian countryside can be sheer pleasure during the summer
time. Entering a shady wooded area can relieve the heat for a while before the
next stretch of a kilometer or two.

The
villages are in fairly close proximity to each other. In some areas the towns
may only be two to four kilometers apart. The land between is filled with hills,
forests and creeks. Most communities have no general store or grocery stores to
speak of. People have to travel to larger towns to conduct their business or do
any shopping.

Owning
a car has made this task more convenient and simple. However, only 35 years ago
it was a more difficult to make it to a larger town. Walking, horse-driven carriages,
bicycles or small motorcycles were the primary means of transportation that people
had. Many people had to catch a ride with the few car owners that existed in these
small towns.

Salesmen
and businesses found a market in these remote areas by bringing needed goods to
the local communities. Even banks found ways to bring their business to these
areas by converting a bus into a bank, and keeping regular scheduled stops at
the local market squares so farmers were able to make any financial transactions.

Several
of these salesmen would stop by my grandparent’s tavern for refreshment and some
rest; and, of course, to conduct some business. As a girl, one particular salesperson
really impressed me. This person was a middle-aged lady who would make her weekly
routes on her Moped, which is rather like an annoyingly loud motorized bicycle.
We gave her the nickname of "Übersee’ra." The nickname was derived
from the type of suitcase she used for carrying her many goods. The suitcase was
the kind used for oversea trips, very practical for her purposes, which she strapped
on the back of her Moped.

I
didn’t even know she had a real name. As kids we believed everything; and I literally
thought her name was the "Overseas Lady." Her appearance was similar
to today’s bag lady. Although she wasn’t the fashionable business suit type of
saleswoman, her weathered clothes did not keep her from maintaining a regular
customer base. Her suitcase was crammed full with trousers, aprons, sweaters,
skirts, socks, underwear and even fabric.

Years
later I found out that she took the train each day from a nearby city then rode
her bicycle, and later her small Moped, which she stored near the train station.
She made her routes to her customers during most weather conditions. Her destination
was our village and several nearby communities.

When
she stopped in for her cup of coffee, her large suitcase became a treasure chest
set as the centerpiece on the table. It felt almost like Christmas. My mother
started digging through the suitcase to see if she could find suitable items for
us. Just the idea of getting a sweater or a skirt that came out of the suitcase
was an amazing feeling. I guess I thought the items came from some exotic far
away place, and somehow they landed in her giant suitcase. Or maybe I just wanted
to believe that, because why else would a strange and unusual woman carry such
a big suitcase filled with clothes to sell.


     

Herr
Kuhn was another salesman that found his way into our remote village. He used
to sell different types of soap, shoe polish, detergent, and grease for wooden
wagon wheels. His merchandise was loaded into two whicker baskets that he tied
on his bicycle, one at the front and the other to the back. Herr Kuhn was also
disabled. He had a wooden leg, which I presume was from an old war wound. This
did not deter him from getting on his bicycle and making his routes to earn a
living. He occasionally stopped in my grandparent’s tavern for a beer, some conversation
and a small business transaction. Reflecting back on Herr Kuhn’s disability, I
wonder if he would even be allowed to work under those circumstances in today’s
strictly regulated work environment. I think most of his transportation methods
would violate several safety regulations.

My
dad told me that he once bought a very nice suit from Herr Full, who sold suits
and jackets. He came around every four to six weeks and drove a respectable Mercedes.
People actually came to the tavern to see the selection of fine suits that he
carefully stored under plastic covers, which were hung on a clothes rod in the
back of his car. I remember him visiting with my grandmother, sipping on a glass
of wine and bringing news from the big city. An interesting aspect to traveling
salesmen was the exchange of information that seemed to occur during each visit.
Word of mouth still carries a lot of authority and can actually bring a story
to life far better than today’s media can.

Actually,
our area really lacked nothing, at least through the eyes of a child. We even
had the pleasure of being visited by a traveling shoe-salesman who drove through
the countryside in a VW bus. He came through town during the different seasons
and before the holidays. He sold everything from warm house-shoes to the best
kind of Sunday shoes, work shoes, casuals and sandals. My grandparents’ tavern
seems to have been the favorite stop for these folks to rest and drink some beer,
wine, or coffee. Our shoe salesman really liked his beer.

The
biggest needs in rural communities are farm and household tools made of wood.
A merchant, Herr Bayer, from Kulmbach used to drive through the area selling wooden
rakes and handles, hay and manure forks, and axes. He also sold sieves, and other
wood-carved items to the farmers that are used daily in their line of work. His
goods were in great demand.

I
knew little about these people’s personal lives. They were salesmen who made daily
trips through our rural parts of the country to earn a living. As unusual as their
ways of transportation and dress code may have been, they found ways around it
to bring their wares to the people and supply them with their needs. Their reoccurring
appearance made them a reliable source of supplying the community with goods that
would have been more difficult to come by during those years.

If
I applied today’s labor and safety regulations to yesterday’s salesmen, I don’t
think the "Overseas Lady" would have been allowed to tie her oversized
suitcase to her Moped; nor would Herr Kuhn with his wooden leg have been able
to ride around with two large baskets strapped on his bike. Herr Fuller would
have gotten fined for selling his suits in an establishment that sells alcohol,
and Herr Bayer probably would have been charged for selling dangerous weapons
to the community without a permit.

The
most remarkable salesman of my childhood is still the "Overseas Lady"
who traveled the roads with her huge trunk strapped to the back of her noisy Moped.
She chose a way to create her own business that probably gave her quite a bit
of freedom. Life during the 50’s and 60’s was less regulated then it is today.
People like her and the rest of her colleagues had the liberty to provide for
themselves by traveling in the strangest circumstances to sell their goods. They
were salesmen of the third kind; an alienated idea that finds less and less acceptance
with our lawmakers in the all too regulated world of trade.

June
22, 2005

Sabine
Barnhart [send her mail] moved
to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the
past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.

Sabine
Barnhart Archives

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