The Beckyville Chronicles: The Cost of Cold Calling

When I was fifteen, I lied about my age on an application and got a job as a telemarketer. It was my first real job (if you don’t count my paper route when I was eleven), so I gladly picked up the phone to hassle random folks about taking my company’s survey. I felt like a grownup earning my $5.50 an hour, and indeed, many of my coworkers were adults – single moms taking on a second job and middle-aged men trying to rebound from layoffs. After a while, the joy of collecting a check wore off, and I began to dread making my nightly calls. I hated hearing the disinterest in the voice of potential customers, or the outright hang ups, and I vowed that when I got older, I would never make a living by bugging folks on the phone.

I’ve had four telemarketing gigs since then. In San Diego, I sold pens, did fundraising for charity and hawked diet pills to survive. When I got fired from my job as editor of a radio trade publication in L.A., I had a job calling doctors and bankers to invest in a questionable film project. A girl’s gotta eat. Even though I sat in my car and cried every morning before I took the elevator up to my cubicle, cringing at the thought of pestering folks for a product I didn’t believe in, I needed the money.

Even though I’m no longer holed up in a boiler room, a lot of what I do in my daily life as an indie author involves cold calling. Every morning, I go through a list of bloggers or media contacts or bookstores and ask them (some would say beg them) to take a chance on an unknown writer. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Even though I believe in my book Escape from Beckyville, my passion to spread the word can’t quench the fear of facing strangers. But it has to be done. This is how I earn my living now.

Last week, I felt that things were getting stagnant in my business affairs. Nearly two months had passed since the Beckyville Bookmobile docked at my mother Lola’s house in Pennsylvania, and it would be another month before we headed back to Los Angeles. I missed being on the road, finding adventure in various cities, meeting new people. I just wanted to get in my dainty purple chariot and hit the highway. Since Baltimore is two hours away from Pennsylvania, I decided to start there. I compiled a list of bookstores and black-owned beauty salons in the area, but I didn’t call them. I was just going to show up on their doorstep with my book and a smile.

Lola, my road dog, balked at the idea of doing walk ins. “Did you call to see if they’re open?” she asked when I told her of my plans. She’s the pragmatic partner to balance my idealistic self, and she wanted to have appointments confirmed, especially if we were going to make a four-hour round trip (plus gas and tolls). From experience, many black-owned bookstores on the national directory that I’d been referencing were only open on certain days, if they weren’t shut down entirely. I refused to call anyone. I didn’t want to get caught up in leaving messages, or trying to get a hold of the right person, or being told that they didn’t do consignment. I didn’t want an unanswered phone to discourage me. I needed to feel some momentum in my life, some forward motion that would pluck me out of the creative and financial rut I’d been mired in for quite some time. So on Tuesday, we each packed a carry-on bag, some bottled water and fruit with plans to get on the road to Maryland at 7:00 the next morning.

But on Wednesday it poured.

I awoke to the sound of rain slapping the pavement, which my groggy mind mistook for the whirring of the ceiling fan. A trip to the window confirmed my fears. It was dark and wet outside, and I didn’t want to navigate the highway in a downpour. I got back in bed, pulling my covers and disappointment over my head. I could put my adventure off for another day, but I didn’t want to lose the joy that comes with acting on a spontaneous decision. I went into Lola’s bedroom and told her that we would leave in two hours, and then I took a quick nap. The sky was still spitting by the time we climbed into the Beckyville Bookmobile, but not as heavy as it was earlier, and we headed down the street.

Even though my mother probably won’t admit it, she enjoys being on the road as much as I do. Her face relaxed, and she sang along to the radio as she drove. I took pictures of the deep orange, red and yellow foliage that draped the shoulders of the 95 South  expressway – an autumn spectacle I would have missed in L.A. An hour into our journey, the Richard Pryor compilation CDs came out, an audible reminder of the laughs we’d shared during the more than 7,700 miles we’d logged in the Bookmobile. Even if none of the stores were open – or if they were, but declined to entertain my long-distance cold calling – we could chalk the experience up to a chance to bond and get out of the house.

I won’t name the first bookstore we entered because there was a body on the floor when we walked in. At first, I thought the woman hovering over the prone figure was doing some yoga move, and I was embarrassed, assuming I’d interrupted a private session. But then the paramedics rushed through the door behind Lola and I, trying to revive the fallen woman. Around us, a few patrons continued to sit at nearby tables and sip coffee or read novels as if the sight of EMTs administering oxygen to an unconscious customer was an everyday occurrence. Finally, I headed over to a young woman behind the counter. I grinned apologetically, feeling sheepish about conducting business while the paramedic’s two-way radio crackled in the background. She acknowledged my concerns with a smile and said, “It’s been a crazy morning.”

I handed her a copy of the book and explained how I quit my job at a top-rated talk show and drove cross-country with my mom doing readings at indie book stores and cultural centers to spread the word. She listened politely as I stammered through my spiel, her mind more than likely on the woman who was being carried out the front door on a gurney. Although she said she couldn’t commit to carrying my book until she discussed it with her business partners, she thanked me for coming in person to deliver it. “It always helps to see who you’re dealing with face to face,” she said. Then Lola bought a cup of coffee, I grabbed my attaché case, and we headed back out into the rain.

I lived in Baltimore in my early twenties, freshly graduated from Hampton University and trying to make my living as a writer in Charm City. I wrote my first screenplay there. I worked as managing editor of a newspaper there. My first celebrity Q&A was with Russell Simmons, and then I snagged interviews with Spike Lee, Cathy Hughes, Gil Scott-Heron, Omar Epps and Lisa Jones. I haven’t returned to B-more in many years, and a few roads were unfamiliar to me. Even our second stop on the impromptu parade, a shopping plaza housing a Burlington Coat Factory, was foreign to me. As Lola and I walked through the nearly empty mini mall, we noted abandoned kiosks and shuttered stores. I didn’t see the bookstore that was written down on my list, so I stopped at the information desk. A young woman wearing cornrows told me the shop had closed, a fate that had befallen many black-owned bookstores across the nation. In its place stood a beauty supply store. Once again, I hoisted my umbrella as Lola and I walked to the van.

Our third stop was fruitful. I remembered that there was a mall in the area, and a mall had to have a bookstore. I hoped. When I lived in Baltimore, Mondawmin Mall was located a few miles up the road, and I often shopped there for the spandex outfits that comprised the bulk of my wardrobe. I later learned that the shopping center had been dubbed “Murder Mall.” The only thing I wanted to be caught in the crossfire of was sales.

Surprisingly, the Urban Knowledge bookstore at Mondawmin wasn’t listed on the national directory of African-American booksellers, but I would make sure that it was added to the database. Tracey, the district manager for the store, turned my book over in her hands and listened as I went into my indie author infomercial. She said the book looked interesting, but she couldn’t make any new acquisitions without the approval of the owner. However, she did reach into her own pocket to buy a copy of the book and asked me to sign it. She also referred me to Everyone’s Place, another store that wasn’t on the list, and gave me the name of someone to speak to there. “It’s worth a shot,” she said. I bought a few books by Donald Goines, the urban lit author of my youth, thanked Tracey for her time and headed to our next destination.

Our next stop wasn’t a bookstore, but a beauty salon specializing in natural hair. I’ve been a naturalista for more than three years, and it was important for me to have a black woman with unprocessed hair on the cover of my book. I don’t have anything against straight hair, but that seems to be the default style for book covers featuring black women, and I wanted showcase the beauty of natural hair. The salon is a central location for several stories in Escape from Beckyville, and I thought it fitting to do a reading at a hair shop before the book tour made its way back to the Left Coast.

The salon owner, a woman with a short blonde natural, was waiting for her next client when Lola and I walked in. As soon as I glimpsed the mirrors and earth-tone furnishings, I was determined to host a reading at the studio. I had kicked off my journey across the nation with a reading at a beauty salon in Los Angeles, and it seemed that the trip was coming full circle. The owner didn’t have a lot of time to talk to us since her client walked in a few minutes after we did, but she said that the event sounded intriguing. I promised to call her the next day with a proposal for the gathering, and Lola and I made our way back to the van.

Since it was raining and the snare of rush hour traffic was upon us, we decided to have a quick dinner and crash at our friend Kim’s house in Odenton, a twenty-minute drive from Baltimore. It was too late to stop at Everyone’s Place. Besides, the person I needed to speak to was out anyway, so I decided to pay him a visit first thing in the morning.

The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I had foolishly eaten shrimp for dinner the previous night, ignoring my shellfish allergy, and I was paying for it. I couldn’t stop sneezing, went through a box of tissues, and my eyes wouldn’t stop watering. When I called the bookstore, the person I needed to speak to was still out, and I was told to just mail a copy of Escape from Beckyville for consideration. It sounded tempting. I wanted nothing more than to be back in bed at Lola’s house sipping hot tea (preferably laced with brandy). But we had come this far, and something kept telling me to make one last cold call. I gassed up my van, slid behind the wheel and pointed my purple chariot toward Baltimore.

The address we’d been given was not the actual store for Everyone’s Place, but the warehouse. Lola and I walked past the door three times before realizing we had the correct address. A young man wearing a white turban let us in, and we found ourselves in a tight foyer surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. A talk show discussing Moammar Quadaffi’s death droned in the background as the proprietor thumbed through several pages of my book. I noticed a stack of paperbacks – presumably independently published – on his desk. I kept turning my head to blow my nose as I described the journey that brought me to his door. He even accompanied us outside to take a gander at the Beckyville Bookmobile.

When we returned to the warehouse, the man excused himself and disappeared down a row of books. Regardless of his decision, I felt good about my cold-calling efforts. I had squirmed out of my comfort zone, out of the space where pitching to strangers was as frightening as the dark hallway in the middle of the night, as the hand under the bed waiting for my foot. But just as the light vanquished those imaginary demons, the glow of my dreams reduced to ashes any fears of rejection and failure.

When our head-wrapped host returned to the desk, he explained that he was a distributor not just for Everyone’s Place, but for many black bookstores across the nation. Then he ordered half a case of books. My eyes began to water, and not just from my allergies. Without the benefit of a major publisher, I’ve managed to get my book sold at thirteen stores across the nation, and Everyone’s Place would make number fourteen. Lola and I hurried to the van to fulfill his order. I was half convinced that he would change his mind by the time we returned to the store. He counted the books and paid us and said that he would help arrange a radio interview to publicize my story. We shook hands, then my mom and I hopped in the van and drove to Pennsylvania, the sun at our backs.

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