Ruth Stein inspired this project. She’s my mother-in-law (more or less). She and Bill, her husband of 61 years, are in their mid-eighties and are booksellers. The audio clip below describes how Bill and Ruth invented this second career in their 50’s. The skilled work of independent radio producer Sara Archambault, it aired on AARP Prime Time Radio in October, 2007.
Sometimes, especially after a set of 14-hour days at trade shows, Ruth admits to being pooped. (At such moments I brightly remind her that it’s no time to slow down: “You’ve got children to support!”) More irksome are the number of times she hears, “So when are you going to retire?” Over dinner in late spring, 2007, she said, “Why don’t you write a book about that?”
The Steins didn’t start out selling books. They began with “corncob pipes, kerchiefs, things they sold in the subway — some of the worst stuff you ever saw in your life,” as Ruth puts it. They didn’t start together, either. Bought out of an earlier business venture, Bill had decided to become a rep because it required nothing but time. He’d also had bypass surgery (a pioneer in 1976) and Ruth would get so panicked if he ran even five minutes late that she told him, “If you’re going to continue doing this I am going to do it with you. And that’s how we started to team up.” Building on contacts from her prior gift business, they started repping better stuff. The rest is history: they’re legends in the publishing industry.
As the radio story gracefully brings to light, lots of factors keep the Steins working: the mental stimulation; the social contacts (many customers have become good friends); the income; the fact that they enjoy working together and collaborate well. I’d finger something else, though: Ruth’s appetite. “I love the books,” she says. “I get such a kick out of it.” A little later, “What makes a good day on the job is if I am working with somebody who is enthusiastic.” Ruth is a genius salesperson because she’s a matchmaker between books she knows well and customers whose tastes and needs she really cares about. A steel-trap memory doesn’t hurt, and neither does having Bill managing the accounts in the room next door. But the trait of Ruth’s that I admire the most is enthusiasm: she’s never met a conversation she doesn’t want to be in on. Her son has it, and I’m doing my best to absorb it via osmosis.