Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Pssst. Wanna buy a house?

“Will the world’s worst salesman please stand up.” I glance around the crowded planet at the seven-billion-plus people seated smugly pretending not to be looking my way. Must mean me, I murmur, and, mortified, stand up.

Nightmares have a sneaky way of revealing uncomfortable truths. I used to josh with friends that I considered myself the world’s worst salesman, but lately I’ve come to believe it. I mean, only the King of Klutzes could have put a splendid home in Tuscany on the market four years ago and failed to sell it. I’m talking about a 16th-century stone villa in the historic hills southeast of Florence with views to take your breath away. Check out: www.tuscanydreamhome.com

We’re selling because the place is more than an aging couple needs. I figured the sale would cover the cost of building a smaller house elsewhere in Tuscany, with enough left over to live comfortably in the golden years.

We’d bought the house in 1982, after succumbing, as dreamers did in those days, to love at first sight. I was sure the same would happen this time around, that it would be grabbed up the minute it hit the market. A typical miscalculation that I’ve blamed on the economic crisis, starting in 2008, which ravaged real estate markets everywhere. Yet I’m certain that anyone with a modicum of savvy would have sold the place long ago.

The house has been advertised on international sites and posted by local agents. But visits have been few as realtors repeat that “nobody’s buying anymore” as an excuse for not trying. I’ve lowered the asking price from over a million euro to 795,000. Recent queries have come from dubious types. One (a diamond dealer?) offered cash if I’d fly to Brussels the next day. Another (a Saudi financier?) suggested the same if I’d meet him in San Marino for a coffee.

After discretion flushed those deals down the drain, we’ve weathered the winter watching bank balances approach the brink of poverty, while hoping to point dreamers’ desires at tuscanydreamhome.com. That site, created by the ingenious Jack Kelly, seems to have the requisites for promoting a love-at-first-sight deal—unless, that is, it’s been jinxed by you-know-who.

It’s hard to explain my chronic inability to sell things—not only tangible goods but above all myself. Having an inbred aversion to business, I guess selling isn’t in my nature. I recall a radio ad of way over a half century ago with a door-to-door salesman ringing doorbells and muttering, “Nobody home, I hope I hope I hope.” Others sniggered; I empathized. 

Whether it was home-made lemonade or an outgrown bike or used books or, later on, an almost new Volkswagen Beatle or the kids’ abandoned Vespa or a nifty old 36-foot sailboat, I ended up getting the short end of the stick.

Some have the knack, some don’t. I’ve noticed that in Mediterranean lands—from all the variegated shores of the sea—shrewd vendors proliferate. Maybe that’s because in climates where much commerce is carried out at open markets, bartering and bargaining are a spirited way of life. Face it, any four-year-old huckster in an Arab souk knows the tricks of the trade as thoroughly as a Harvard Business grad. Not only that, the kid’s intuitively equipped to spot a sucker—picture me on safari—from half way across the Sahara.

Italians excel at hawking most anything from shaved ice to bottled water to what they call aria fritta (fried air). Jewish merchants were the acknowledged masters of the mercantile arts. It isn’t certain, though I suspect that mercenaries from Mediterranean lands performed the miracle of convincing generations of Americans that 99 cents is less than a dollar.

Up north, in my ancestral homelands, Scandinavians often lack the knack, maybe because in ice-packed, sunless spots, folks stocked up on goods for the winter, freezing trade. Salesmanship doesn’t seem to figure in the Norwegian DNA, so perhaps heritage is at the root of my problem.

As for publishing, my books never got close to a bestseller list. The Pocket Guide to Italian Wines—which ran through uncountable editions and titles over twenty-some years—sold a grand total of 350,000 copies. Sound impressive? Well, royalties from all that netted me about enough to buy the Land Rover I’ve been driving for a decade. My latest triumph is the self-published novel Boccadoro, running at 4,714,889th in the Amazon book hit list. In Kindle sales it ranks 493,773rd.

But maybe there’s hope for me yet. The world of arts and letters abounds in self-aggrandizing folks who made it big even if they didn’t seem to have that much to start with. Am I alone in my conviction that more than a few bestselling authors write like stressed out PR persons or that a good many big name artists paint and draw or splatter like hyperactive preschoolers? The main talent behind their megabucks seems to be a flair for selling themselves.

The same could be said for protagonists in other fields, politics for example. Remember that 1960 poster of Richard Nixon with the caption, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Well, Tricky Dick must have sold himself to somebody—nobody I know, I hope—if they elected him president eight years later.

I suppose I could take some comfort in knowing that the slickest of salesmen often turn out to be the slimiest of sleazeballs. A widely held view is that to get ahead it helps to be a con artist. Well, in my life I can’t deny generating my fair share of tall tales, fibs, white lies, and out-and-out bullshit. But none of the BS ever got me anywhere. Come to think of it, being honest never got me anywhere either.

Take that tuscanydreamhome website. The content there must be somewhere in the neighborhood of 99 percent true (allow a 1 percent margin of error). I have a sneaking suspicion that some who have seen the site thought it was too good to be true and didn’t bother to follow up.

I suppose it’s kind of gauche for a writer to use a blog to promote real estate. But, really, I can’t think of many other places to turn. Someone out there is bound to ask: So, okay, what’s the difference between the 795,000 euro asking price and 800,000? Well, let me tell you, for 5,000 euro you could buy yourself a pretty nice used car.