“And old Dave, he’d go up to his room, y’understand, put on his green velvet slippers - I’ll never forget - and pick up his phone and call the buyers, and without ever leaving his room, at the age of 84, he made his living. And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want.
-Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”
Mackey Brown of the Spokane Valley doesn’t need to be sold on that notion. In fact, he’s a testament to it.
For 75 years, Brown, now 87, went door-to-door throughout the United States and Canada selling everything from Fuller brushes to Kirby vacuum cleaners.
He estimates he knocked on a million doors from the time he sold his first Grit magazine as a 10-year-old boy in Kimberly, Idaho, to the last fire extinguisher he peddled in the Valley a couple years ago.
Brown pounded shoe leather from the Atlantic seaboard to rural Alaska, and wore out more shoes - “plenty of them” - than he cares to remember.
To hear him talk, he loved every minute of it.
“I just love to meet people,” says Brown, just two years retired and living at the Good Samaritan nursing home in the Valley. “I must have loved it. I stayed 75 years.”
Along the way he met celebrities, millionaires and his wife of more than 50 years, Grace, who died not long ago.
Brown, who moved to Spokane in 1952, might still be going, but a recent stroke ended his prolific sales career, a career that is today bringing him national recognition.
He is one of 37 people featured in a photographic exhibition now on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., called, “Going Strong! Older Americans on the Job.”
The exhibit, which ends Oct. 29, features Americans who continued their careers well past retirement age.
Brown shares company in the exhibit with a 97-year-old hubcap salesman and an 80-year-old Navajo shepherdess.
“At some point in these lengthy careers, the values these tradespeople assigned to their work went beyond mere financial gain to reach a higher level of commitment and satisfaction,” says David Shayt, the exhibition’s curator.
That’s true of Brown, who will also be featured in a new book called “Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes,” by photographer Harvey Wang and journalist David Isay.
While he made good money at his trade - the secret: “being truthful and don’t give up” - it was the travel and the people that kept him in it so long, he says.
Brown gets tickled relating stories from his glory years.
He smiles widely and flips through two books he’s written about his life to point out interesting nuggets.
His clientele, he says, included “anybody worth anything.”
Brown claims to have sold suits to baseball legend Ty Cobb and dress shirts to Buffalo Bill Cody.
Other customers included Joe Albertson, the founder of the Albertson’s grocery chain, and industrial magnate J.R. Simplot, he says.
But his favorite recollections are from encounters with regular folks from the neighborhoods and farms he visited.
His books are full of such anecdotes, including several about naked women answering the door and farm wives propositioning him.
In the old days, he says in his second book, many farmers didn’t smell too good after spending a hard day working the land and tending the stock.
Many didn’t have time to take a bath before going to bed.
Their wives would make nice for a well-groomed salesman who showed up at the back door.
“It’s true,” Brown says. “You’d be surprised what goes on in your neighborhood every day. A door-to-door salesman sees that stuff. Some things, you can’t even print.”
A visitor asks Brown for some more stories of his life on the road, and he breaks out in a little grin.
It’s the grin he used for 75 years to set potential clients at ease, to get his foot inside those one million doors.
He points to a copy of his book, “The Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter,” sitting on a nearby table.
“They’re all in there,” he says. “Nine-ninety-five.”
Eighty-seven and retired, but still selling.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo