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Banking on birdhouses

Economic woes have salesman going door to door

It’s a hot afternoon in Spokane – 103 degrees to be exact – as Roscoe Tempero reaches into the bed of his pickup and lifts out one of the birdhouses he has been selling door to door this summer.

Built of cedar and screws, the birdhouses are simple and rustic. Tempero figures he has made and sold more than 1,000 during the past few years. He usually has them set up by a busy street along with some chain saw carvings he is selling for friends.

But this has been an especially tough year, so he decided to start knocking on doors in neighborhoods across the city.

“I’m embarrassed about this,” he says. “It’s been tough, and believe me, no one’s getting rich on this deal.

“But you know what? You do what you gotta do sometimes to make it. And you find out people are pretty nice.”

Like growing numbers of American workers, Tempero is struggling with the soaring costs of food and fuel, the flat job market and sluggish sales for anything extra. Sunday found him working neighborhoods around the Spokane VA hospital.

“There’s a lot of people out there really hurting because everything is all of a sudden getting so expensive,” Tempero says.

A few of his prospective customers have called the police on Tempero, worried he might be casing an area to later burglarize. The officers come, ask what he is doing, “and before you know it they’re saying good luck.”

Some people just don’t like to be bothered and slam the door in his face.

But most people listen to him and are pleasant. They treat him like they would want to be treated if things went wrong.

“I’d like to help, but just don’t have the money right this moment,” said Jessica Havner, who lives along Broad Street.

As her 4-year-old son squishes together mud pies in the yard, she eyes a neat little birdhouse and then a chainsaw carving of a black bear with a smile and shiny eyes.

“Isn’t that just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?” she says. “But just can’t do it right now.”

“What about next week?” she asks Tempero.

He replies: “I’ll hold it back for you.”

By 5:30 p.m. Sunday he has sold $70 worth of birdhouses. But his black 1990 small pickup needs a tank of gas.

“Sixty bucks, just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I think the price of fuel is really hitting people. Me included.”

The ordeal has been a humbling one. He talks of knocking on doors only to have them answered by people he went to Mead High School with.

“That’s humbling,” he said, recounting how hard it is when some live in nice homes with nice cars in the driveway while he bumbles his way through an apology for taking their time and points to his birdhouses piled in the back of his pickup.

Tempero has had better days. Bad luck, tough economic times and a few poor decisions have left this 44-year-old resident of Valley trying to scrape enough money together to pay the bills and plan his next move. He borrowed some money from family to buy a couple of moving trucks. It’s time to start making some money, but he’s only been able to do a few odd jobs so far.

He doesn’t have health insurance. There’s no pension or 401(k) retirement plan or any of the financial trappings many people have come to rely upon for comfort and financial peace of mind.

“You know, I’m not real educated so a lot of that kind of thing isn’t going to happen for me,” he says, wiping away sweat running down his neck.

So he’s left with pluck and hustle.

Sometimes he gives away a small birdhouse to people who just don’t have the money.

“You know, I don’t want people feeling bad for me,” he says. “Because here’s the truth: Yeah, not everyone wants a birdhouse. And not everyone can pay for one. And that’s too bad.

“But I find that just talking to folks, all kinds of different folks, has been something special. It’s been worth it.”