BURIEN, Wash. – He knows you know how to get the grunge off your stove top. Everybody does. But do you know the best way?
Probably, he says, you use one of those soapy steel wool pads. Sure, they work. But have you noticed how they get all rusty after you’ve used them a time or two? Then they start shedding yucky steel fibers under your fingernails.
What if he told you there was a pad that didn’t make a mess at all? Cleans your stove with just a little bit of this degreaser. And it lasts an entire year. How many would you like? Now what about this nifty clamp for it, so you don’t have to get those hands wet?
For 71 years, Art Pearson has been plying the byways of central Washington in a sedan stuffed with brooms, stain removers, scented moth blocks and brushes for every wall, floor and nook known to man.
He might be the oldest working Fuller Brush Man – a neatly pressed throwback to a time when the suburbs were sprouting three-bedroom dream homes like dandelions. When kitchens were clean. When a woman’s work was never done. When there was no cleaning challenge for which an appropriate brush could not be found.
“People talk about a recession? People still have to maintain their house. Everybody needs something to clean with,” said Pearson, who will turn 91 in April. “And if you tell ’em it’s made in the USA, that’s what people want to hear. People like the product. Anybody could sell it if they wanted to go out and work.”
Blast from the past
To see Pearson on the doorstep in his dark gray suit, crisp white shirt and red-and-blue tie is to wake up on a summer morning with “I Love Lucy” on TV, the whistle of the Helms bakery truck outside and three months of no school stretched ahead like Aladdin’s carpet. So what if Mom is muttering on her hands and knees behind the toilet with a rag in her fist?
“I’ll just step in a minute with your free gift,” Pearson says, dangling a pastry brush and rubber spatula in a hint of treasures to come.
His routine is polished – and rarely misses.
“When I first started, they told us, ‘Don’t go around in an old dirty shirt,’ ” Pearson said. “You dress up and look neat if you’re selling high-quality merchandise.
“We were taught, you come up to the door, you put your suitcase on the right-hand side, knock on the door, then step back two feet. And then say, ‘May I step in and give you your free gift?’ You lay the velvet tray out and you demonstrate the merchandise.”
Over the years, legions of Fuller salesmen went house to house, ready at the slightest sign of encouragement to let loose a load of popcorn on the floor in order to demonstrate the abilities of the motorless carpet sweeper or to scrub the soot off the wall behind the radiator (without scratching the wallpaper!).
More than brushes
“See, here’s the thing I learned,” Pearson said. “When I call on you, I don’t say: ‘I’m the Fuller Brush Man.’ You’ll say, ‘I don’t need any brushes.’ I come to the door and I say, ‘I’m the Fuller Man.’ That way I get in, I tell people what’s on sale, what’s good.
“Then I’ve just got a habit of checking out a house when I come in, see what they might need. My eyes flip around the room. I might suggest a wall brush to clean the ceiling, and I often go for the pre-laundry stain cleaner. I always go into that. I learned, sell three things at a time. Never sell just one.”
Today, Fuller products are available on the company’s Web site, in a few other retailers’ catalogs and on the QVC television shopping network. The company maintains a sales force of about 8,000 distributors, but only a few hundred full-time salesmen like Pearson remain. And he is probably the oldest, although no one has kept records, said Larry Gray, vice president of consumer sales and marketing.
“They don’t make ’em like Art anymore, and I even say that about myself,” Gray said. “They threw the mold away.”
“A lot of folks … didn’t want to stick to it,” Gray said. “Over the years, I’m sure Art has had many doors shut in his face.”
Pearson looks at the door-in-the-face as a simple matter of mathematics. If he stops at five houses, one will buy.
“One thing you’ll never survive with in this business is trying to plan your time or your money,” he said. “I’ve gone out and worked, and sometimes I don’t get any business till noon. And then after noon, it all just falls into place. What would have happened if I’d have quit at noon?
“The trouble today is, people don’t want to work.”
The World War II Marine Corps veteran got his start in the business in 1938, at age 20, when a Fuller Brush Man called at his house and suggested he might like the work.
Over the years, Pearson earned enough on commissions to buy a two-story home on a quiet street near Sea-Tac International Airport. He has lived alone since his wife died a year ago.
The single extravagance he indulges in is traveling. Holland America Line recently awarded Pearson one of its all-time top passenger awards because of the hundreds of thousands of miles he’s traveled on cruises, most recently to Hawaii and Panama.
Pearson estimates he sells $300 to $400 of merchandise on a good day, although on a very good day – like his carefully organized swing through the rural communities east of Seattle last month – he can take in $3,000.
He has 10,000 customers, maybe 600 of them regulars, in his “data base” – cardboard boxes stacked on his dining room table, kitchen counter and floor, each overflowing with old sales receipts.
The living room is jammed with Fuller products: carpet sweepers, push brooms, gallon jugs of Fulsol degreaser and boxes of hair brushes, ceiling brushes and stainless steel pot scrubbers.
Six mornings a week, Pearson sits down at the dining room table with a phone and box of receipts, puts on his thick glasses and begins calling customers in his targeted area for the day. Then in the afternoon, his only son Ken, 64, drives him around to make deliveries.
The calls are abbreviated and, on the customers’ end, often shouted. Pearson can’t hear all that well, but he already knows what most of them need. Over the years, he’s kept track of what they usually buy and how long ago they bought it.
A family deal
Pearson and his son load up the car and head out.
Since his hip surgery several years ago, Pearson often waits in the front seat while Ken carries everything to the door. More often than not, the customer puts on a sweater and walks out to say hello. Many say they remember Pearson showing up at their house with his brushes when they were preschoolers.
At Pearson’s 90th birthday party, the mayor of Burien gave him a key to the city, and more than 300 customers showed up.
“He remembers everything you bought, when you bought it, why you needed it,” Sue Genzale, a customer since 1989, says after Pearson and his son pull into her driveway.
“All these things I could buy at the store. But when you buy from Art – I bought an ironing board cover from him, and he doesn’t just hand it to you, he puts it on for you, he makes sure it’s tightened the way it’s supposed to be.”
Pearson brushes – forgive the pun – off the idea of quitting. “What would I do if I retired?” he scoffs.