To morning commuters on busy Division Street, it could look like a tribal dance complete with jumps, hoots and hollers and rhythmic clapping. Three handsome young men dance in a circle in the Perkins parking lot to loud music blasting from a car – they do the “crazy chicken” arms flapping and feet scratching, and the “Arnold Schwarzenegger,” flexing their biceps and yelling, “Hasta la vista, Baby!” They do the “ballerina” leaping high in the air, toes pointed, arms extended, while they laugh and clap.
Just before breaking into dance they stood intently listening to a chapter being read out loud from Og Mandino’s book, “The Greatest Salesman in the World.”
What kind of crazy preachers are these young men? They are door-to-door booksellers for Southwestern Co., an educational book distributor based in Nashville, Tenn., and they are working in Spokane, Cheney and Coeur d’Alene all summer.
Yet they are not from Tennessee: Ulari Teder, 25, Eerik Sare, 21, and Siim Pari, 22, all call Tartu, Estonia, home. It was on the campus of the University of Tartu that they heard about Southwestern Company, and an opportunity to come to the United States and work for the summer.
All they needed was a letter signed by their parents and a visa sponsored by Global Educational Concepts, a subsidiary of Southwestern Company, and money for the plane ticket and other expenses adding up to close to $3,000. And now they have the rest of the summer to sell enough books to cover their investment.
“Southwestern Company is very well-known on campus,” said Teder, in pretty much flawless English.
Pari quickly adds that it’s one of the biggest employers on campus.
“My mom was a little skeptical the first summer I went,” said Teder, who did one bookselling tour in Indiana last year. “But then she saw that I was OK and made some money. Now I don’t have to ask her for money.”
The trio laughs.
Pari is also on his second tour, but Sare is on his first.
He said he began training back in Estonia last fall, and so far he’s doing well.
“We are very committed to work,” said Sare.
Once the three landed in Nashville, they participated in a weeklong sales training seminar put on by Southwestern Company.
“We provide them with training and a range of products, but it’s the student’s own business,” said Trey Campbell, director of communications for Southwestern. “It’s a direct sales business just like Avon or Mary Kay. They are independent contractors.” Campbell said this summer there are close to 350 Estonians working in Southwestern’s program.
Their training completed, these three Estonians got on a plane to Spokane, where they landed a few weeks ago, with a street map in hand and no place to live. Because students are considered independent contractors they are responsible for their own housing, food, transportation and any other expenses during the 10 to 12 weeks they are selling books.
Immediately, Teder, Sare and Pari, began going door-to-door selling books and simultaneously asking for a place to stay for the summer. But not just any place would do.
“We have very high standards for our host family,” said Teder. “It can’t be too noisy. It should be central. We want a nice host family.” They knocked on a few doors and checked out a few places that didn’t quite match their standards, but the fourth door was opened by Mania Izakson, the wife of Rabbi Jack Izakson.
“I had purchased the books for my own daughter seven years ago, so I knew about the books,” said Izakson. “But I was surprised by the request for a place to stay.”
It didn’t take her long to make up her mind to take in the traveling Estonians, and that’s how the Izakson’s South Hill home became the book sellers’ home for the summer.
“I am a mom – I couldn’t imagine what it was like for their moms so far away,” said Izakson, “I took them in. And no, I didn’t worry much about it.” The Estonians are staying until September, but there’s little chance they’ll bother the Izakson’s much.
Why? Because they go door-to-door selling, every day from 6 a.m. to dark, except Sundays, when they have meetings in the morning and a few hours off in the afternoon. They must make 30 contacts every day, and they keep going until they have filled at least eight book orders. By most American standards that is not a work schedule, that’s indebted servitude.
“Door-to-door sales is very difficult and tough, but for the students it’s a means to an end,” said Southwestern’s Campbell. “Students have a vision as to how the skills they gain through our program can help them. For the foreign students it’s often to travel and to improve their English.”
And it’s to make money.
Teder, Sare and Pari will not talk about money.
Southwestern will not talk about money.
Teder, who’s by far the most talkative of the three Estonians, will only say that the books are affordable.
“Everyone in my area is getting them,” he said, smiling, adding that he’s selling in the Mead area.
Campbell said the books run from $40 for young children’s books to $1,200 for the whole set.
The books are for reference and homework help, and they cover topics like math, English and social studies from the lowest grades through high school. Southwestern also publishes CDs and DVDs and hosts an online reference service based on the books’ content.
Customers pay half up front directly to the student, and get the books delivered in September.
The student deposits the money in a bank account and immediately sends part of it to Southwestern to start paying off the books the student will need to fill his or her orders by September.
When all the orders have been delivered locally, the student returns to Nashville “to settle his account” Campbell said. Whatever is left after paying Southwestern for the books and covering all other expenses is the student’s profit for the summer.
There are countless cheerful testimonials posted by alumni on the video-sharing website YouTube and Southwestern’s website featuring young people who say they’ve made anywhere from $6,000 to more than $20,000 in a summer.
There are also at least two websites and some YouTube videos that call Southwestern a scam and a pyramid scheme. Student contractors report to a student manager while they are in the field. The student manager gets a cut of the sales made by the students he supervises.
But Teder, Sare and Pari are adamant that nobody is their boss.
“We work together – we’re not the boss of anyone,” said Teder.
Campbell said the harsh criticism is bound to happen when you run a big business.
“We have had more than 100,000 alumni in our program since the ’70s – not everyone has a good experience, just like not everybody likes Wal-Mart,” said Campbell, adding that it’s completely up to the students how hard they work. “There are no company quotas they have to meet. The training is based on what the most successful students in the program do, and here’s the schedule they keep.”
Southwestern is Better Business Bureau accredited in Texas, with the highest rating, and holds a master business license with the state of Washington covering the students who go door-to-door here.
Between 10 and 20 percent of the students who work for Southwestern come from abroad; the rest are American.
Izakson has nothing but good things to say about her visitors.
“They are so polite and respectful, and they work so hard,” she said. “They don’t watch TV and they make their own lunches and their own food.”
Izakson worries about the long hours the trio spends on the road, and all the strangers they encounter every day.
“They are something like 9,000 miles away from home and they just go out every day and do this,” she said, shaking her head.
Teder and Pari have cars – one rented and one bought very cheaply – and Sare rides an older Raleigh road bike.
During their morning meeting at Perkins they copy street maps and plan the day’s routes, while Teder spends a lot of time on the phone with other Estonians working in the Inland Northwest.
Staff at Perkins dotes on the young men and bring them their favorite breakfast meals as soon as they arrive at 6:30 a.m.
By 7:15 they are ready to go.
“Yes, we work hard. Remember we are not professional sales people,” said Pari. “We are just college students trying to make some money.”
And after a few high-fives and chest-bumps, off they ride into the morning sunrise.