Tommy D. has fantastically blue eyes. Outside the Spare Change News headquarters, in the bright sunshine, it’s a little hard to tell exactly whether they’re blue, green or a mixture of both. When I mention how amazing they are, he replies jokingly that it must be something to do with his mixed Cuban/Italian ancestry.
The Cuban connection is on his father’s side: After his paternal grandfather came over from Cuba, he settled in Brooklyn and raised a family. Imagining some torrid story about fleeing the revolution, I ask him exactly what brought his grandfather to America. “A tire,” he says with a laugh.
It quickly becomes apparent that Tommy has a wicked sense of humor. He’s also an expert salesman. Having sold timeshares on Cape Cod for seven years, he has a good understanding of what makes customers tick and, more importantly, what makes them buy a product—in this case, Spare Change News.
“When people are buying this paper, they’re not buying it for the paper. They’re buying it for you,” he says. “If people like you, they’re gonna give you a dollar. They’re doing it to help.”
Tommy knows this because he’s seen the same customers return to him week after week. If the readers of Spare Change News were only buying the paper for the product itself, he says, they wouldn’t really care which vendor they bought it from. But because they’re buying the paper to help out a particular vendor, it makes them loyal. “People are very faithful when they’re giving for a cause,” he points out.
The issue of what makes Spare Change News readers buy the paper relates to an ongoing debate among the vendors themselves. Currently, each vendor is assigned a unique spot in the Greater Boston area where they can sell their papers. A different vendor can only occupy that spot if the assigned vendor is absent. Whereas some vendors agree with this system, others believe that spots should be occupied exclusively. That way, nobody can jump in and “steal” a vendor’s customers when they aren’t there.
Tommy considers this a non-issue. Based on his theory that people buy the paper to support the person selling it, he doesn’t worry that another vendor might steal his customers because he knows his customers are loyal.
It’s not that the paper’s editorial content isn’t important to customers, he says. In fact, when Spare Changes News ran a story on Mayor Walsh’s plan to turn part of Long Island into an Olympics site, it proved to be a real selling point. “I’d hit them with ‘What do you think?’ It helped me talk to them,” he adds.
Another issue that can make sales tricky for Tommy is the newspaper’s name. Try saying “Spare Change News” to someone in the street and there’s a chance they’ll think you’re actually asking them for change. “I have to explain it’s a newspaper that runs every two weeks,” he says. Once, a woman literally ran away from him as soon he spoke to her. At other times, he’s had people say, “leave me alone.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, Tommy learned the importance of respect, an ethos he brings to his work at Spare Change News. “I’m from Brooklyn and everything there is about respect,” he says. This goes beyond a street code: “It’s a family code…” he says. “Opening the door for a female. Helping someone weaker than you. Don’t curse in front of your mother.”
Perhaps it’s this emphasis on respect that makes Tommy such a good vendor. His customers certainly think so.