Pitchers had become a dying breed, Mr Levy told me. In the Forties and Fifties, a 100-stall market might have 50 salesmen-entertainers skilled at cajoling pennies and pounds out of pockets with their warmth and wit. Nowadays there might be only two. But as more and more people invest redundancy money in a market stall and a few hundred quids-worth of warehouse stock, market selling has become more competitive - and pitching is on the way back.
How to pitch a course in pitching? Mr Levy, 48, the last of generations of pitchers, has a way with words. His advertisements in the trade press ask: 'Are you fed up standing by your stall serving the occasional punter when the pitchers in your market have big crowds around them spending hundreds of pounds? Learn how to get a crowd, how to hold them, how to entertain them and most of all, how to get them to spend their money] Tricks of the trade from one of the best pitchers on the road.'
Irresistible, even at pounds 300 a course in a posh hotel. Former pupils still phone him up for advice.
He was sporting a Spanish suntan when I met him at the warehouse containing his repackaged own-brand of bedding. He sells it with great flair from a customised lorry, with stage, lights and microphones, in Wembley's Sunday market, where he is one of only four pitchers among 500 stalls. (Demonstrators or 'demmers' are not seen as in the same class.)
He is big-hearted, full of humour, and has darting, gimlet eyes which I sensed were having difficulty summing me up. But he did not object to parting with some tricks of his trade.
How do you get a crowd in the first place, I asked, having listened to his melodramatic description of setting up a stall, delivered in the style of Bernard Manning - he admires Manning's timing. 'Pulling the first pitch (attracting the first crowd) is the worst part of the day. It's pouring with rain, the bank manager's on your back, the suppliers are at your throat and you've given the market superintendent a post-dated rent cheque.'
What you do not do is attempt to sell from the start. Instead, the 'top man' (pitcher) makes a lot of noise and fuss, holding up pieces of stock and bantering with passers-by, telling them that the stock must all be sold for silly prices - when the sale begins. To learn the prices they have to stick around. 'Nothing attracts a crowd better than a crowd.'
The whole point of pitching, Mr Levy says, is confidence - being in control. So he gets his pupils to stand up and talk about themselves on the first day. He tells them: 'You're not selling just the product, you're selling yourself. So that's what you project.'
Next, invite your pitch or 'edge' - both words mean the crowd, as well as the ground they stand on - to come in close. Then offer 'plunder', such as face flannels or hand towels at their cost price of 50p or pounds 1. 'You have to create desire, then move on to more expensive things.'
Which is where the humorous patter comes in: 'I like to incorporate a lot of humour. When people are laughing, they have less sales resistance.' He wisecracks, gets on first- name terms. 'Who will bid pounds 1 for whatever I offer next?' he asks. A punter holds up a pounds 1 coin. His face falls as Mr Levy offers him a plastic carrier bag but brightens as he starts stuffing it with tea towels, bath towels, pillow cases.
'Shall I throw in this pounds 40 bedspread as well?' Mr Levy teases. The punter nods. 'You'll be lucky]' says Mr Levy, throwing him the filled carrier bag. The crowd laughs.
More expensive goods follow and the patter flows on. 'You must let it flow,' he told me. 'You have to keep talking non-stop. Don't stop and start and falter. Keep it coming smoothly and clearly, make them laugh, then come to your price. Ninety-five per cent of my customers have no intention of buying. But they get caught up in the frenzy and walk away loaded. Sometimes they put their hand up even before hearing the price. When they get home they might ask themselves: 'What the hell did I buy all this for? Never mind, I've had a good laugh and he seemed a nice bloke.'
'Maybe some of the things I do are a bit cheeky. I do lead them on a bit, entice them. But in the end they get excellent value for money. I don't sell rubbish or describe goods misleadingly because I couldn't go back to the same place twice. Years ago in the West Country, when goods were scarce, people used to save all year to buy from me.'
It is not all excitement. 'You have to be able to manipulate the crowd one way or the other.' When all the jests are over, the more highly priced goods are brought out and a hush falls over the pitch. Mr Levy knows that only two or three people will be able to afford the pounds 50 or so he is going to ask, but he cannot afford to lose the attention of the rest. 'It needs to be done in complete silence,' he said. 'You have to speak loudly, clearly, and enunciate every word perfectly.'
He picked up a magazine, pretending it was an expensive set of bedsheets, running his hand slowly and lovingly over it. 'See how I pick it up. Like fine porcelain. Now pay attention. I've only got two of these, so only two of you can have one. Just look at the way those rosebuds are designed, that embroidery, that satin edging. When you get into bed at night, rather than those awful, bobbly sheets, wouldn't you rather have these? Slide in one side and you'll slide out the other.' (Laughter).
He humiliates hecklers such as yobs showing off, or chatting housewives distracting the pitch. Natterers are invited to shut up or 'leave the class'. Yobs are challenged to 'come up here and do it yourself'. It is one way of getting the crowd on your side. 'I don't let a problem become a problem because I don't let it start. You've got to be in complete control.'
With hecklers silenced and the crowd's attention riveted on a pounds 50 lot of bedding, it is time to 'come to the bat (final price)'. This is where amateur pitchers are most likely to come unstuck. Having been told the final price, the crowd must be in no doubt that the pitcher will not lower it further. 'The greatest exponent of coming to the bat was my father. He had hands like bunches of bananas. He'd go 'not pounds 25, not pounds 20 . . .' Then, when he came to the bat, he'd shout ' pounds 10]' and his hands would come together - bang] Everything used to reverberate. You knew it was his final price.'
No wonder people are beginning to go to markets for entertainment as much as buying. Pitchers like Michael Levy are becoming stars on a small stage. Admirers congratulate him on his performances.
'Forget the financial side,' he said. 'When you come down to your price and you've got all those hands in the air, you know you're doing your job well. That's the high of it.'
Michael Levy (071-372 7669).
----------------------------------------------------------------- Glossary of market traders' slang ----------------------------------------------------------------- Bat: final price Bunce: profit Burster: good day's trade Edge: crowd Fiddle: fair day's profit Flash: display of goods Flyer: fast-selling line Grafter: speciality salesman Joint: stall Kipper: off-peak trading period Pitch: crowd Plunder: goods sold cheap to attract trade Poke: money Readies: paper money Swag: cheaper lines Toby: market superintendant -----------------------------------------------------------------
Next week: How to buy goods at prices the market traders pay.
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