Subway salesman selling his life story

I love this human interest piece. I find the writer inspiring, the way he sells his story. If I were a passenger in the train I don’t think I would buy the book the first time he approached me, but I probably would the next time I see him.

Author Whose Bookstore Is the No. 2 (or 4, or 5)
Randy Kearse went from being a major drug dealer to selling his story of redemption on the subway, while making new friends.
Published: July 9, 2010

Randy Kearse stepped onto a southbound No. 2 train in Harlem and scanned the crowd, trying to figure out who might be in a buying mood. He strode across the car, pressed his back against the steel doors and cleared his throat: Showtime.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentleman,” he called out.

“I am not begging, borrowing or asking for your food. I don’t represent the homeless, I’m not selling candy or selling bootleg DVDs,” he said, then paused. “I write books.”

A few passengers looked on curiously. Others stared at their hands, at their shoes or at nothing in particular, just not up at Mr. Kearse. He could practically read their minds: Uh-oh — here we go again.

But in a city weary of the relentless, and illegal, subway pitch for money — the emotional spiel, the hand or cup offered from seat to seat — Mr. Kearse is something of a subway sales impresario.

With little or no marketing muscle behind him, Mr. Kearse said he had sold some 14,000 copies of his self-published books in the last three years, at $10 each, mostly through hand-to-hand sales. He has also sold about 4,000 copies of a 750-page, 10,000-entry dictionary of urban slang terms, “Street Talk,” through Barricade Books of Fort Lee, N.J., the publisher said.

Most novice authors would be lucky to sell that many books through traditional and online stores. Mr. Kearse seems to have reached those numbers largely on his own hustle.

“My quota is 35 books a day,” Mr. Kearse said. “If I don’t hit that number, I’m staying out until I do. Overtime.”

Mr. Kearse does it with a well-designed pitch and a salesman’s instinct for closing the deal. But he also has a product that people seem to want.

“This book is about my life, my experiences, the lessons that I’ve learned from the mistakes that I’ve made,” he said, “mistakes that sent me to prison for 13 and a half years.”

Mr. Kearse, 45, went from hustling crack cocaine as head of a multistate crew, to federal prison, to author and urban self-help guru who not only writes books about his experiences but also mentors children, crooks, prisoners and their families on the perils of the criminal life. Or as one of his titles suggests, he has gone from “Incarceration to Incorporation.”

Plenty of authors have emerged from prison with manuscripts. Some even get them published. But instead of fictional tales of sex, money and murder — the stuff of the booming “street lit” genre — Mr. Kearse has assembled step-by-step guides to going legit, or “Changin’ Your Game Plan: How to Use Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success” — another of his titles.

That book, and his overall message of redemption, landed him on “The Colbert Report” in 2007, where he held his own in banter with the host over whether inmates should ever be returned to society.

The market for his message is the subway system, the trains that run through Harlem and the South Bronx. His target demographics, he said, are black and Hispanic passengers from the neighborhoods he once flooded with drugs.

On one recent outing, in an hour Mr. Kearse sold about 10 books. Two buyers asked that he autograph the books for a brother or boyfriend in prison. Another bought a copy for a grandson. One young man gripped Mr. Kearse’s hand tightly, said that he had read the book and thanked him.

“What I’m doing now is the same thing, same concept, as when I was hustling; it was just illegal business that I was doing then,” Mr. Kearse said. (New York City Transit also prohibits selling or panhandling on the subway.)

“I try to show people how to use your natural instincts, the same grind,” he said.

Over lunch in Harlem, he described the science of the subway sale:

A sparsely populated train is better than a packed one; it’s easier to work the crowd.

The cars on the No. 3 train are too loud; you’ll have to yell; it’s very unprofessional.

The A and J trains are too big, with too much ground to cover; intimacy is important.

The Nos. 2, 5 and 4 trains through Harlem are the best: the right audience, smaller cars, and long relatively quiet stretches to make his pitch.

Mr. Kearse said the sales provided him with enough income to cover his bills and pay the rent on his apartment in the Bronx, as well as to help out his five children, ages 20 to 23.

But he said what really motivated him to roll his bag of books around every day was the chance to influence lives.

“A guy wrote me a while back and asked, in respect to all the damage that I’ve done, that I’ve left behind, if I think doing good things now changes any of that,” Mr. Kearse said. “You know, I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

Mr. Kearse, a 10th-grade dropout, said he had built a name for himself on the streets, first locking down the drug trade in a public housing complex in the city, then in North Carolina by setting up a crew of 40 to 50 workers that distributed for him in five cities.

He was indicted on charges of moving more than 50 kilograms of cocaine over two years, he said — allegations he does not dispute.

Since he left prison in 2005, his record has been clean.

“The difference in what I’m doing now is there’s no stress as far as worrying about what the future’s going to be like. Am I going to jail one minute? Am I going to be killed another minute?” he said. “I can stand behind what I’m doing and not feel like I have to hide things.”

One afternoon, arms stretched wide and a book in each hand, he waited for at least a few passengers on a No. 2 train to smile and nod, buying into what he was trying to sell. Thirteen down, 22 books to go.

Would you buy his book if he approached you on the train?


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Josette
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 11:11:53

    What a great idea to sell one’s books this way! It takes a lot of guts, determination and thick skin to do it. I might buy it, I think.

    Know what, before I read the article, I thought it’s about a salesman who sold Subway sandwiches! I went, since when did Subway need salesmen? Haha!

    Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

    nylusmilk: your second sentence sums up my sentiments! i don’t know if malaysian writers would peddle their works like he does.


  2. kathy
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 13:57:09

    Maybe i will cabut lari

    nylusmilk: haha, but not before you take a photo of him right? 😛


  3. Christine
    Jul 19, 2010 @ 15:14:11

    What an interesting story! I’m very wary (and weary) of beggars, credit card promotes and salespeople myself but I think he had a attention-grabbing opening line and nobody’d expect a book seller on a subway 😉

    Plus, he addressed the crowd and not individuals. His determination really deserves praise…he set himself a quota of 35 books per day!

    nylusmilk: yes, his sales pitch got to me too. it’s not easy to do direct selling, especially with an unknown book – that’s what impressed me most.


  4. Sajib
    Aug 08, 2010 @ 11:37:52

    I definitely would, despite the fact that I don’t understand English well. He must’ve written something extremely useful on that book. Wish i could have a copy.

    nylusmilk: i wouldn’t mind reading that book myself. if only he blogs, huh? 🙂


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