Coming all the way here, to this spot in the suburbs by the $75 giant pumpkin and the display of Honeycrisp apples, is the first way Darrell Wrenn plans to show the world who he is.
You can sell Real Change, Seattle’s homeless advocacy newspaper, anywhere, and Wrenn started out making good money at First and Pike, working the tourist crowd. But Wrenn believes taking the bus from the Union Gospel mission downtown, where he lives, to the PCC Community Market in Issaquah five, sometimes six days a week sets him apart. It shows he believes in planning and responsibility and professionalism. “That takes discipline,” he says, and hopes that people notice, just as he hopes they notice his regular presence, his commitment to his spot. “That’s a hike. It’s a mind set.”
His appearance is the second way: fresh jeans, a bright blue Eddie Bauer jacket, a clean shave and white tennis shoes whose wear takes a long look to see. “People have a stereotype in their head,” he says, and he wants to break it right away, and is glad when he does: “I’ve had people look at me and say, you don’t look like you’re homeless!” He dresses to look like he gives a damn, both because he does and because he wants his customers to know that he does.
Sometimes, Wrenn will tell customers who he is directly, like the people who tell him to get a job. (“This is a job right here. I’m selling a product.”) Or to the man who used to twirl his $2 for the newspaper in the air in a way Wrenn thought was insulting. (“You do that to a dog,” Wrenn told him. “I’m not a dog.” The man responded cordially but never bought a paper again, to which Wrenn said, “I’d take the respect over the money any day.”)
He tells people that he used to work in law enforcement—he first moved to Seattle to work for a company that provides security for Amazon, but says he couldn’t get his job back after going home to Birmingham to be with his mother after his father died—and watches for surprise when they find out which side of the law he has a history with.
Mostly, though, he tries to show with his actions that he’s someone to take seriously, someone who takes himself seriously. He’s careful to bring a supply of small bills every day so he can make change, like any businessman, and found that it boosted his sales. “I broke a $50 bill,” he says proudly. He’s experimented with different selling times and knows weekends are the best, when people are more relaxed and less rushed. He brings a soda but doesn’t eat while he’s on the job. He remembers his regulars and doesn’t pitch them; the soft pitch of just joking and conversing, he’s learned, is a better sales tactic. For new customers, he swapped the more aggressive pitch that worked downtown—holding the papers above his head, calling out—for a new one, tailored for the suburbs. “You wanna buy a Real Change on your way out, that’d be great,” he says, over and over. And over and over, customers smile, say hello, and do.
So far on this sunny Friday, Wrenn has sold 45 papers in a little over two hours. Like every vendor he buys the current paper at the downtown office for 60 cents, sells it for two dollars, and keeps the difference plus tips—which in Wrenn’s case he guesses average as much as a dollar per paper. He’s saving the money to pay down an eviction debt and qualify for a new apartment of his own. It’s a good wage, and one he’s proud of; when he went to the orientation that Real Change gives to new vendors, the staff told him that about three papers an hour was an average sales pace. “I kind of laughed at it when I first heard it, because I know me,” he says now. “And I think I’ve proven my point.” After a month, Wrenn was the paper’s top seller, and the staff suggested he move to this spot in Issaquah, where he likes to start conversations about the region’s affordability and homelessness crises, so his customers can realize how these issues affect even somebody as serious as him. “I’m going to change the narrative, you know?”
A few weeks ago, one of his customers, a retired businessman, said something that made him feel proud, that made him feel like he’d succeeded in communicating to his customers who Darrell Wrenn really is.
“I’ve been watching you,” he said. “You’re an entrepreneur.”
“Congratulations!” Jerred Clouse tells new people when they sign up to sell. He supervises the Real Change vendor program. “You were hired! And…you were promoted to boss! And…you own the company!” It’s not hard to start out. The newspaper, a weekly with a focus on homelessness, poverty, and social justice, was founded in 1994 as a way to provide income and stability for people with limited access to the more formal economy. To keep barriers low, the only requirements are being over 18, completing orientation, and signing a code of conduct, and then away you go. The company will front you your first papers, and you can be out selling the same day you sign up. But longtime vendors will tell you that there’s still a lot to learn.
When Ed McClain, the top seller Real Change has ever had, died in 2013, people clamored for his spot in front of the Safeway on University Avenue. But no one managed to come near his success. It’s not the location, Clouse tells newbies, but the vendor. The two keys are presence—putting in the hours—and “positivity,” which is a bit of a code word for managing to not take it personally when people cross the street or avoid eye contact or say something rude or respond to your “Have a good day” with a curt “No, thank you.”
Everyone has a sales strategy. Some vendors just smile silently or say, “Good morning,” or “God bless,” or “I like your shoes,” while others have crafted pitches: One handles papers with elaborate gentleness, like they’re too hot to touch, saying “Whoo, hot paper here!” Others spin the papers, or say, “Your $2 employs 800 people.” A vendor named David, who doesn’t stick to a single location, likes to open with, “We all have issues, but do you have the current issue?”
Sue M., a top vendor who’s been selling in front of Central Co-op, on Madison at the top of Capitol Hill, for more than a decade, calls her tips “my trade secrets.” Set weekly and daily goals—hers is 55 papers before she can go home—and don’t leave your spot until you’ve met them: “There are days when I tell myself harshly, you’re going to stay, stay, stay.” She usually sells, sitting in a folding chair, for 10 and a half hours straight, which means “I know that 50 degrees, you wear winter boots. But 40 degrees, you wear thermal underwear and snow pants.” Sales are better in the fall and winter, when people are more generous because they see you enduring the cold.
When it rains, a golf umbrella is the best, because they’re biggest. It’s worth paying for good boots. You don’t sell well when you’re exhausted, and a lot of people are exhausted because they have nowhere safe to sleep. (“Write that down,” she says. “It’s not that they’re lazy.”) You’ll feel shy, but you have to learn not to. You sell best when your customers feel that they know you. (A woman with gray hair comes out of the co-op and says to Sue, “You’re going to freeze your charming Virgo ass off.”) Sue’s trademark is recommending articles in the current issue—in part to engage with her customers, in part to make sure the paper doesn’t go to waste, unread on a coffee table.
When she started, she was living in a women’s shelter. Now she spends her off hours in the library studying books about sustainable agriculture and commutes over an hour to her post from a cabin in rural King County. She is saving to start a small farming business. “I did not give up,” she says. “Will you write that down? I did not give up.”
On Friday morning, October 13, 2017, Christi Wolfla woke up on the stoop in front of the Real Change office, just off First and Main. After it opened she went inside to get warm.
She wore a green hoodie and thin black sweatpants, her gray-blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and smiled through missing teeth at a tall man in a Seahawks hat whose badge identified him as Zackary Tutwiler. He’d been a Real Change vendor for three years, first at Third and James and then at Second and Cherry, and he was offering Wolfla his best advice on the business: Don’t get frustrated at low sales, because: “Every. Day. Is. Different.” Put in the hours, because it’s a numbers game. Sell in the same place on a regular schedule, because it gives people a chance to get to know you and eventually stop ignoring you. Stay calm if they’re rude. Smile, and keep smiling, no matter what. “And always, ‘Thank you and have a good day.’ ”
Two days before, Wolfla said, she’d decided she was going to quit using drugs. Today she’d decided she was going to become a businessperson. “If I can get up in the morning and have something to live for, it will change my life,” she said. She was sure of it.
She’d been homeless and panhandling downtown the last three years. But she’d noticed something about people she knew on the street. “I see a lot of people converting from begging to Real Change and they seem to do much better, to be much happier.” She stopped to think. “To have more courage to live. They’re not so, like me, embarrassed of who they are.” So her hope for the day was twofold: She wanted to earn enough money to get a good night’s sleep in a hostel or mission. But also a way to change how the world saw her, and how she saw herself.
Orientation began at 10am, and Wolfla and five others followed vendor program supervisor Clouse into a small conference room. They introduced themselves, at Clouse’s suggestion, by sharing their favorite desserts (Wolfla chose strawberry ice cream) and why they were there. “Watching people change from being addicted and angry to being a real person and having a real life,” Wolfla said.
Clouse pulled up a PowerPoint presentation and began to explain the details of selling Real Change—what it means to be a sole proprietor, how to get free papers by helping clean the office or unload trucks, how to get papers on credit, why you can take tips but not ask for them, where you’re allowed to sell. (“Watch this,” Clouse said, standing up. “Public property.” He leaned against a wall. “Private property.”) Though 800 people may cycle through in a year, Real Change usually has about 300 active vendors at a given time, only about 20 percent of whom sell more than 300 papers a month—a threshold that allows them to claim a selling spot as their own. As one of the new vendors, a gray-haired man in a faded purple coat, fell asleep on the table, Clouse passed along advice from interviews with those top sellers: “You’re going to get rejected and want to leave, but you need to stay.”
And then it was time for a trial run. Wolfla changed into her other pair of pants, blue jeans, and Clouse led the new vendors to separate corners for a half hour of sales. Wolfla clutched her papers to her chest, dancing as she walked down First Avenue. “I feel so good!” she said. “I got a job!”
Clouse placed Wolfla on the corner of Yesler, across from the iron pergola that was built to shelter Pioneer Square’s cable car riders back in 1909 and now offers downtown’s growing homeless population a break from the rain. Wolfla looked at her reflection in a Starbucks window and adjusted her hair, her new badge. She began trying out opening lines: “Good morning, ma’am. Good morning, how are you? Good morning, Real Change!” People in suits and coats walked past, carrying their lunches. There was a man in a Utilikilt, and one walking a pit bull in a pink hoodie. Though some returned her greeting, most didn’t respond or make eye contact. To an observer, it felt painful, but Wolfla didn’t stop smiling. Finally her excitement bubbled over and she told a middle-aged man in a hat: “I just started today!” “Did you?” he replied, and became her first sale. A young woman in a plaid jacket overheard and became her second. A woman in a long dress didn’t have any cash, but she listened as Wolfla told her about her new job and then apologized for tearing up. The woman wrapped her in a hug. “Oh honey! It’s all right!”
By the time Wolfla scooted over to make way for a second Underground Tour group—“When we cross the street, look down at the purple glass. Purple glass, purple glass!” the leader yelled—the half hour was up, and it was time to return to the office to debrief over Cup Noodles.
“It’s pretty silly when you watch a customer go wooooo,” laughed one of the new vendors, a young man with a gash healing on his forehead and his hair in a bun, miming an elaborate swerve to avoid him. “Well, I guess it is me!” The only other woman in the group had been too shy to speak; she just stood on the corner, held up the papers, and smiled. “I got $2, I’m lucky,” she said. “Usually I don’t get that.”
Everyone else had sold one paper. Wolfla had sold three and gotten a 50-cent tip—income that she converted, as soon as she returned to the office, into new papers to sell. She dug into her noodles, already talking like an old pro.
“Don’t get discouraged,” she told the room. “It’s just a numbers game.”