Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My Inelegant Firecracker Stand, Fayetteville 1961

Early Evening, July 4th in Birch Bay
I built my first firecracker stand in June 1961. It was rudimentary. A few boards were nailed together horizontally and vertically to create a rectangular structure about 4 feet by 8 feet, with a height—after a couple of tarps were attached to the top and back—of about 7 feet. The front of the stand had a counter top running the length of the stand, about 4 feet up from the ground. The space below it was covered by “Fireworks” banners and signs. In the back of the stand, at about eye height, were shelves on which the merchandise was displayed.

The stand was built in the front of a nice house on S. School Street (Highway 71S), maybe a couple hundred yards from the red light where 6th Street (now, Martin Luther King Blvd) intersects School. The owners of the house, a quiet elderly couple, let me put up the stand in their yard and provided electricity for $10. Nearby to the south was a two-story building from which part of the bottom was missing, providing space for cars to exit the road and park out of the weather. It had been an early gas station; in 1961, a small grocery store was located there. Just a bit further to the south was a Dairy-Queen type drive in. It was here that I and my cousin Morris Daniels went a couple of times that summer to drink huge amounts of root beer and pretend like it made us drunk.

To sell fireworks in 1961, a city permit was required and I climbed the stairs at the city hall on Rock Street, near the Square, to find the office selling them. Also, I needed fireworks -- crackers, candles, cones, rockets -- to fill the shelves. That year, I could buy—with money advanced by my dad—wholesale fireworks from Mr. Laner (father of Jerry, First National Bank, 3rd baseman) and Mr. Pomfret (father of Jim, Campbell Soup, 1st baseman). The former sold them out of his house on E. Lafayette; the latter had a wholesale business on North Block Street. In the years that followed, I had to go to Ft. Smith to get wholesale fireworks.

I was able to set up and manage a firework stand in 1961 because I had served an apprenticeship with Bobby Carnes, who live a few houses up 6th Street from me. He was three years my senior with much more business acumen. I worked for two summers at his firework stands, including one he had at my 1961 location and another on Dickson in a vacant lot at the corner of N. East Street, across from the Central United Methodist Church. Mainly I sat in Bobby’s stands, working long hours as a “salesman.” To say the least, Bobby was not generous with his pay, and when I was 13 I was so hurt by how little he paid me for many hours of work that I vowed I would have my own stand the following year. And I would crush him in any neighborhood sport in which we played against each other. I did both.

I hired some neighborhood kids to help out at my firecracker stand. I am not sure who worked for me in 1961; I think it was Steve Baucom, who was a couple of years younger than me and lived nearby. In the following years, I hired Ronnie Keeton’s little brother and, I think, Bill Crook’s younger brother, John, to help out selling fireworks, plus other kids whose names I have forgotten. I probably did not pay them as much as I should have.

My first year as owner-operator of a firecracker stand was a financial success. The mark-up was 50 percent, and I sold enough to net about $200. Elated, I stored a couple of boxes full of unsold fireworks in my closet and looked forward to repeating the experience in coming years.

The next year I learned about the vagaries of business. It turned out that firework stands were a cyclical business. One year, the folks running the stands would make some good money, and tell other folks about their success. The next year, many more firecracker stands would appear. With more competition and not much increase in demand, almost all of the stand operators would have disappointing results. For example, in 1962 there was a firecracker stand on most corners of the city, I made nearly nothing. The year following the disappointment, fewer stands would be built and each person with a stand would have a good year, as I did in 1963 (it paid much of the expense of three weeks at Big State Baseball Camp in Dallas).

I continued with the firework stands for three more years after 1961, and each year I built a sturdier, more comfortable, and more aesthetically pleasing stand. Truth is, the first stand I built was something of a disaster. It was my first experience building anything, and I hardly knew how to drive a nail. I am sure the old man letting me use his yard winced every time he saw the rickety structure -- how did it stay up? -- I built in the front of his house. With practice and some investment in quality wood and nice tarps, I later built firecracker stands that were not an embarrassment to the community.


Large Fireworks Stand
Of course, small firecracker stands were near the abyss in 1964, when I built my last one. They were facing the challenges of mega-stands -- huge structures built by professionals. These mega-stands were owned and operated by big companies that had figured out serious money could be made by selling fireworks. They wiped out the little firecracker stands like mine that could not offer the same selection of fireworks or make money with the discounted prices. Selling fireworks became a big business in the 60's and still is.

When July 4th approaches every year, I cannot help but recall the fun I had with my little firecracker stands and the money that I made. I also remember, with appreciation, all that I learned from these small adventures into business. Above all, I remember with some pride the touches of elegance that I built into my firecracker stands as each year passed.

2 comments:

  1. I had no idea you were related to
    Morris and Justin! After all these years...maybe I knew it back then but
    I sure don't remember it. Great article, Dan.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Gil. I lived about four blocks from my cousins when growing up. When very young, we had lots of fun playing baseball and basketball until Justin got so darn good. Morris was a year ahead of me in school. I haven't seen him in decades.

    ReplyDelete