So we decided to sell eggs…

Street view in our sector of Palmas, May 2010

Street view in our sector of Palmas, May 2010

In spring of 2010, we moved to a densely-populated housing community.  “Palmas,” as we call it, is located about 35 minutes from where we had been living previously in Monterrey, Nuevo León.  We were fortunate that a family friend lent us, and later let us rent, his house while he was out-of-state for work.

Within a few days of living there, a couple of people had come to our door requesting to buy eggs.  We  apologized, letting them know we didn’t sell eggs, and they went on their way.  One time, there was a girl with the same request as the others’.  When we told her we didn’t sell anything, she said thank you, and added that we should expect to have a lot of people ringing our doorbell; the previous tenants were well known in the neighborhood and had a lot of egg customers.

Aron and I had not initially planned on residing in Palmas.  We had arrived there intending to stay only for a week or two, as a change of pace.  But surprisingly, Aron agreed that it would be nice to live there, on our own for a while.  And as more and more people rang our doorbell, we essentially thought, “We can do this!” — since we already had customers, we may as well sell them eggs.

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One of our first advertisements

Now, in early 2010, there was very little access to “big box” stores around Palmas, or anywhere in the town.  Near the entrance of Palmas was a store called Merco, but its packed aisles, odd store organization, and inconsistent availability of product left something to be desired.  There was a very small version of the chain store Bodega Aurrera up the main avenue of Palmas, but we never even stepped inside there because it was not convenient.  There was a pretty good butcher shop not far away, still along the same avenue; many people went to this store because aside from meat, they had all kinds of other products.  But this was still a good half-mile from our neighbors and us, and since at that time there was still a majority of residents who did not own cars — and as with many women, residents who did not drive — the walk was still not very appealing for those who wanted to do their shopping, especially if they had several young’uns tagging along with them.  Numerous residents had their own, tiny neighborhood stores attached to their homes, so most people did their daily purchasing at these stores and took the bus/got a ride to a bigger store for anything else.  Not all little stores offered eggs, but pretty much all offered household necessities such as cooking oil, tortillas, Coca-Cola, toilet paper, dry beans, and coffee.  And Tang, of course (before living in Mexico, I had no idea there were so many flavors of Tang)!

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D playing with the cartons

So we decided to sell eggs at a lower price than the competitors, to earn our reputation and see how it would go.  We purchased them by the case from a  wholesale market* in Monterrey.  Aron knew of this market because it was where Tío Paulino (our beloved uncle; may he rest in peace/QEPD) bought the ears of corn for our aunt to sell prepared elotes on the street, years ago.

Since we visited Monterrey often in Aron’s Ford Explorer, it became part of a routine to be back and forth to buy at the market.  Aron is extremely shy (inhibitingly shy), and I was still limited on my vocabulary with this type of thing.  It was nerve-racking for this anxious duo to locate what we wanted, but we got used to it.  It took some weeks to find the suppliers we liked, and months to find the brands of egg we wanted to sell.  We sold them by tapa (a full flat/carton of 30) and media tapa (a half flat/carton of 15).  We put up signs in the neighborhood and on the windows of our home, and we were able to bring in quite a few regular customers during 2 years of business.  It was enough to sustain us for a while (but there were times when we had a little help from our friends — thank God for them).

I mentioned to Aron the other day that I missed selling eggs.  He feels the same.  It may seem silly, but we started from something simple like eggs and branched out to all different kinds of products for which we became known.  Eggs were only the beginning.  We met all kinds of folks, and it opened up a lot of doors for us.  Aron and I were able to take the opportunity to work together from our home (and we even set up at the weekly street market outside of Monterrey) and influence other people, even if only in small ways.

*Mercado de Abastos Estrella

Out with the old, in with the Walmart

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Horse-drawn cart in Anáhuac, Veracruz, May 2008

In some ways, the idea of the traditional door-to-door salesman still lives on, in many parts of Mexico.   There is a wide variety of products available from people who make their living selling on the street.

At first it seemed weird to me, to hear the spiel from the loudspeaker and then step out the door of our house to buy a kilo of tortillas from a guy in an old, unmarked, beat-up Tsuru.  But it is the thing to do.  This way, you are almost always assured to be buying piping hot tortillas rather than whatever is left, cold and crusty, in the insulated bins at the corner store.  And the price per kilo is bound to be lower from these cars sent out directly from the tortillería than from anywhere else.  The tortilla vendors are probably the most common type of salesperson; tortilla cars from various tortillerías may pass by the same street multiple times a day as a convenience for the residents, who tend to eat tortillas with every meal.

So when you hear the loudspeaker, tinkling bell, or shouting for a certain product, you stop what you’re doing, go outside, and flag down the vehicle/person.

There are bakery vehicles that pass through select neighborhoods about once a day.  These will usually be marked vans or marked trucks with toppers to put the trays of buns, donuts, and rolls in the bed.  In more rural locations — like in the Veracruz town where my husband grew up — men, women, or children still walk the streets with huge baskets (sometimes atop their heads) full of these same treats.  Some of our cousins used to earn extra change for the family by selling baked goods, before they were even teens.  **See also: El Panadero classic clip (in recent years, it has become popular for this same song to blast on the loudspeakers of travelling bakery trucks): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GkaI6MlKVGE 

Some merchants drive around selling fruit — from observation, maybe once a week through any given neighborhood.  There may be one single type of fruit, or a variety of fruit.  The most common is probably the orange, though there is a wide range of other types like papaya, mango, watermelon, canteloupe, avocado, and banana.  The fruit vendors typically drive an old pickup truck, with a shade tarp over the bed to protect the fruit and any person sitting in the bed of the truck with the scale.  While tortilla guys usually only have one person in the vehicle, fruit trucks more often have multiple people to assist in selling the product.

Sometimes pickups come through with brooms, mops, trash cans, and all sorts of cleaning supplies.  This is perhaps even less common than the fruit truck.  The nice thing about the cleaning-products truck is that you can usually find a decent broom or mop made with a wood handle rather than plastic like you find more and more in the stores these days; in fact, the quality product from the pickup might even be made from a local company.

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Aron and his elote, Monterrey, February 2008

There are trucks and horse-drawn wagons that sell soil and small plants.  For urban areas like where we were living, there is hardly a darn grassy spot to plant a tree.  Instead, the majority of residents have 3- to 5-gallon buckets that they use as containers for growing plants.   So the guy who comes along yelling about “tierrrrrrrr-rrrra!” is very handy because you can buy a small amount of soil or even some more plants from him without having to make a half-hour trip to Home Depot or an even longer trip to a regular, local greenhouse.

There are folks in vehicles selling cups of ice cream or paletas, candy and edible seeds, and occasionally, some selling hot tamales by
the dozen.  Young men go door-to-door with buckets and sponges, offering carwashes to residents with autos.  Trucks pass through multiple times a day delivering replacement jugs of filtered water.  There are bike-pedal or motorized carts used for selling treats like elotes enteros y en vaso — corn on the cob or off the cob, in a small cup — generally served with mayonnaise and spicy chili sauce slathered on top. — and when Aron translates this post, his mouth will be watering because (non-sweet!) elotes are what he misses perhaps the most about Mexico!

This part of the culture is so intriguing.  However, with the increasing popularity and availability (invasion?) of family vehicles and big box stores — from Mexican-born Soriana, to Walmart and its various sub-companies — I get the feeling that the street salesperson will soon become obsolete.  I have already seen a shift in types of services readily available on the street and in large stores, even within the past three or four years.  This is also in part because of territorial wars (bad guys, extortion, etc. — to keep it simple) that deter honest people from continuing business in many areas.  It is sad to see, because where there once were hardworking people without education still striving to excel at running their own businesses — however large or small — there are now people without education, struggling to find regular work in factories or department stores that demand a certain level of experience, knowledge, and reading/writing ability of their employees.  And so the societal struggle continues.

How will the coming years pan out for the merchants of Mexico?  What does the commercial shift mean for human interaction and economic success, both for our southern neighbor and for us?