by Tom Valone, owner of Great Outdoor Provision Co.
I last saw Paul on his last sales swing thru our territory this past summer. He was bent over, limped, coughed and held onto door jambs as he worked the floor in a clinic. My younger son Sam was on the floor paying me back for a class he dropped at Alabama, and when he got home, he asked “Who is that guy Paul? He delivered a clinic on the Petzl stuff he sells, and then did one on Chaco, which he does not sell. And I learned more in 30 minutes about Chacos than I have all summer selling Chacos.” Of course, I could not cover Paul in some sort of sound bite, or a few paragraphs, so I suggested he grab a beer and I told him about Paul.
Paul and Denny Mays blasted into Chapel Hill late in the day back in ‘76, about two hours past our 3:00 p.m. appointment, which was fine because no other rep ever bothered to make appointments. And they repped for Chouinard Equipment and something called Patagonia, which I always thought of as a place to die on a big MF mountain.
“Where ya’ll been?” I asked.
“Drivin’, man,” said Denny.
“From where?” I asked.
“Oh, about 8 RBs west o’ here, I guess.” said Denny.
Well, eight road beers divided by two is about two hours, but Paul then spoke and noted that he had had only two RBs and that Denny had had six. That would make their last stop Charlotte. Denny had been working hard driving, so he headed two doors down to Clarence’s Bar for beers all around. He had to pass the massage parlor twice for the beer run, and I still cannot believe he did not stop. Great real estate is an asset I always say…
Paul looked around our store, all 800 square feet of it, and I checked him out. Biggest beard I ever saw, arms to make Popeye jealous, and eyes set a click too close together. Couldn’t see his mouth but his eyes said “serious, perhaps dangerous,” while his voice said “friendly.” Huh. When Denny came back from Clarence’s, he had a surplus duffel with him from which he poured Stoppers, Hexes, a few ‘biners, a Crag hammer and a Piolet onto some Clarks cord shorts, some rugby shirts ( I suggested he sell all of them in Charlottesville – Virginia colors after all), a pair of Standups, and a rust colored Guide sweater. While Denny drawled on about the features of the hardware, Paul quietly stood the Standups up on their hems, and repeatedly pushed his fist into the sweater to demonstrate how tightly woven it was; he really did look like he was setting me up to get whacked. Glances by those close-set eyes toward the Piolet let me know he had the tool to do it.
Too many Clarence’s beers and hot dogs sent us to my cinder block shotgun house where we strapped on Super Guides fixed with rigid crampons and climbed the ash tree out back. The fire department had to come get Paul out as “down climb” was not in his vocabulary. Although he was roped in and “protected” by slings looped around sturdy limbs, he maintained that we had become too drunk to provide a safe belay, which was probably true. The fire department got a kick out of the whole deal, and Paul gave each fireman a Chouinard ‘biner for their trouble – “nice key ring” Paul noted, already honing new markets.
Next day they left with more than enough order volume from me to pay for the gas back to Atlanta, most of it in Guide sweaters and Standups. And, I bought the Piolet that still hangs on my wall.
“Paul,” I told Sam, “forges a relationship with his customers and builds a personal bridge over which commerce can travel. Sometimes there is no commerce, but the relationship is there all the same for that time when real business is possible.”
“So did you and Paul start doing good business right away?” asked Sam.
“Nope, we both starved, but the relationship made the unsophisticated first efforts by Patagonia feel OK, and we then went to bat to sell what we bought. And Paul’s stories about how Standups were finished smooth in the crotch so one could wear them without underwear, or how YC’s Guide sweater had gotten him inextricably caught in an ocotillo bush while returning from the loo somewhere in the desert, or how the dye running out of the Patagonia Canvas shirt would eventually stop turning one’s neck yellow or green and then look like an old pair of jeans were usually the lubricant that made the sale.”
Vincent Stanley said he never heard Paul lie, but Paul’s favorite story was Pinocchio, and just about everything was fair game in a harmless sort of way.
And of course, Paul was always looking for ways to make his customers money. He passed on others’ successes and failures, he kept a look out for stuff that would make us a few easy bucks, and yes, he sold others’ lines like he did to Sam last summer, just to make the man and the shop better. I think Sam understood.
When I told him that Paul had passed, he was real quiet at the other end of the line. “You miss him already, don’t ya Pop?” he said.
And then he added, “I do too.” And Sam had only known Paul for 30 minutes!
Paul understood that we all were like kids who just had to drive our own bus, and while doing so, if we wanted to stick our feet out of the window, or sit on the seat back with our head out the sun roof while steering with our bare feet, then so be it. Paul now has that diesel Ford revved up, ya’ll know, the blue one with the mahogany interior trim, the 3.54 rear end, and 870 behind the seat, burning the minutes on the cell, spinning stories, leading others to discover what they need, and enjoying every minute. On the road again, out of our sight, but coming into view of others as surely as he is faded from ours. Godspeed.
To read more about Marsh, a true industry legend, spend some time on the Patagonia blog post “Paul Marsh 1945-2011, Pioneer Patagonia Sales Rep”.