Salesman Alonzo Powell touts his street-side product with the manners of a southern gentleman.
"How you doing, ma'am?" he begins, struggling to grab the attention of a passerby. "Educational CDs!" he calls out. "They're for the children!"
At 17th and L streets NW, Alonzo Powell of De-U Records sells educational CDs with a hip-hop flavor. Because De-U lacks a vendor's license, its salesmen have received a few warnings. De-U says 80 percent of its revenue comes from street sales.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
Powell, 30, hawks hip-hop-themed educational CDs on downtown street corners and in suburban strip mall parking lots through De-U Records, which relies on a team of young men to push its line.
It's a sort of renegade operation. The company sells its product on streets in Washington without a vendor's license.
David Printis, chief executive of De-U, stood outside the company's black van parked in an illegal spot on 17th Street NW, across the street from where Powell sells CDs.
Printis, his arms crossed, supervises his team of seven young salesmen while his voice emerges from the thumping beats of a CD played over the van's sound system.
"Three plus ten equals thirteen," says Printis, his voice sounding childlike. "Three plus eleven equals fourteen. You did a great job! Now this time, I want you to give me the answers!"
Back in 1999, after Printis was laid off from an information technology job, he started making the CDs, figuring they would be popular with children who love hip-hop and parents interested in improving their children's math skills.
Selling CDs that help kids learn their ABCs and their multiplication tables may seem trouble-free, but working out of a truck without a vendor's license in the District can yield a $500 fine for each offense, said Tonee Mills, the assistant special events coordinator at the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Since 1998, there has been a moratorium on new vendor licenses while city officials develop a regulatory plan.
"Believe me, I understand" the frustration with the license moratorium, Mills said. "I get 30 to 40 calls a day wondering when the moratorium will be lifted."
Mills offered some advice for those involved in illegal street sales: "Get yourself a tax ID number and go to a flea market and establish a clientele, and then when the moratorium's lifted, you'll have a following."
But Printis said he finds more potential buyers for his CDs on city street corners than in flea markets. So he's constantly on the lookout for police officers and ticket writers.
Although his CDs can be found in Washington area Borders Books and Music stores and Karibu Books, Printis said that 80 percent of his revenue comes from street sales.
He says he keeps his business afloat by keeping the parking attendants at bay.
"I'm always giving them my speech -- 'I got a group of young African Americans out here working, keeping them out of trouble,' " Printis tells the attendants. "I make them feel guilty. They usually leave us alone after that."
But not always. Printis said he has received countless parking tickets since he first took his business to the streets in 1999. In the past few months, four salesmen have received warning tickets, he said.
On a recent afternoon, a parking meter reader spotted the company van in a no-parking zone on 17th Street NW. "You're not supposed to be there, sir," she said sternly.
Printis fibbed to buy time, saying that the occupant of a car parked in front of his truck ran into a store for just a moment and that he will move his van forward into a legal space momentarily. The parking attendant relents but warns that she'll be back.
"Tickets are part of an occupational hazard," Printis said, laughing. "It's like rent."
Powell, who helps produce the beats for the CDs and is Printis's nephew, is one of the company's top sellers.
"A lot of these people already got their mind-set where they're going," Powell said knowingly as he surveyed the crowd of office types walking briskly. "I try to break that mind-set."
Rhonda Saunders, 40, of Laurel stopped to take a flier Powell offered.
"This one you hear playing in the van," Powell began immediately, gesturing across the street. "This one's addition and subtraction."
"They're a great back-to-school gift," he continued. "If you want to try one, I'll sell it to you for $12."
Sold. His first sale of the day.
"You get used to it downtown," Saunders said of the vendors. "I mean, if they're doing something positive, I prefer that instead of people begging for money."
Shortly after, Keri Culver, 35, of Foggy Bottom bought a CD for her niece in Anchorage. "My niece is working on her multiplication tables," Culver said. "She's kind of grumpy about school. I thought this would be good for her."
Since late February, another member of the sales team, Torrence Hall Jr. of Fort Washington, has been selling the CDs for $15.99 a pop. On good days, he makes $80 in commissions. One day last week he made just $5.
Hall, 23, said he plans to stay in the business for the long haul but is keeping his options open.
He has read such books as "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill and has dreams of acquiring real estate.
"Being a hustler, well, a legal hustler, you've got to have more than one hustle," he said.