Where have all the radicals of the late '60s and '70s gone? Well, those who aren't working for IBM and for Chase Manhattan Bank are in retailing. You can walk down the main street of any large city now and see hundreds of outdoor stands set up where this generation of merchant princes is selling leather belts, carnations, jewelery, towels, art work and pressure cookers. They have not only joined the capitalistic system but have learned to beat it.
I was walking past Saks Fifth Avenue the other day and stopped i front of a stand with a sign tacked on the card table: "Max's Fifth Avenue -- established Since June 1978."
Max was selling T-shirts for $4 apiece. He was doing a good business and I had to wait a long time before I could have a word with him.
Finally, his girlfriend took over for him and we could chat.
"What does the fall look like?" I asked him.
"I'm optimistic in spite of the recession," Max said. "Our inventories are down and I believe the consumer is in a buying mood. Volume-wise we're ahead of spring, but profit-wise we're being squeezed by the high cost of card tables and pushcarts."
"Well, you certainly have a good location."
"Yes, we did a survey of the various sidewalks in Manhattan and decided that Fifth Avenue and 50th Street had a class clientele.
"We were first attracted by Saks Fifth Avenue's alluring window displays. They also have an excellent advertising department. We looked over Bloomingdale's but discovered that Alexander's, which is located next door, was underselling us.
"For a while we were set up on 34th Street, but we decided to upgrade our merchandise and appeal to the more affluent shopper. My girlfriend wanted us to put up our stand in front of Bergdorf Goodman, but I like to be in the shadow of St. Patrick's Cathedral."
"How does Saks Fifth Avenue feel about you selling T-shirts right outside their front door?"
"They haven't welcomed us with the enthusiasm you'd expect. Every hour Mr. Saks comes out and screams at me that he pays taxes and rent and provides air-conditioning and heat and we're competing unfairly with him. I try to explain that we're good for his business. Our T-shirt stand attracts many upwardly mobile customers, and if they don't find what they want with us they'll go into his store. I don't know how many people we've sent into Saks, but it's certainly more than they've sent out to us."
"Nobody likes competition," I said.
"I don't understand him," Max said. "For years people complained because we were trying to overthrow the system. They said we were a bunch of bums that didn't know what it was to earn a living. So now we're part of the system and it's driving them up the wall. I've even offered to give Saks a discount on my T-shirts, but this only sets him madder. He wants me to move to Lord & Taylor's, but I told him I felt the location was too far down Fifth Avenue and they didn't have adequate parking facilities for my type of customer. I offered to merge with Saks on the condition they opened their books to me, but I was turned down. Frankly, I wasn't disappointed because I'd like to leave this piece of sidewalk to my son."
"Did you ever dream when you were trashing the Dow Chemical Co. in 1970 that some day you'd have a business of your own?"
"No, but that's what the American dream is all about. Any person who is willing to work can start out on a slab of concrete in front of Woolworth's, and by perseverance and good luck wind up with his own card table in front of one of this country's finest department stores."