Peggy Keener: When Spelling Matters. Watters?

Published 6:03 pm Friday, February 18, 2022

Tokyo, 1962. Glen, our two baby boys and I have recently arrived in Japan. We’ve been living in a downtown hotel, but have just moved to a rental apartment in the Tokyo suburb of Kichijoji. (No matter how hard I try, whenever I hear it said, I feel like I’m being tickled.)

As I familiarize myself with our first Japanese house, I realize there is no refrigerator. Small matter as this is the norm, but still one which I must remedy very soon. Thus, in search of food, a befuddled I, take my first steps alone into our baffling Japanese neighborhood … our new home.

I soon found myself in a tight cluster of kimono clad shoppers, none of whom looked anything like me, the true oddity in the crowd. Not only was I without a single black hair, I also knew with certainty that my eyes were the only ones that were green.

Both sides of the street were teeming with small, one-story shops constructed of weathered, wrinkled boards of which none had ever, in its long life, seen a drop of paint or varnish. It was a scene that would have caused Benjamin Moore to swoon with dismay. What’s more, the gray desiccated structures seemed to be leaning precariously against each other like rows of uneven, unbrushed teeth, blatantly defying all rules of dental correctness.

There was not a sidewalk in sight. In its absence, bicycles, carts, shoppers and vehicles all massed together in the narrow street, no wider than a single lane. All the shops were open to the road. That is to say that the front walls were missing. And because of the tight spaces, merchandise from inside the shops was spilling out onto the road. To me, it was a shopper’s heaven … as well as a foreigner’s bewilderment.

To add to the enigmatic scene, swirling all about me was a chatter of words that to my ears held no meaning. The shoppers’ jabbering sounded like a discordant theme song rhythmically interrupted by the clackety-clack of abacuses. It was Asia’s way of telling me—like the clear ring of a Minnesota cash register—that business was good.

I was about to reach for a huge daikon … what was this mysterious vegetable? … when from the corner of my eye I spotted something strange.

There across the street was, wonder of wonders, a shop with its name spelled out in English. Large English letters.

“MATCHES,” it said.

But, wait! Even a Japan newbie like myself knew that in Japan matches were free. At every turn of the head, merchants gave out small complimentary boxes of them. How in the world could this shop make a living selling things that nobody paid for?

I had to see for myself. Threading my way through the throngs of people, I entered the dinky shop. Looking around I was prepared to see rows of tiny match box displays. Instead all I saw was … what was that?

Watches?

Whoops! Lamentably, the sign maker was unschooled in basic English and had unfortunately, in a linguistic twist of fate, painted the “w” upside down. But, not to worry. At risk was only the merchant’s blood, sweat and tears; only his family’s subsistence for life.

Sheesh! I had just met Japan headfirst.

Now, decades later, this event got me thinking about … no, not matches … but watches. How had they become so popular that virtually everyone in the world wanted one? And furthermore, I questioned, from where were they buying them?

Well, in 1880, if you were an American shopping for a watch, you would have found the best priced, finest quality watch at your local train station!

Let me explain. In towns across America, it wasn’t the railroad company that sold watches, it was the telegraph operators. You see, most telegraph operators worked in the train stations because the telegraph lines were paired with the railroad tracks.

Moreover, most of the station agents were also skilled telegraph operators as it was the primary way in which they communicated with the railroad. It was imperative that they wear watches—precisely accurate watches—because the operators had to know exactly when each train left the previous station and when it was due at the next station.

Surprisingly, in a period of roughly nine years, the telegraph operators sold more watches than did all the combined watch stores in America. Here’s how it happened.

Richard, a telegraph operator at the North Redwood, Minnesota train station, was on duty when, from a company out East, a huge crate of pocket watches arrived. Time went by and no one came forward to claim them. What was Richard to do? As he was an honest fellow, he sent a telegram to the manufacturer asking what they wanted him to do with the watches. The response was to do nothing. Above all, do not send them back. Freight charges would be too high.

“Could Richard possibly sell them?” they asked.

There was a brief moment of contemplation in which Richard thought. Hmmm. Well, yes. Why not? He could do that.

Proceeding at lightning speed, Richard sent a wire to every agent in America’s large railway system asking if they were interested in purchasing an inexpensive, but high quality pocket watch. They were. Within the short expanse of only two days, he sold the entire lot. And at a nice profit.

Then the enterprising Richard ordered more. And then more. Always a step ahead of the game, he suggested to the telegraph operators that they set up display cases in their stations while touting what fine, high quality watches they were and how reasonable the price was. And just as he hoped, the exhibits caught the eyes of the travelers.

It worked!

Before long word spread of the product’s excellence. People started showing up at train stations, not to travel, but to shop for watches. In no time, Richard became so busy that he had to hire a professional watchmaker to assist him. The man’s name was Alvah.

Together their business took off like wildfire and soon it was expanded to include many other lines of dry goods. By 1893, Richard and Alvah had to leave the North Redwood Station and move to a large building in far off Chicago where they set up their new operation.

There was no doubt about it. Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck were on their way.