How to sell furniture to celebrities

I worked at a luxury store in LA where people like Jennifer Lopez and Sharon Stone shopped. Here's what I learned

Published December 13, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

    (<a href=''>minerva86</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(minerva86 via Shutterstock)

I spent the first eight months of 2004 in Los Angeles selling expensive furniture to rich people. In the center of the store sat a colossal white sofa, extremely uncomfortable, which could be purchased for $8,000. No one bought it. A full set of silverware would set you back something like $15,000. No takers. A mink throw – $7,500 – also did not sell. Another mink throw, available for $5,000, actually did sell. In fact, I sold it. My single biggest commission. A frosty rich lady once bought an entire set of handcrafted Italian dishes: my second biggest commission. On the whole, though, I wasn’t a very good salesman. I sold lots of tablecloths. Glasses, too. I sold a lot of glasses.

One thing I learned: Rich people like a little pushback. They enter a store acutely aware of their wealth and what it means in this context, and this knowledge, by definition, is tied up with their sense of self-worth, for better or worse. They want you to be serious and professional with them, but they also want you to be able to slap their hand when they go astray. Mostly, they want you to care, even if they’re talking about decorative pillows. They want you, in short, to be like Jeeves, or Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. They’re the boss, sure, but if you’re not in control, they’ll eat you alive.

“Will this candlestick work with that table?” they’d ask, and I’d sigh wearily. Feigning nonchalance despite my terrifying ignorance, I would not look at them when I talked. With regard to the candlesticks, I’d talk to the table itself — explain that it depended on the context, depended on the room. I’d ask questions about the windows, the paint, the ceiling, and then, eventually, I’d pretend to grasp the situation. At that point I’d declare that, yes, the candlestick would work on that table. They’d buy the candlestick, not the table. Of course, if I were a great salesman, I wouldn’t have asked questions, would have just demonstrated how such a table only worked with four of those candlesticks, especially when accompanied by certain handmade placemats and napkins, etc. They’d see a fictitious version of their life, conducted at that particular table, and they’d attempt to acquire it by buying it all. And, as with a great dentist, it’d all happen without them realizing that someone was working on them.

Bridget Fonda, who had married film composer Danny Elfman and had stopped appearing in movies, shopped there compulsively. I have vivid memories of loading cumbersome decorative pots into the trunk of Elfman’s Maserati. Zach de La Rocha, the former frontman of Rage Against the Machine, apparently had a lot of time on his hands, too, because he drove his cool Mercedes over all the time and drank coffee at the cafe attached to the store by himself. He looked desperately bored and was always alone. Nicole Richie was not alone when she came to the cafe, nor was Kevin Costner. Victoria Beckham wore her sunglasses indoors, throughout lunch. David Schwimmer came a few times, alone, and was precisely as bitter and patronizing as you’d expect him to be. Gary Oldman was completely banal, just a middle-aged man shopping for furniture with his impossibly gorgeous 20-something lady friend.

Sharon Stone was bitchy and magnificent, a bombshell even without her makeup. I liked her sass. Unfortunately, when she came in I was wearing my apron. We were supposed to wear these short black aprons, but sometimes they were more humiliating than other times. She was there to buy a Missoni bathrobe for someone and she kept trying to tell me that this guy was a titanic, an ogre. He was like the yeti, but bigger. We had a XXXL robe, but she still wasn’t convinced it was big enough. I’m 6-foot-2, built like Zach Galifianakis, but when I put the robe on for her and stood on my tippy toes, she just winced, told me he was at least twice my size.

Eventually, she gave in and bought the robe, plus several $250 coral-encrusted pillows.

The brittle-thin and very short character actress Linda Hunt — you’d recognize her if you saw her, she’s everywhere on TV, often with a prominent spot on unmemorable shows like "NCIS Los Angeles" — entered with her wife, who resembles Joan Didion. Hunt might have been the most appealing person I met that whole year in Los Angeles. She was grandmotherly, hilarious and familiar, even a little flirtatious as she chided me for trying to upsell her into buying a pair of $450 wicker chairs. Still, she wavered — she loved the chairs, really loved them, but she kept doubting herself, saying they were too big for someone her size. Then she’d acknowledge, with help from her wife, that the chairs would probably be used mainly by other normal-size people. In the end, I think she said something to the effect of, “I’m sorry, I know it’d be a good commission for you, but I just can’t do it,” and left empty-handed. She never learned my name, but she talked to me like I was a human being, like we were both human beings. When she left, I wanted to chase her out and buy her a beer.

Most people, learning that I was a writer, assumed I wrote screenplays and would give me their cards, begin talking about their film projects. I’d have to explain that I wrote for the page, for reading. At which point they would halt, midstream, and gaze at me with delight, like I was some charming curio in an antique shop, a lovely anachronism. Then they would walk away.

Jennifer Lopez didn’t ask me what I did outside of the furniture store, fortunately. She was pleasant enough, but her then-fiancée, Marc Anthony, stood to the side, glowering, and I was immediately possessed by a visceral hatred for him. She wore a white hat pulled down low on her head to prevent people from recognizing her, but when she leaned across the counter and locked eyes with me and I realized who she was and then briefly and involuntarily gawked at her, mouth ajar, she smiled sweetly, no doubt accustomed to stunned shopkeepers. You hope you’d remember that these people are just people, after all, people who have to floss and deal with bad traffic, who wear uncomfortable shoes and regret it, but then they’re in front of you all of a sudden asking you questions and it slips your mind. Like so much in Los Angeles, it’s humiliating. Lopez walked around the store and I followed, hypnotized by the pendulum swings of her hips. What I thought to myself was: “I am looking at Jennifer Lopez’s ass.” That was the depth of my insight.

She told me that she wanted many, many dainty English teacups. But our dainty English teacups weren’t quite dainty enough. Instead she bought 50 napkin rings. Or, she picked them out and Marc Anthony paid for them. He had a black American Express card, which signifies an ominous degree of wealth, and, looking at it, I noticed that his name was not “Marc Anthony” at all. He had a string of names and none of them were “Marc” or “Anthony.”

A week later, the two of them were married in a small ceremony with about 50 guests. Then the napkin rings made sense.

A week before her divorce from John Stamos became public information Rebecca Romijn-Stamos entered five minutes before closing with a tall gay man who wore comically long and pointy shoes. I didn’t recognize her. It’d been a long day, a long six months in Los Angeles, and I was deeply tired. The two of them were fondling the $5,000 mink throw, as so many people did, so I flatly asked if they wanted me to put it on hold for them. That was usually how I scared people away from the blanket. But she said yes, she wanted it to be put on hold. This struck me as nonsense, because no one wanted a $5,000 mink throw. So I handed her a yellow HOLD card and a pen and said that if she put her name and number on the card, I’d attach it to the blanket and I’d call if someone else made a move for it in the next couple days.

Then I went back to counting my till.

She started writing and then stopped, looked up at me, and said, “Wait, you’re going to leave this card out here? I’m not going to write my number on it.”

I put the money down, looked back at her. It took a couple more seconds before I realized who she was. I told her I’d hold the blanket for one day without the hold card. Then I gave her a business card with my name on it and said if she still wanted the blanket tomorrow, she could call me. As a teenager, I had scrutinized her airbrushed body in Victoria’s Secret catalogs, but when she’d stood right in front of me, I had no idea who she was.

The next day, I answered the phone and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos asked for me. By name. “I’ve decided to take it,” she said.

“OK,” I said and imagined her lying on the throw. Then I thought about all the many hands I had seen fondling the blanket before.

She picked it up the following day, without the aid of her clown-shoed decorator. I had wrapped it up and placed it in a huge bag, which I passed to her once I’d run her credit card and taken a duplicate. A couple of days later, her publicist announced that she and John Stamos were getting a divorce. Then the mink throw made sense.

Personally, I wanted everything in the store. I wanted the objects and I wanted the people. I wanted to eat them all up, gnaw on their bones. At first, I didn’t care about it all, thought it a lot of silliness, but soon enough I was fantasizing, actively, daily, about owning those gorgeous Italian wine glasses, they were $50 each, and about the house where I’d put my immense and uncomfortable sofa. I imagined the parties on my private beach, shaded by the French marquee that no one else in L.A. owned. Or, no one except Bridget Fonda.

While driving home to the apartment I shared with two roommates in Silverlake, I’d pick out the famous guests that would come to my beachfront house, pictured myself drinking a martini in the setting sun as the sea breeze rippled through my white suit. These things had never seemed relevant before. Now, I felt mortified by my sensible late '90s Volvo, my cheap cellphone. Somewhere nearby, someone was sharing a platter of immaculate sushi with Sarah Michelle Gellar, who’s a year younger than me and prettier in person, while I was consuming starchy blocks of Trader Joe’s faux-sushi. What I needed, evidently, was a Maserati, a beachfront house in Malibu. What I needed was a better pair of sunglasses, and a life appropriate to those glasses. Until then, I was not alive, I was auditioning for life.

Updike wrote, “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” but after living in L.A. for a while, the proper reply became obvious: With a mask like that, who needs a face?

In late August, I quit my job and packed my worldly possessions into my sedan and drove north for dreary and obsessively modest Seattle, where I still live. The AC was broken and it was at least 115 degrees in the plains of central California. The wind didn’t cool me down, just turned my car into a convection oven, but I dared not close the windows. Stereo all the way up, I locked in the cruise control at 25 miles an hour above the speed limit. And while I did, officially, ride off into the sunset in the end, there was — I’m glad to report — no epiphany, no heart-pounding climax. Like some great shimmering mirage, the entire fantasy merely evaporated from view. I wasn't even out of California before it was gone.

By Peter Mountford

Peter Mountford's debut novel "A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism" was published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.

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