Everybody Wins at Lucky Bottle

[Lest anyone doubt my entrepreneurial instincts … SB SM.]

September, 1981

“Embossed beer bottles for sale. Old soda bottles, too,” reads the classified ad.

I collect old beer bottles so thought I’d take a look, even though it is a Burlington address. I ask my friend Charlie if he’d like to go for a ride. “Sure,” he says.

The first ominous sign is on the drive up when Charlie says “Uh-oh, the address we’re going to is the address for my ex-wife.” A black cloud settles over him, but we soldier on.

We reach the address, knock on the door. A woman answers. It is Charlie’s ex-wife. He takes her hands in his. “Margie,” he says, “I’m so glad to see you.” I should mention that Charlie works at Vermont Castings as a technical expert.

“And I’m glad to see you, too, Charlie” she says with enthusiasm, “because we’re having a problem with our furnace.” Within a minute she has him down in the basement with a flashlight.

I go with him, because that’s where the beer bottles are. The basement walls are lined with stacked wooden crates filled with empty bottles, mostly old soda bottles with embossed letters, dating from the turn of the century. There are thousands of them.

“These were here when I moved in,” explains Margie. “I just want them out.”

“Where are the beer bottles?” I ask.

“Mixed in,” she said. “Here’s the deal. Take one, you take ‘em all. Two hundred bucks. All or nothing.”

She leaves with me with Charlie to think it over. We do a quick count. There are over 10,000 bottles. That works out to $0.02 apiece. Heck, there are over 400 wooden crates that have to be worth over a couple of bucks each. Sure, we’ll have to hire a truck to get them and figure out a way to store them, but you don’t have to be a math genius to figure out that we are soon going to be wealthy young men, at least in terms of bottles.

I say “we” because before we emerge from the basement, Charlie has officially become my partner in bottledom. Later that day, we take on a strategic partner in Mike, who has a barn in which we can store the bottles. The next day we come back with a U-Haul truck, and ten twenty dollar bills later we are officially bottle tycoons. When the cases are neatly stacked in Mike’s barn, we take a moment to savor our success. Opportunity has knocked, and we have devoured it like three large-mouth bass in a school of minnows. Isn’t this the story of all great entrepreneurs?

All that remains is to figure out what to do with 10,000 antique soda bottles.

Charlie, Mike, and I get rid of a lot of bottles over the next few months … not our antique soda bottles, but bottles of Budweiser and Molson that we bring to the redemption center following our brainstorming sessions. We’ve come up with ideas like selling them to florists as flower vases for $0.50 each. We test the idea with our local florist. “Sure!” she says enthusiastically, “I’ll take 5.” 9,995 to go. Clearly, we need to think bigger.

Charlie, Mike, and I are all employed by the same company, Vermont Castings, so the bottles become the topic of much coffee pot amusement. One of the founders of the company, Murray Howell, a gruff bear of a man, has a succinct piece of advice for us. “Take ‘em to the dump,” he says bluntly. Clearly, this is a man of little entrepreneurial vision.

Then, disaster. Mike decides to move, which means the bottles have to move, too.

Desperation being the mother of invention I come up with The Plan: we’ll get a booth at the Tunbridge Fair, where everyone in central Vermont goes on the third weekend in September. “But,” says Charlie, “People go to the fair cheap thrills and junk food, not antique soda bottles” I counter, “But what else do people go to the fair for?” I let just enough silence go by before answering my own question. “Games of change and speculation!”

For the mere $1 you can play “Lucky Bottle.” Just draw a bottlecap from a big glass jar. If the number inside the cap has a “7” you’re a winner of a genuine, antique soda bottle worth at least $10. If your drawn bottlecap has two sevens, then it’s your lucky day and you win two, count ‘em two, of the antique delights.

We spend the day before the fair writing numbers in the insides of bottle caps that will be in the glass jar. Every number contains at least one 7! Everyone “wins” at Lucky Bottle! Even Charlie and Mike admit my genius.

We create an attractive display using our wooden cases. The bottles are pretty little things. Traffic at the Fair is light on Thursday and Friday, as expected. We have a few takers on Lucky Bottle, and the winners seem genuinely delighted to walk away with a prize.

The crowd thickens on Friday evening, business starts picking up. My carnie schtick is getting smoother, “Hurryhurryhurray … win an antique soda bottle” when I see Murray Howell approaching on the midway. I expect a “Har! Har! Har!” of disdain as he sees his customer service manager, technical expert, and accountant debasing themselves in public, but once he figures out the gambit, he begins enthusiastically corralling customers. Soon he is behind the booth with us, and he even comes back for a shift the next day. He may be a president of a successful company, but at the Tunbridge Fair he can release his inner-carnie.

There is a lot of activity, and a lot of shrieks from winners. Some people figure out the gambit, but no one complains. When the fairgrounds empty on Sunday, however, we have barely cleared the cost of the booth, and we still have 9,800 bottles left.

Eventually we find an even bigger sucker who, with dollar signs in his eyes, takes the bottles off our hands. “It’s all or nothing,” I remember telling him “Take one, you take ‘em all. Everybody wins at Lucky Bottle.”

There really is one born every minute.

There really is one born every minute.

Comments are closed.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: