Grandma And The Art of Kamikaze Haggling

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 2/11/99

Grandma turned over the smallish dish and looked at its underside. Then she checked the other matching dishes, set them back on the table and turned to look at me.

"Die vilst iss?", she said, arching an eyebrow, while managing to maintain a completely expressionless face.

"Yes, I want them", I said. "Let me ask how mu--"

She cut me off in midsentence by turning to the vendor and saying, "How much do you want for this ugly set of dishes?"

And so began one of the most bizarre and fascinating exchanges I'd ever witnessed in all of my young life. We were on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, standing in the huge and grubby Essex Street Market, a jumbled warren of makeshift stalls, unheated, cheerless and dank. I was just nineteen years old and about to witness for the first time what I later came to call Kamikaze Haggling. And Grandma, who, at 96 recently departed this earth, was, and forever will be, the undefeated Commander In Chief of this particular brand of warfare.

When Grandma asked the vendor for the price of the dishes, he didn't even glance her way. In fact, from this point on neither one of them ever looked at the other again. Instead, each directed all comments, pitiable or venomous, toward me. The vendor smiled warmly and said, "For you, a special price, because you're such a nice, young, pretty girl. And because I have so much respect for your Grandma. For you, only five dollars."

Grandma practically exploded. In Yiddish, she would be said to have plotzed. Stopping just short of plotzing, she turned to me and said, "This man is such a goniff (a thief)! He doesn't care that I stand on my feet and work all day in the candy store to earn a few dollars! He doesn't care if he takes the food out of the mouths of our family! He thinks I'm so stupid I would pay five dollars for worthless junk like this! Three dollars! That's all this is worth - three dollars! No more!"

The vendor fixed me with a forlorn look, hung his head, wrung his hands and said, "Look how cruel your Grandma is, how she wants to make from me a poor man. How she thinks I haven't the right to earn a few pennies for all my hard work here in this old place! An honest hardworking man, and so poor, look how mean she is! Four dollars, Mrs. Miller."

"Four dollars?", Grandma shouted at the top of her lungs. "Four dollars? Do you see what this terrible man is trying to do? If he is poor he's trying to make sure we become just as poor as he is! And believe me, he's not poor! He's rich! From stealing from poor people like us! Three dollars and no more! It's not even worth three dollars, but I feel sorry for him, and it's for you, otherwise I would never pay so much!"

At this point I would have been relieved to have sunk through the floor by means of some sort of trap door (I've no doubt that the creepy Essex Street market had several of them, it was such a medieval place), and to have slid down a chute to be deposited somewhere out on the bustling street, preferably in the path of a speeding truck full of nuclear warheads. But no. Grandma had me firmly by one arm, and the peddler grasped me tightly by the other. I hoped they weren't going to march off in opposite directions, drawing and quartering me in the process. Well, halving me, anyway. The peddler said, "I'm just a poor man, a humble man without an education. I'm no match for a sharp woman like your Grandma. But I have to live! I know I have to get four dollars for these dishes!"

"Please, Grandma, let's go", I said, just wanting to get out of there. Grandma handed me the dishes. She finally looked over at the vendor. "I didn't bring any money with me", she growled at him. "I'll send my granddaughter back with the money for this garbage."

"Thank you, thank you, Mrs. Miller. It's always a pleasure to see you , and to do business with you.. And you, young lady, enjoy those beautiful dishes!"

Grandma and I walked across Delancey Street to the luncheonette my family had owned for more than twenty years. When we got there, she went directly to the cash register behind the front counter, took out some crumpled bills and handed them to me. When I looked down into my hand, there were three one-dollar bills.

"Grandma", I couldn't help whining. "The man said four dollars, and you agreed.

She gave me a sympathetic smile, one reserved for someone she loved but who was unfortunate enough to have a feeble mind, shook her head and said, "He'll take three dollars. Just give it to him. Gai! Go, go!"

Off I went, back across the street, dragging my feet in humiliation and anxiety over what was about to happen, and feeling panicky that I'd have to face the fury of the vendor alone. When I arrived back at his little stall, I handed him the three dollars apologetically. He took them, smiled warmly at me, and said,

"Thank you very much. And please thank your Grandma too!"

I'm sure the shock and confusion in my face must have amused the peddler. He gave me another sweet knowing smile, and said,

"Gai gesunte hait," with a little nudge. "Go in good health".

I'm sure that somewhere in the world, business is still done in this way. But Grandma would last about two seconds at a modern antiques show or flea market. The successful conclusion of a deal at one of those has a lot to do with attitude. What may have been acceptable to Grandma and the peddlar, in the setting of that market, would never cut it at Bob's Big Saturday Drive-In Movie, Flea and Farmer's Market. It would do even worse at The Super Snooty Annual Big City Antiques Show. So, here are some bargaining guidelines to get you the best price and the most pleasurable buying experience possible.

Don't Insult The Stuff!
Telling a dealer that her item is a hunk of junk not only won't endear you to her, it won't get you a discount either. After all, if it's such garbage, why do you even want it? If it has flaws, it's probable that the dealer already knows about them, and doesn't need you to point them out, thank you very much.

Don't Insult The Dealer Either!
When was the last time someone called you a thief or a cheapskate and it made you want to be nice to him? Never, right? So don't expect a seller to budge one millimeter if you use this tactic. Some dealers might even raise the price of the item just for you!

Don't Ask For The Best Price And Then Make A Lower Offer.
Duh. Why in the world would someone ask for the "best price" and then offer a lower one? You tell me! It's happened to me a bazillion times. If you ask for my best price, I give you my best price. I'm not going any lower than that.

Be Nice.
This is supposed to be part of the fun. Ever heard the expression "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?" Smile at the dealer and ask, "Can you do any better on this?" Most dealers (I said most. There's always one oddball out there) will immediately offer you a discount. If the discount is not big enough for you, thank the dealer, and leave. If you want to make a counter offer, go ahead, but be prepared to be turned down, which will happen a substantial part of the time. Sometimes you won't be, of course, but most of the time the seller has already given you the biggest discount he's going to give.

If The Tag Says "Firm", Believe It.
If, for whatever reason, the tag indicates that no discount is forthcoming, don't browbeat the dealer and embarrass yourself by asking for a discount. Accept it graciously.

The More You Buy, The Bigger The Discount.
If you are negotiating for several items, it is not unreasonable to expect a bigger discount, and most dealers will see that you get one. But please don't attend a large show, take a two dollar postcard out of the box and ask, "Can you do any better on this?". Most dealers at a big city show won't discount anything priced at ten dollars or less. Some have a higher minimum. Even flea market dealers have a floor for discounts, so don't expect that fifty-cent item for a dime.

When You're All Done, Say "Thank you!"
The essence of a good deal is that both parties come away satisfied with it. So, give each other a smile when you're done and part friends. You may do business together again someday, and nothing is better for your future interests than to have the other party think kindly of you. Grandma's tactics worked in their day (indeed, they were expected)--but that was then, and this is now.

Your comments, as always, are welcome. If you have something to say, write to me.
If you like, I'll subscribe you to a free short weekly email newsletter that will help you end the week with a chuckle. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~




Any questions? E-mail us at

1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.