Friday, April 1, 2011

First Lines from Books I Love #2: The Trouble with Gumballs

From about 9 this morning to about 10 minutes before noon, I read all 249 pages of The Trouble with Gumballs by James Nelson, which included the "About the Author" page, which was more interesting than most "About the Author" pages.

I was disappointed at first to find that there's no listing on Goodreads ( for it, and I was thinking that I'm probably too lazy to create one, since I'd rather be reading. But to give proper tribute to this book, I created one.

This was so much fun to read. Even the slightest bit of business matter, in profit, in trying to figure out profit, in wondering if a profit can even be made, is made funny by the nimble mind of author James Nelson, a former editor of Business Week, who moves himself and his family out to Northern California from New York City, and decides to get into the vending business, hauling around gumball machines, machines to dispense nuts, and even an attempted side business of jerky. He gets started with the No-Name Vending Machine Company, and it's hard to resist a book that includes a sketch of a man named Ogden Chugwater. Nelson didn't make this up.

He pays a significant amount of money to No-Name to get started, is hampered by Chugwater's delays in getting the machines to him and laying out the route which could include busy storefronts that might turn a profit, and eventually, Nelson gets started, and it's hard work. He's joined by his wife, who is an equal partner in this venture. She fills the machines with gumballs, she goes with him to see how much money they made from the machines, and in coming up with a name for their fledgling company, the Multivend Company, she names herself "Chairman of the Board." It works for Nelson, as the book is dedicated: "For the Chairman of the Board"

I've been interested in vending machines since Riverside Elementary School in Coral Springs, Florida, fascinated by all the mechanisms, and what can be stored in them for sale. Sometimes I stayed after school in the library to thumb through the encyclopedias and read everything I could on vending machines. I'm not machine-minded, but it's just the concept, in that I can ride the escalator down to the first floor of Macy's at the Valencia Town Center Mall and there's an iPod vending machine. It's become advanced enough that credit cards are taken. And here's Nelson, selling penny gum and filling those globes with gumballs at home.

Now to the purpose of this series, the beginning of chapter 1, the first page:

"Sweetie-pie," I said to Mary-Armour one night not too long ago, "how do you suppose we got here, anyway?"

It was one of thise winter evenings we have in Northern California, cold and rainy and miserable in the fields outside, but warm and toasty beside the blazing fireplace of our rented farmhouse. I was lolling, shoeless, in our easiest easy chair, staring morosely into the flames. Mary-Armour was sitting on the sofa working away at the tan sweater she'd been knitting for me ever since our courtship days.

At my question, she looked up and smiled, which was quite a heart-warming sight.

"How did we get here?" she echoed. "You mean, did the stork bring us?"

"Listen," I said. "I mean, how come did we leave New York and everything?"

James Nelson is (or was, since this book was published in 1956, and he's probably long gone) the best kind of business writer, one who can see into the humanity of a business, and so we get to read about grocer Freddie Wing Duck, and his wife Moonstone, and his Bongo Board. We also read about the severe Primus Gideon, who hates making change for children wanting to get gum from the machines, with such a fiery passion usually reserved for the most intense preachers.

I found this book because of my continued interest in vending machines, searching my local library catalog for more books, hoping that Kerry Segrave's "Vending Machines: An American Social History" had a listing. It still doesn't, but about two months ago, I bought it off of, not minding having to pay close to $30 for it. I've wanted to read it for so long.

I love the cover of that one. It's a soda machine, with "Vending Machines" across the blue stripe of the can, "An American Social History" under it, and Segrave's name squarely on the drop slot.

I found Nelson's book in the library catalog, put it on hold, and checked it out twice, but never got to it. This morning, I decided to finally read it, and it was a wonderful experience that made me feel so good during it and after I finished it.


  1. I love a good vending machine. What I'd really like are those cool Japanese vending machines that can give you freshly made burgers or even fresh seafood (crabs anyone?).

  2. I wish they had those here, but of course the Food and Drug Adminstration and other "health officials" would shun them.

  3. Rory, what a beautiful review -- of my father's book! Thank you!

    He and my mother are both still very much around, he will be 90 this year, and has a new book out in the past few weeks -- see:

    I'm sending a link to this post to my father, who will be delighted to read your review.

    I'm enjoying reading your very entertaining musings and other "scraps."


  4. That's a huge relief, Jeff, and I'm excited to see that he's still writing. I'm putting this one near the top of my to-read list. Chances are I'll end up buying it, like right now.

    There are very few people in the world who could make the business of vending so interesting. I think your father is all of them.

    And thank you for your compliment. It means a lot coming from the son of a great man.

  5. You know, Jeff, I was re-reading my review and I came upon this:

    At my question, she looked up and smiled, which was quite a heart-warming sight.

    "How did we get here?" she echoed. "You mean, did the stork bring us?"

    Reading your mother's reply, Myrna Loy as Nora Charles in "The Thin Man" immediately comes to mind. Your father has excellent taste.

  6. My folks do still like to banter ala Nick and Nora, it's true.

    I'm going to get a copy of "What If They Lived?" Sounds intriguing, imaginative. Is it speculative fiction? Or speculative nonfiction? I have to learn the difference between those genres...

    Glad I found such an interesting blog of a fellow Los Angelino and fan of my dad's.

  7. Speculative fiction would be like Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America", in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR for re-election, and becomes a kind of American Hitler, and then his vice president follows suit. It's also considered "alternate history."

    Speculative nonfiction would be "What If They Lived?" It starts out as biography, then delves into speculation.It's an honor that you're going to buy a copy, and please show it to your dad as well. I can't think of the words to react to such a thought, except that it would be equally an honor.

    I'm actually a native Floridian, born and raised and lived there for 19 years. I've lived 30 minutes north of Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley for 7 years. But considering how isolated this valley is, I'll gladly accept that label. That's about all I can get since the libraries here are about to cut themselves off from the County of Los Angeles come June 18, for transfer of control to the City of Santa Clarita and the corporate outfit, LSSI, which will run these libraries. It's a ridiculous notion and one that severely stanches my research for my next three books about the presidency and the men in it, which is why I'm working harder now to make sure I get through the major books. The research won't even be done after that point, it's going to take a lot longer, but for the books to read, it's a good start.

    That's my rant these days, especially with millions of books cut down so severely to just three libraries.

  8. That is so freaky that you mentioned the Phillip Roth book, because after I posted that, my wife said the same thing, that "The Plot Against America" was an example of speculative fiction. She was trying to school me in the same way you did, using exactly the same book and example! Despite Phillip Roth being an amazing writer, that book was nearly unreadable given the gross graphic details about scab, injuries, etc., makes you not want to read it, not satisfied after reading. He's so immensely talented, but...ew...

    We're in Chatsworth, not far. Sounds like your just a kid at 26. Good luck with your current book projects. Didn't realize Santa Clarita was being privatized. That's horrible. Oh well, I guess the banksters who run the government need more income.

  9. I didn't read "The Plot Against America." I might, but other books have priority, especially my research and some food-related books, influenced by my five-years-younger sister, the budding chef. But that is always the first book that comes to mind, because I'm also fascinated with fictional American presidencies. "The West Wing" is and forever will be my favorite show, or at least seasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7. Season 5 was awful after Aaron Sorkin was fired and chief director Thomas Schlamme left with him ("The Supremes", written by Debora Cahn, who's as close to Aaron Sorkin as a non-Aaron Sorkin can get, put the show upright again, with Glenn Close and William Fichtner as potential Supreme Court justices), and season 6 was still lost, but found some small footing that took hold during the final season with Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits running for president.

    26 may be considered a kid age, but after writing "What If They Lived?", I feel quite older. A lot of work, but I can't imagine anything else. My only goal with whatever book ends up finished first is that it be published by the time I'm 30. Unlike with "What If They Lived?", I have no publisher for these next ones. There's no free ride like there was before, with Phil Hall inviting me to write it with him, and having BearManor Media fully behind him on it. I didn't have to write an query letters, didn't have to be rejected like other writers are. Because of "What If They Lived?", I have the full confidence to go through all of that. I'm ready for it.

    Oh, they're not really banksters. Just vast egotists who think this is a good idea, and yet none of them have library cards. It was revealed while this idea was being bandied about, voted on, and approved, with little input from a public who was very clearly there and had a lot to say, but was never fully heard and considered.

    Check out the latest entry. More about your dad.

  10. Again, best of luck on the books. Having written a couple myself, I know it can be difficult yet rewarding; and the publishing business has changed a fair amount in the past decade, that's for sure.

    Sent dad a link to your latest post, very nice. My father dictated his last book and the new one he's working on using MacSpeech, which is quite a feat, I think. He's become fluent enough to do everything by voice these days, out of necessity.

    We are huge Sorkin fans at my house, too. As for food, we tend toward the veg variety around here, you can check out a website we run on the topic:

  11. To me, it doesn't matter how a book is written, just that it's written. However, I could never write a book longhand and then transcribe, beyond the notes I take while reading these various presidential books. I think that comes from essentially growing up around computers. My dad's a computer and business education teacher, but I taught myself to type, which always leads to looks of shock at how fast I type. Hunt-and-peck that could break the sound barrier.

    It's been such a long time since I've anticipated a book. The latest have been "Joy for Beginners" by Erica Bauermeister" (author of "The School of Rssential Ingredients") and "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair" by Nina Sankovich (about her experience reading a book a day for a year, writing reviews of each book, and why she did all that), but those were relatively short anticipations, since I easily found uncorrected proofs of such for sale on, and I was glad to pay a bit more to have the chance to read them right away.

    More extensive anticipations would be "Look, I Made a Hat" by Stephen Sondheim, volume 2 of his life's work and lyrics (I have volume 1, "Finishing the Hat," in my collection, and so I need this one, since Sondheim is one of my heroes, along with Neil Simon, opera director Peter Sellars, Helene Hanff, and a few others), and "The Garner Files" by James Garner (an autobiography), both of which are being released toward the end of the year. I'm naturally anticipating "On the Volcano", which I'll receive by mail in a few days, but I think anticipation for your father's next book is the most extensive. I can't wait for that one, no matter what it's about.

    I can't give up chicken that easily (and even then, I stick with white meat), but I've gone a long time without pork, bacon and red meat, and I don't miss them. Aside from chicken, everything else is vegetable- or plant-based for me. I had to do that after weighing 260 lbs. put me into such a severe state of anxiety, and then 60 lbs. dropped off in a matter of months. I'm sticking to all this, though. One thing I discovered after the weight came off was how much crap is in processed foods, how there's no health benefits to any of it. Spinach, carrots, msuhrooms, soy milk, all do a lot better for me than how I lived before.

    I'm keeping where I can always find it, since my Internet Explorer bookmarks are so extensive.