"Excuse me," I said, absolutely, positively sure that I must have heard wrong. "You're selling what?"
"Encyclopedia. Would you be interested in investing in your very own, beautifully embossed set of encyclopedia. 24 volumes, each book more chock full of knowledge than the last." The old-man trying to sell me encyclopedia is, well, old school. He's wearing a tweed suit, panama hat and sports a cracking moustache.
"You've heard of Wikipedia right?" I say.
"No, but that's the beauty of these books. I just happened to bring Volume W with me, and I'm sure if we open it up, and rifle through here, we can solve your little puzzle in no time."
The old man is paying me no heed to me or else I would tell him that I have no need for him to look this up for me. Instead he is intently flicking through Volume W. My amusement is quickly turning to impatience, as he goes from page to page. Forward. Back.
"Wine, nope, back a bit, Wiggles, almost there."
With each page turn, the scratching of paper upon paper, is amplifying an unnecessary passing of time I am never going to get back.
"Well, blow me down. Nothing in here. Wikipedia you say? Is that some sort of insect?"
"Wikipedia. It's an online encyclopedia," I try to explain. "It's on the Internet, look, I can call it up on my phone."
As I say this, I'm actually looking around me trying to spot the hidden camera. "I'm really not sure if you're having a lend of me because I can't believe a single person in the entire world would ever buy what you're selling."
I'm not sure if he's not listening to me, or he's just too deaf to hear me. "Sorry, never heard of this Wikipedia thingy," he says undaunted. "Now World Book I know of - they're the competition. Is that who you mean?"
"No, but..." He cuts me off, defiantly.
"I can tell you one thing, if it fits on your phone I can't imagine how much is actually in there. Or pictures, what about the pictures. Our encyclopedia has lots and lots of pictures."
"Yes, there are pictures."
"Who writes it, then?" I have to give him kudos. He is putting up a good fight in an unwinnable battle.
"The crowd. What crowd?"
"You know, like everyone. It's a Wiki, lot's of people contribute."
"Like anybody at all? What does anybody at all, know about anything in particular."
He may actually have a point.
He continues. "Anywy, I don't get it, but you seem to think it's popular. Yes?"
Finally! "Everybody uses it. It's like an electronic compendium of all knowledge known to man. I can't believe you've never heard of it," I say.
"And you read it on your phone?" This part he seems to be having particular difficulty grasping.
"Correct. Or a computer. Perhaps even a watch."
The old man looks at his own watch. His head drops and he kicks out at a non-existent pebble in front of his foot.
"This explains so much," he says.
"Yeh, Wikipedia pretty much explains everything."
"No, I meant why sales seem to be slowing."
Slowing? My curiosity is out of control at this point. I'm hooked.
"How many of these do you sell in a year?" I ask.
"Well, last year. None."
"The year before?"
"Can I ask when did you last sell a set of encyclopedia?"
"Maybe ten years ago?"
"Why on earth are you still trying to sell something that nobody wants."
"I've got one set left. I promised myself I wasn't going to give up until I sold it. Here I was, hating on myself for being such a lousy salesperson. I can't believe I'm such a fool.
"Mind you, I don't know what I'd actually do if I sold them. I've lost everything, these books are pretty much my only possession in the world."
I look at the old man as he continues to look down to the floor, still kicking out at the non-existent pebble and my heart is bleeding. And I can't help myself....
The old man looks up. "How much? You want them? But why?"
"Let's just say you're a better salesman than you might think."
"Well, it's..." He shuffles from foot to foot uncomfortbly. "$999."
He is, however, a born salesman and he quickly moves in for the kill. "I can take credit card. Got me one of these new-fangled payment machines just for this moment."
I pause. Re-consider. This is a lot of money. But it is a good deed, and I conclude by virtue of the amount of money this will cost me, that the deed is only so much better. Well, that's what I desperately try to convince myself as I pass over my card.
He took the payment and returned the card.
"Let me get you the rest of the volumes," he said, spinning to return to his car. The old man pops the boot and grabs two boxes full of the various volumes.
He carries them back to me, then returns to his car for two more. He passes me one of the boxes and puts the other at my feet with the first two.
"You only got one thing wrong, young man. I'm a better salesman than YOU think."
I look down at the box he has handed me, as he walks hurriedly back to his car. It has $5 drawn in black marker pen on the side.
As he drives away, his wheels squealing against the asphalt, the old man leans out of the window and tips his hat.
I didn't need to even open one of his dusty, old books to know that for $999 I had been completely, and utterly, schooled.