Rob Pettersen, Traveling Salesman
By Tim Holt
Road DogBy Tim Holt
Ron McCloud, the owner of Dunsmuir Hardware, misses the days when traveling salesmen sauntered through his doors and shared their jokes and colorful stories about life on the road.
Gone are the guys who came in with cutlery, tools and lightbulbs, all of which he now orders online. The sporting goods and key salesmen were especially good joke tellers, McCloud remembers.
Now McCloud taps out his orders on the computer, “and the computer doesn’t tell jokes when you’re ordering paint,” he says.
But guess what? Right next door to McCloud’s hardware store, in a shop chock full of antiques, books and colorful postcards, presides one of the last of the West Coast’s traveling salesmen.
Rob Pettersen runs that shop most days of the week, but he also spends a lot of time on the road selling postcards, greeting cards, CDs and vinyl records to stores from Los Angeles to Seattle.
He’s portly, gregarious and a born salesman. As a kid growing up in Germany (his father, an employee with the Department of Defense, was working out of Heidelberg), he sold gummy bears to the kids on the school bus, and, later, vinyl rock records to his teenage friends.
When he came over to the States and settled in LA in 1981, he began importing thousands of CDs from Europe and sold them to stores all over the country.
Pettersen grew to love the traveling life, sometimes staying on the road for six months at a time. With his engaging personality and his colorful stories about life on the road, he made friends with the owners of mom-and-pop retail outlets all over the United States.
“After a while I had friends in every city, folks who’d help me when I was down, who’d loan me the cash I needed when I was out of gas, or whom I’d help when they were short on cash – never an invoice, never a late fee. I’d take post-dated checks, or just say ‘pay me when you can.’”
Pettersen chalked up more than a million miles on his road trips, burning through three cars while carting his merchandise all over the lower 48 states. A big music fan, he loved tuning his radio to polka stations in the Midwest. He visited Janis Joplin’s old high school in Beaumont, Texas, and stood at the spot on a Manhattan sidewalk where John Lennon was shot.
One of Pettersen’s road trip buddies is Terry Currier, the owner of Music Millennium in Portland. He’s been in the music business there for nearly 50 years.
“Over the years we’ve only had two guys selling music out of their cars,” Currier said. “The other guy gave up a long time ago. Rob’s an adventurer. If this were the 1800s, he’d be doing it in a covered wagon.”
With all that time on the road, there was no room for marriage or children, or even a long-term live-in relationship, although he’d occasionally take a girlfriend with him on his road trips.
He was on one of his trips, on his way to Portland, when winter conditions forced him to stop for the night in a small town near Mount Shasta. He’d never paid much attention to the big mountain before, but when he opened the curtain in his Dunsmuir motel and looked out his window he was awestruck.
His sister Kirsten had already bought some property in McCloud, and soon he too was looking for a place to live in the Mount Shasta region.
He found it in the old high school in McCloud, settling down in the 2,000-square-foot former band room.
“The move saved my life,” he said. “I was a pretty heavy partier in LA.”
Sitting in his main street shop, which doubles as a coffee shop/social hub, he said, “I may not have my own family, but down here I’m finally finding what I’d call an extended family. I’m learning the importance of community after all those years on the road.”
He’s exchanged the anonymity of life in LA for small-town neighborliness, waving to the sheriff’s deputy as he drives by the shop, standing on the sidewalk in front of his shop to exchange small talk with passersby.
“Getting settled here in Dunsmuir with my music store and coffee house gets me back to my roots,” he says. “Dunsmuir reminds me a lot of Heidelberg. They’re both train towns nestled in canyons, with rivers running through them.”
At 65, he’s hoping to retire this fall by selling his coffee house/antique store.
He’s not so sure he wants to retire from the road, though, from his role as “the last road dog.” He tried awhile back to switch to online selling to his mom-and-pop stores, but the proprietors wouldn’t go for it. They wanted him to keep coming through their doors, he said, telling his stories.
So he may make a few more trips, not so much for the money but to keep the tradition going.
Music store owner Currier is convinced he’ll be seeing Pettersen at least a few more times up in Portland. “It’s in his blood. He has a passion for the road, for the record stores, and for the music.”•