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Fireworks Retailers Talk Shop About America's Booming Business

Fireworks

First Posted: 07/04/11 09:17 AM ET Updated: 09/03/11 06:12 AM ET

This story was reported in collaboration with our partners at Patch.com.

When it comes to the American economy, there may not much to celebrate on this Fourth of July. Not unless you sell fireworks. For the past few weeks, the nation’s fireworks peddlers have been hawking their Ghost Ryders and Bone Breakers from parking lots and roadsides around the country -- and according to an informal survey, they’ve been doing a brisk business.

America’s passion for fireworks appears to be as strong as ever, and no one is more invested in that passion than the people who work in those stands, sometimes without leaving the premises for days at a time.

“The money is pretty good, but you’re really working for it,” said Bill St. Ours, who says he stayed at his tent outside St. Petersberg, Fla., for a stretch of 27 days this year.

Because he and his partners work off of commission, they sleep inside the tent to make sure nothing gets stolen. St. Ours says it’s a lot of work, but he adds that he loves the product and always has. “As a kid, I lit ‘em off,” he recalls.

So did Jaymie Walton. Since 1983, her mom has worked as a manager at Phantom Fireworks, one of the largest fireworks companies in the country. Based in Youngstown, Ohio, Phantom has 1,200 stands around the country. Walton’s mother works at a New Hampshire store, and now Walton does too.

When she was growing up, Walton said, she had no interest in embarking on a more conventional career path. “I didn’t want to get into a job that I was going to hold on to because I had waited 18 years to work at the fireworks store,” said Walton, who is now 23. “I have a lot of friends and cousins, too, that wanted to work there our whole life.”

She also said she was looking forward to tonight’s festivities. "My uncle comes in and spends so much money and gets an awesome show together,” she said.

There are certain perks that come with working a fireworks store, especially today. “We get 60 percent off on the Fourth. So me and all my friends and family that work there put our money together and load up."

Fabio Madeiros, 41, works at Black Dragon Fireworks, a collection of tent-stores based in Fairfield County, Conn. A former banker (he says he’ll “never do that kind of job again”), he travels to China every year to tour the factories that supply his products. While, to make ends meet the rest of the year, he works in construction, his passion is in the tents. Asked to describe his ideal fireworks display, he said would do a “mortar wreck” with “rings in the air and smiley faces.”

“I'd do everything in one display,” he added. “Twelve tubes.”

Not that he doesn’t also exercise moderation and caution when necessary. “We have two kinds of fire extinguishers,” he said. And even if one of the fireworks were to go off in the tent, he added, “there’s a delay built into the fireworks and I would have time to get everything out of the way.”

Madeiros said the season really only lasts four or five days -- days filled with “selling, selling, selling.”

“People come here from everywhere,” he said. “New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts. But most of our money comes from Connecticut. It's one of the richest states, and people come in and drop $1,000 or $2,000 on the table.”

Madeiros said he got into the business through a friend who owned a stand, but St. Ours got his job through a friend who worked at a carnival.

That moment came in the wake of tragedy. In a span of three months in 2002, he lost five family members -- including two of his children -- to muscular dystrophy. He was living in Rhode Island at the time, and he decided to come down to Florida to start a new life. Fireworks felt familiar to him.

“I had lit off fireworks as a kid and pretty much everything is self-explanatory on the packages, like, ‘lay on ground, light fuse and get away,’” he said.

“But there are people who don’t know absolutely anything about it and I have to explain everything to them,” he added, “like if it goes in the air or if it’s color.”

Some displays, he said, are considered “safe and sane.” They don’t exactly fly off the shelves.

“I sell mostly the mortars that everyone watches blow up in the air with the boom,” he said.

He says he sees a lot of families with young kids pass through his tent, and that’s his one of his favorite parts of the job . “I buried two children and I like to make these kids happy because of that,” he said. “We’re all kids at heart, and everyone likes to play with fire.”

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