On Wednesday, Myron Taxman, one of the world's last door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen, received a flurry of phone calls and emails from his former colleagues. The news that their old employer would stop printing books, they agreed, was sad. But the truth was, the real era of Encyclopedia Britannica print editions had ended long ago, in 1996, when they and all the other salesmen were laid off and the multi-volume set was sold door-to-door no more.
"It's almost anti-climactic at this point," said Taxman, after reading in the papers Wednesday morning that Encyclopedia Britannica would go digital after 244 years.
There are still 4,000 copies left from the last printing back in 2010, and Taxman, a salesman to the core, joked to his former colleagues that there might be a silver lining.
"I said it this morning -- we should buy them out and resell them! I think they'll become collectors' items," he said wistfully. "But at $1,400 a set, that's a lot of money." (The most recent 32-volume edition sold for $1,395 a set.)
Taxman, who is now 66, began selling the encyclopedia at the age of 22, when he was still in college in Chicago. He sold the volumes for 28 years: to farmers and to new parents without much money, to a Bears quarterback and to film director John Hughes. He never actually made cold calls -- that was the most common misconception about his profession, he said -- but followed leads that would come into the company's headquarters, in Chicago, generated from advertisements in the paper and television spots. Eventually, he was promoted to management, but never gave up selling the books himself.
"I never cared for the management part, but I loved the books, and I loved the challenge of making the sale: it was me against them," he said, of his customer base. He liked to think that both sides won when a sale was made.
According to the company's senior spokesperson, he was one of the best in the country at what he did. In good years, Taxman recalled, he'd make over six figures. But the country changed. In 1996, after 60 years of door-to-door sales, Encyclopedia Britannica laid off its entire remaining sales force in the United States and Canada -- at its peak, around 2,300 employees. Other encyclopedia companies quickly followed suit, and the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman became extinct.
Taxman said that like many of his former colleagues, he was recruited into the insurance business, where he still works, part-time.
"It was pretty depressing," he said, thinking back to 1996. "We knew the end was coming, and there was nothing that could be done. I enjoy selling insurance, but I won't lie: I like Britannica more."
Taxman still resists technological change: although he uses a computer regularly, he has no Kindle, iPad or smartphone, and still regularly consults his Encyclopedia set. His two favorite entries are the city of London, and the medical charts of the human body.
"A lot of times, I still want to sit and read an article," Taxman said. "Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not."
Back at company headquarters in Chicago, current Britannica employees were celebrating the complete transition to digital with cake and champagne. No employees were laid off as a result of the end of the print edition. In fact, the company has been profitable for the past 8 years, according to Tom Panelas, the company's director of communications, and is seeking to fill multiple new positions across its digital product development division.
"I understand that people have nostalgic feelings for the printed books," said Panelas. "But we can do so many things with online and mobile products that we couldn't do with print, and that's where our business is now."
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