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It's Amazing, It's a Miracle, and Hey, It's Just $19.95

County Fair: The hawkers sell just what you never knew you really needed. Step up and take a look.


It would be easy to make fun of a guy like "Chino," a guy who skipped college to spend his days squatting on a stool, eyes fixed on the floor, a guy whose 21-year-old existence thrives on dirty sneakers.

"Hey, Miss? Miss? Your shoes are dirty." He calls to a girl and her mother, beckoning them with a sudsy wet brush. "Come here, come here."

The girl stops. She looks down. She looks at her mom, and they both look down at her shoes. Chino is right. The 12-year-old plops her dirty-shoed foot on Chino's stool.

Soon, mom will line his pocket with about a $5 commission. Mother and daughter walk away amazed that their family future includes bright white sneakers.

This transaction is why you have to respect a guy like Chino--and the window guy and the lotion lady and the chamois guy. They are the hawkers of the Los Angeles County Fair, a vendor force that is 2,000 strong, standing in booths and beneath tents in every nook capable of containing a demonstration table.

They wear microphones wrapped around their heads like rock stars, and some even stand on mini-stages. Some shout, others smile and wave. They hard-sell, they soft-peddle. Some are professional traveling salesmen. Others are in it for the quick summer bucks. They are characters whose presence is as traditional to the fair experience as Ferris wheels and hot dogs on a stick.

Within arm's reach, the L.A. County Fair offers them an American merchants' dream: tens of thousands of passersby in good moods with wallets full of disposable income.

Cheryl Thompson, 38, of Wilmington had about $100 to spend at the fair with her daughter, Danielle. Chino manages to get $18.99 of it.

"Yeah, you know, I hate it when my kids have dirty shoes, especially the girls," says Thompson as she explains her "Shoe Magik" purchase. "There they are in their nice white (sports) uniforms and their shoes are all dirty. I just don't like it."

Or is it that Thompson and fairgoers like her can't resist an amazing magic miracle with a lifetime guarantee that unfolds before their eyes? The fair operators have named it "shopper-tainment" and encourage vendors to ham up their live acts.

"It's entertainment. Yes it is," says Kathleen Proffer, 47, of South Pasadena, who stops in her tracks when the chamois guy catches her eye. There stands Rob Carnes, 30, on his 2-foot high stage, simulating a pet accident by pouring diet Coke on a carpet remnant.

"Accidents happen folks. You know it," he says, placing the yellow chamois over the spill like a magician. "It's a synthetic towel folks, four times more absorbent than an animal cloth, machine washable, absorbs 27 times its weight in liquid."

He swiftly lifts the cloth and wrings out the spill. Proffer and her sister, Linda Ehlig, are transfixed by the two-minute show, brows furrowed in skepticism at first. But the wringing finale sells Ehlig, who buys into the "two-for-the-price-of-one" $20 special.

"The fair is only place I would take the time to look at a thing like this," says Ehlig, emphasizing that she is no Home Shopping Network junkie.

Carnes is a professional salesman and is on the road hawking his "Supertex" chamois "four days a week, 35 shows a year" at car shows, fairs, electronic conventions, never veering from his credo: "You gotta stay pumped up."

Carnes and "Speed Cleaner" Ben Loughlin on the next aisle over have the pricey real estate advantage of a corner booth. Like home values, fair booths are all about location, location, location. Fair operators capitalize on this by charging as much as $6,500 for the largest corner booths in one of their five air-conditioned exhibition halls. By contrast, a tent outside in the Pomona heat costs $1,700 for the 17-day event.

Loughlin stands on a platform swooshing a squeegee-like contraption back and forth over a window, wiping away handprints, hairspray and grease. For now, this is his only chance to perform. He'd rather be back at home in Lansing, Mich., playing bass with his punk rock band "Uncle Robert."

"But if your band isn't making any money, this is the closest I can get to stage, lights and audience," he says, instantly kicking into character as a couple slowly passes.

"Sir? Sir? Ever see a window washer on a high-rise building with paper towels and Windex?" Loughlin asks urgently. He make contact with Frank Cornell, 64, walking through the shopping pavilion as a favor to his wife.

Cornell stops.

"You see my condo at the beach is all windows and mirrors. It just gets me sick, the way they have all these smears," he says of his Santa Monica place. "And then I have this Palm Desert place with a golf course picture window. I've tried painter poles, buckets of water, squeegees, garden hose attachments. And I'm STILL looking out at the golf course with streaks."

Sold for $29.

Hawkers have this knack for creating instant needs.

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