A few summers ago, unsupervised, Clara taught herself how to ride a bicycle in our front yard. This summer she invented Capitalism.
I can’t say exactly where the story truly begins. It is a story that was born quietly somewhere deep in the mind of a child. Maybe she saw something out the window of the car as we passed by (A dancing man in a banana costume, girls scouts selling cookies at a card table), or maybe a cartoon duck said something she felt was especially profound and meaningful. But this spark set off a chain reaction of ideas inside their young mind. A seed was planted deep in the mushy gray soil of her brain, and eventually, the seed turned into a dream, which led to a plan, which led to a fresh young action sprouting out the top of her 8-year-old head. Magic. A tiny tree growing up towards the sun happily producing tiny yellow fruit.
Several months ago, when the days first started to become warm, and the streets first started to become an active playground for children on bikes and scooters in front of our house, Clara came to stand in front of me in the living room and said very plainly, “Dad, I’m going to start a lemonade stand.”
“You are?” I looked up from what I had been reading.
“Yes,” She said. “I found a table I can use in the basement. And I have some left over birthday money that I can use to buy lemonade mix. And I think that’s all I need.” She shrugged, “Water is free.”
I narrowed my eyes and watched her curiously. “It will be a lot of work you know.”
She nodded and frowned thoughtfully, “I know.” She said all of this while looking past me, out the window at the sun covered street and the boys and girls laughing on the hot pavement. Sweaty, thirsty little boys and girls. “But I think I could make a lot of money.”
“You are truly a strange little girl, and I sometimes wonder where exactly you came from, but let me know what you need, and I’ll help you with it.”
She smiled at me finally. “Actually, can I have a sheet of paper? I need to make a sign.”
The sign ended up being a plain white piece of paper with bright yellow flowers and stars drawn on it, surrounding the fanciest swirly lettering the little girl could dream up. The lettering read, “LEMONADE SDAND” (She had asked for help spelling every letter of LEMONADE, but SDAND was easy enough for her to spell on her own.)
She and her mother went to the store the following day and she brought home a container of lemonade, and some fresh lemons (for extra style). She used a pitcher from the cabinet and some left over plastic cups from a birthday party and set to work. She calculated out exactly how many glasses of lemonade were in each pitcher, and how many pitchers she could mix using the powder she had purchased. We didn’t spoil anything by telling her that she was using math.
That first day she struck a gold mine. At a dollar a glass she made over $20 dollars; however she was quick to remind us that she actually made much less than that because you have to factor in the amount she spent on materials.
I smiled proudly at my daughter as she sorted the bills and coins on the couch that evening, and then I asked, rather naively, “So, what are you going to spend your money on?”
She blinked at me in surprise. How could I possibly not know? “I’m going to spend it on lemonade, of course. I’m almost out. But NOW I have enough money that I can buy TWO containers of mix.” She tapped a finger on her lips, “…and I’ll need more cups too.”
The following day we took a special trip to Walmart to restock her Sdand. I stood in the aisle with her staring up at the selection of cups. She was very slowly examining the numbers on each package and comparing them to the prices.
“These are the cheapest,” she announced, pointing to some Dixie cups off to one side, “But they are too small.” she closed her eyes and concentrated, “I doubt anyone would pay a dollar for a cup that size. …I wouldn’t… And if I sold them for a quarter each, or even fifty cents, I would actually make less than I would selling big glasses for a dollar.”
I said nothing, as I had determined to do the entire way through this process. I decided that I would never trust myself to run a business of any kind; therefore, I was probably not the right person to start giving her advice.
“How about that bag up there?” She pointed to a top shelf.
“That bag of 100?”
“Yes, how much would each of those be?”
I ran the calculation for her. “Those cups are about five cents each.”
She looked back down to the rack in front of her, “But this bag of 50… how much per cup was that?”
I sighed, “Those are about 6 cents per cup.” I could see the wheels turning in her head. Invisible pennies were passing from one jar to another as she patiently subtracted the cost of materials from the sale cost of each glass of lemonade.
“I would have to pay $5 for the large bag though.”
“Right,” I nodded.
“And it’s really not that much cheaper. Having 50 would be easier to handle, and they wouldn’t all blow away in the wind or something.”
This was true. And she finally settled on the 50-count bag.
The following evening we had to go back for more. She had sold all but a few of the cups for $1 each at the end of the driveway that day. And when business had become slow in the afternoon, she had loaded the materials up in her red wagon and walked in the direction of whirring lawn mowers at the end of the block, her brother and sister announcing loudly in front and in back that “This is where you can buy your cool lemonade!” Her sister even wore her Elsa dress and did some twirls.
She made over $40 that day. And word was beginning to spread about the little entrepreneur with the lemonade shop set up on the corner.
This is where things started to become more complicated. Because the following day Clara hired employees.
This is the story she told me that evening as she counted her ever growing stack of bills.
Two friends of hers that live next door showed up on bicycles and wanted to help (and share in the profits). Clara had reluctantly told them “No,” even though she really didn’t want to offend her young friends. But she had to point out that it only took one person to sit at a table and pour lemonade into a glass, so any more people would just not be helpful.
But then she had a thought, “What CAN you do to help my lemonade stand?” she asked them.
They had no answer. So, she came up with a compromise. “Okay, how about I stay here at the table to pour drinks, and you guys can ride back and forth through the neighborhood on your bikes, loudly announcing that this is where people can come to get lemonade.”
They agreed to do this. It was basically what they were planning to do on their bicycles anyway, now all they had to do was yell the word “Lemonade!” every few minutes and Clara would give them $2 each at the end of the day.
They didn’t bring in very much business, however; and when they came back an hour or so later, the older of the two girls (the bossy one that lives on the adjacent corner) demanded that she had worked longer than they had initially agreed and she was therefore owed $3 instead of just $2. Clara was in a bind. These were girls she considered her friends, and here she was having to risk offending them. So, she withdrew $4 from her purse, as she had agreed, and gave three of them to the older girl, and then quietly gave the remaining dollar to the younger. The girl shyly took the dollar and thanked Clara before the two of them rode away on their bikes.
“I didn’t like having to do that,” she said. But I knew Aris (the younger girl) would understand. “Next time they want to help, I think I’ll tell them that they can have a quarter for every person they convince to buy lemonade. That would be fair, right?”
I just stared at her and said nothing.
She went back to counting her income for the day. “Anyway. If I had done that today, I probably could have paid both of them less than a dollar.”
Her business continued to grow. Neighbors, seeing our family out for a walk in the afternoon, would stop and call out to Clara and wave. “Oh! I was hoping you would have some of that delicious Lemonade for sale today!” to which Clara would reply, “I will! Just come by in an hour!” She was well on her way to making her millions. Her summer goal was to make $200 and she was already over halfway there, even after deducting the cost of supplies. She had the neighborhood by its parched throat and was lovingly feeding it shards of shaved ice floating in cold yellow water, at a dollar a glass. A monopoly of lemons. I could see the headlines already: CLARA SMITH, RICHEST WOMAN IN AMERICA, STARTED OFF SELLING LEMONADE OUT OF HER GARAGE AT THE AGE OF 8. It was going to be a glorious future.
But the world of business is a cutthroat world. And there are many pirates that float in those waters.
We rounded the corner into our subdivision one warm evening, a few weeks ago, and we suddenly saw some commotion in the distance.
“What is that?” Andrea asked, squinting into the distance.
“It’s bad news,” I said quietly.
“Oh no… Is that-?” she started to ask.
“A boy dancing in a banana costume standing on the street in front of our house? Yes.”
There was, in fact, a young boy (a very sweaty young boy) dancing on the corner in front of our house wearing a banana costume. As we approached, he wiggled his stem in our direction and waved a white sign that read “LEMONAID”. Behind him was a large canopy tent, set up half in the road and half in the ditch. In its shade were maybe 5 or 6 other boys sitting at a large table covered in coolers, a blasting stereo, and stacks of store bought baked goods.
“Clara…” I said sadly, “I think that maybe-“
She cut me off, “I see it.” She growled in the backseat, “Who are they even? They don’t even live near here. That’s not fair!” We drove past and pulled into our driveway a few feet away, “Is that boy dressed like a banana? That doesn’t even make sense. Do they sell Banananade?”
I walked her inside and she stood, staring at them out the front window. “They didn’t even make any of that stuff. They just bought it at the store that way,” She said flatly. “I don’t think that’s even legal. Right, Dad? You said I couldn’t sell anything that I didn’t make myself.”
“Well, yes. But I said that for a lot of different reasons.” I rested a hand on her shoulder.
She sighed and then gasped quietly, “Oh no. One of them is coming!”
Sure enough, a little round boy was walking towards our driveway with something in his hands. He shyly trundled up to our porch, glancing over his shoulder to see if any of his friends had bothered to come with him. They had not. He adjusted his pants with one hand and knocked.
Clara looked at her mother and me. We motioned toward the door. She took a deep breath and opened it.
“Hi,” the boy mumbled. “Would you like to buy some cookies?” He held open a plastic container less than halfway full of chocolate chip cookies.
“How much?” Clara asked shortly.
“Um.. fifty cents I think,” the boy said, staring down at his shoes and then glancing over his shoulder again to his friends. They were hiding behind their table watching him, a banana stem was sticking up from behind a large orange thermos.
Clara looked over the boy’s shoulder and saw them there, and then looked back at the boy, then at the cookies. She poked at one of them and the boy flinched as if she were poking at him. “Deal,” she said finally.
She turned and walked to the couch and opened her bulging coin purse.
While her back was turned the boy’s courage was emboldened, “Actually, they are seventy-five cents,” and then quickly stammered with dollar signs in his eyes, “actually, a dollar each, but it’s getting late in the evening. So, I guess I’ll take seventy-five.”
Clara looked up from the stack of bills she had been sorting through and stared at the wall, still facing away from the boy in the doorway, “You came to my door selling cookies and you didn’t even decide what you were going to charge for them first?”
The boy was beginning to sweat. “I’ll sell you the whole box for $5.00.”
She bent back down and shook her head sadly, “You don’t have that many cookies. It would be cheaper to buy them individually.”
He looked down at his box of cookies again, or maybe his shoes, or maybe he was praying that he would be able to leave soon.
Clara turned around and confidently walked back to the door. “I’ll give you a dollar fifty for three cookies. One for me, one for my brother, and one for my sister.”
The boy said nothing. Clara placed the money inside the container, withdrew three cookies and said, “Thank you”. She closed the door before the boy even turned to leave, and then distributed the cookies.
Shortly after this, the boys took down their tent and loaded it into the back of a trunk and drove away.
In the following weeks, Clara continued her lemonade stand. The boys never returned. Whether they were intimidated by their competition, or simply came to realize that their business model had too many overhead costs to be profitable, we will never know. But the corner across from Clara’s remains empty to this day.
Will she make millions? I doubt I would let her. I have almost brought a stop to the lemonade stand itself several times. “Why don’t you just set up a table and give the last of your lemonade away?” I suggest to her, “You know, as a thank you to the community.” She nods and considers this. Then she turns and looks out the window and considers lots of other things. She waters other seeds deeply planted in her young brain. I watch, wondering what is growing there. What orchards is she gazing out over in her mind? What beautiful sunshine is falling upon them? What glorious lemons are hidden amongst the branches?