CUYAHOGA FALLS: When Damon Henderson heard that the cage fighter living in the next tent had injured his hand, he thought he might get a few feet closer to the entrance before the automatic doors swung open at midnight on Thanksgiving.
He’s the veteran on Best Buy’s sidewalk, which housed four tents, a generator and a row of foldout lawn chairs by Monday night.
For the past 13 years, Henderson had always been the first or second in line outside the Howe Avenue big box electronic store. But with blowout deals forecasted for Black Friday, his 6-by-6-foot tent, resting in an advantageous third place, straddles the curb along the store’s fire lane.
“I’ve never been here [in third place], so you’ll have to excuse my little step-down living room,” Henderson said, noting the curb’s hump beneath his tent.
His living room, as he calls it, sits about 8 inches below his bedroom, where a blanket and pillows are neatly stacked in a corner. Concrete nails wedged between joints in the sidewalk and cracks in the pavement secure his tent to the ground and stake his claim to thousands of dollars in deals.
The 49-year-old entrepreneur bought $9,700 in merchandise at Best Buy last year; He paid $3,500.
He’s the pillar of longevity among the store’s tent dwellers poised to cash in on hot-ticket items.
“Once I pitched this tent, it was about making money.”
But it’s not a tent. It’s a tactical shopping center.
His thick carpenter’s fingers, tipped with white paint from a Sunday side job, shuffle through text messages from his wife. The messages detail last-minute deals researched on the computer at his house in Mogadore.
Outside the tent, Ellie Johnson walked out of the store with a Bose speaker system under one arm.
“Are you taking orders?” she jokingly asked.
That’s not how it works, Henderson and his neighbor, Tony Avitar, replied.
Henderson has taken orders for his family and friends, who account for 80 percent of his Black Friday shopping list, he estimates. To afford the trip this year, he levied a “small” fee on the remaining items.
Still, the hagglers wouldn’t let Johnson leave without imparting some of their wisdom.
Avitar explained that Johnson, who spent more than the required $2,500 annually, could be reaping discounts for her Best Buy Premier Silver Benefits.
“Well I never knew that,” Johnson said graciously.
The men proceeded to tell her about each deal available to her now: televisions, laptops, computers and more. They rattled off each device’s configurations, specifications and, most important, savings.
“We focus on top-line products for the best price,” Henderson said. “We’re the ones you wanna talk to, not the [sales people] inside.”
Half of passersby think, and often say, that they’re “nuts.” The other half just doesn’t understand them, they said.
But come Black Friday, everyone envies their place at the front of the line.
It’s Avitar’s 10th year at the front of that line. Inside his tent, he points out a lavish setup.
“It all starts with the generator,” Avitar, 49, said.
The gas-powered generator charges the battery packs that keep his laptop running. His phone powers a WiFi hotspot for his Internet connection. Three 15-pound propane tanks keep flames spouting from a dual burner. A Coleman lantern hangs from the family-sized tent. A toaster oven rests on a 3-foot square table where he and his family will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday.
Inside Henderson’s tent, three chairs face each other. Across from a cooler and snacks, his best friend, Dave Dill, makes a comment about some of the luxuriant commodities.
“I’m surprised they’re not deep frying a turkey out here,” he said.
Behind Henderson and in a comfortable fourth, but last place, Jeremy Kropveld set up his two-person tent. Kropveld met Henderson on Saturday for the first time.
“Nice people. Nice weather,” Kropveld said about deciding to join the group on Monday.
At 35 years old, Kropveld is younger and less experienced than the rest. His tent has no heating unit, just a mattress, a cooler and some sheets.
“Mine’s minimalistic,” the self-proclaimed “health nut” said.
He tucks his curly dark hair beneath a stocking cap with earflaps and speaks in pithy phrases. When he considers that he now has a construction company owner, a cage fighter and sound engineer for neighbors, he simply says, “The great diversity.”
Keeping the order
With 23 combined years, Henderson and Avitar are the resident veterans, but the group operates with the underpinnings of a democracy. During the day, they are free to work and return home to shower.
But each person must endure the 30-degree nights outside if they wish to retain their position in line.
“Come night time, you sleep in the tent if you want to be part of this line,” Henderson said.
But ultimately they also look out for each other.
Avitar hasn’t seen Henderson in a year, but the rules and the camaraderie are hard to forget.
“It’s like you have this weeklong friendship,” Avitar said.
“We all know each other. We’ve been doing this for years,” Henderson said.
The bargain shoppers talk of years gone by like old war stories.
With highs in the mid-50s, they don’t take the agreeable weather for granted.
“This is the mildest I can remember,” said Henderson, who can recall “frostbitten feet” and dreadful hours that “seem like a week” as he tore down his tent on the last day.
Avitar and Henderson laugh when they recall two women exchanging vulgarities and overturning each other’s carts in 2002.
That’s when they started passing out tickets, they figure.
The tickets allow each recipient to buy one of all specially marked items, but Avitar knows that while most have already made out their shopping lists, he can’t formulate his attack plan until the last discounted items are announced on Thanksgiving morning.
“That’s a game changer,” he said.
Giving: The holiday spirit
Avitar, an Akron native, shops each year for his five children. His 14-year-old still uses the tablet he bought last year. Something they will use again and again is the “best present in the world,” he said.
Henderson also shops for his family. It’s been a rough year, and until last week, he wasn’t sure that he would endure the sidewalk this year.
After a layoff in 2007, Henderson launched his own company, D and D Construction. But three years ago, he fell 30 feet while cutting limbs from a tree, he said. The accident was a blessing.
Business picked up. He gained a newfound appreciation for life.
“Everything has kind of went my way,” he said. “Do I stress about bills and money? Sure do, just like anyone else.”
But unlike most, Henderson has to find a way to buy gifts for nine kids.
“Which is why I’m a 13-year veteran at this. Can you imagine buying gifts for nine kids at retail price?”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3302 or email@example.com.