In the few hours before closing time on any normal Thursday night, Big Fun on Coventry might pull in a couple hundred bucks for its vintage toys and trinkets. But on February 9, Steve Presser expected bigger things — he just didn't know how big. So he enlisted extra help for the night, plus a magician. When in doubt, always have a magician.
But Presser didn't tell any of them why they were there. Or that CNN would be there too.
Then, a few ticks past 6:30, more than 50 people descended on the store seemingly out of nowhere. With cameras rolling, the mob streamed through the narrow doorway, each person bent on spending 20 bucks on something.
They crowded around the Cleveland Heights shop, they browsed and chatted. And they bought. In just 75 minutes, the Cash Mob, as it was called, deposited more than $1,400 into Big Fun's coffers.
Presser's store was the third Cleveland business to be anointed with a Cash Mob since the phenomenon started here in November. Proliferated by a local lawyer with a penchant for fine scotch and fuzzy animal hats, Cash Mobs have quickly exploded across the country and are already touching down overseas.
"It's unbelievable," says Presser. "This is the big break that the buy-local movement needed across the country. What the fine folks of Cash Mobs have achieved in just three months, all the alliances, all the 'support local' movements, all the mom-and-pop groups couldn't achieve in the past several years."
And the man behind it all has made it look easy.
Andrew Samtoy might annoy the hell out of some people, what with his incessant energy for involving himself full-force in 20 projects at once. But no one who knows him — and many, many people know him — can say who those annoyed people might be.
In between nibbles from a cheese plate at the Market Avenue Wine Bar, the 32-year-old class-action lawyer from Lyndhurst aims to get right to the point, to the topic everybody wants to hear about. But as he starts into his Cash Mob story, an avalanche of asides, experiences, and fascinations that convey the whole of his being effortlessly tumble from the maw of the trim, olive-skinned, boyishly good-looking man.
"My law firm's pretty conservative, and I pop out with aviator sunglasses, a purple scarf — I try to push gender roles," he says, almost in place of a nice-to-meet-you. He removes a hand-knitted baby-blue number encircling his neck, saying it's identical to his purple one. The firm, he surmises, started enforcing its dress code because of him.
"After I shaved my head, everybody liked it. The gray-haired attorneys walking around said, 'Oh I wish I could do that!' I said, 'I have clippers. The only thing stopping you is yourself.'" But there were no takers.
Each tidbit breaks off from the conversation the moment it's uttered, then Samtoy eventually refocuses.
He is a vehement believer in supporting local businesses as the most viable way to revive communities in economic strife. He also embodies the notion that effective networking can make things happen.
He was visiting friends in London last fall when a social-media-organized skinhead march broke out in a Muslim part of town. In his mind he returned to Coventry Village, to the violent flash mobs that were coordinated through social media there last summer, and to the community outrage that came in its wake.
"I thought there was a way to turn this around to something positive," he says.
Back home a week later, Samtoy ran his idea by a group of friends: What would happen if a mob of people organized through social media convened at a designated time and place to ... spend 20 dollars on a locally owned business?
"I really do honestly and strongly believe that small local businesses are the key," he says. "When you spend at Walmart, the real wealth goes outside our community. It mostly benefits Bentonville, Arkansas. Not that it's bad for Bentonville to benefit from the local business that got big. But let's spend at local businesses here, so they remain local and get big."
"That very day, he had a Facebook page and Twitter account set up," laughs his friend Marty Mordarski. It was the Olmsted Falls HR consultant who suggested the tag "Cash Mobs," an irreverent spin on flash mobs. Mordarski and Samtoy are members of the Cleveland Bridge Builders, a local program designed to help young professionals hone civic leadership skills.
Samtoy started a Cash Mob blog — cash-mobs.com — and developed a long list of Mob Rules. Among them:
• The business targeted must be locally owned and have a history of giving back to the community. "It's not just so the store can make money. It also empowers them to support other local people."
• There must be no-fuss parking nearby.
• Political or religious motivations for choosing a particular business are forbidden.
• Everyone must spend $20. Or more.
• Each business must be in close proximity to a locally-owned watering hole, such that participants may socialize before or after mobbing. This rule is directly tied to another one:
• Every mobster must meet at least three new people.
When Samtoy scheduled the first Cash Mob, he revealed nothing more than a Tremont gathering spot and time over Facebook and Twitter. Right away, some folks were uncomfortable. While the owner of the chosen store — Visible Voice Books — knew of the plan, Samtoy refused to tell would-be Cash Mobsters where they would be shopping.
When they would ask what store was being mobbed, he would respond with a question of his own: Do you want to support a local business?
"When they said yes, I told them that's all they needed to know," Samtoy explains. "We don't want them to do a cost-benefit analysis. We don't want to give them a chance to think I don't need any books right now."
If it sounds like a well-considered sales tactic grounded in some manner of psychological voodoo, it's actually just an idea Samtoy borrowed from an occasional game he started for friends long before he invented Cash Mobs. His "Adventures," as he calls them, are designed to push people out of their comfort zones. One time, a Samtoy adventure called for everybody to show up at his place wearing a dark hoodie. He never said why. It resulted in eight hooded people carrying candles and walking the labyrinth at Ursuline College late one Saturday night.
"All of our lives are so structured. We don't ever give up control, but that's important for people like me to do."
Samtoy will never know whether his brand of secrecy dissuaded people from attending the first Cash Mob or sparked enough intrigue to attract them to it.
"I decided it would be a success if just one person I didn't already know showed up," he says. Wearing a fuzzy penguin hat so people could find him, he looked over the 40 Mobsters gathered that night on a Tremont sidewalk. A wild success. He didn't know half of them.
Dave Ferrante won't talk numbers. The owner of Visible Voice says only that the November Cash Mob was a very strong night for the five-year-old bookstore. He admits that a lot of the people Samtoy brought in have returned, then he adds: "I didn't think it would get any legs beneath it. I didn't think it would catch on like wildfire."
But he was wrong. The biggest Cash Mob payoff was yet to come. "In the past month, I've been interviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, some national paper in Canada, and National Public Radio," Ferrante says. And all that was before a CNN crew flew in just two weeks ago, wanting to interview Visible Voice's staff about Samtoy's Cash Mobs before hopping over to Big Fun. "It's like the gift that keeps on giving. It's been great exposure for the store and for Tremont."
Ferrante marvels at the attention, but he's more impressed by Samtoy's refusal to profit from it. "You're getting hits on your website from all over the world — you've got to figure out how to make money on it," he has told Samtoy. "He said he doesn't care about that."
In fact, Samtoy has never claimed ownership of Cash Mobs at all. He says it's something anyone can do, and for good reason. Early on, while they were still planning the Visible Voice mob, Samtoy and Mordarski discovered that someone else had already launched the concept in Buffalo — and had done it three months earlier.
"Frankly, it was my idea, and I'm proud of it. But they came up with it on their own," says Chris Smith, an engineer at Oracle and a writer for Buffalo's alternative weekly, ArtVoice. "I think it's kind of an open-source idea. If someone tries to make money off it, nobody will come. If a corporation tries to do it, nobody will come."
Smith is organizing the seventh Buffalo Cash Mob, and he says whenever he has requests from people wanting to organize one in their own city, he sends them to Samtoy's blog. "They do a tremendous job," Smith says. "And Andrew's a kind of connector."
Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 best seller The Tipping Point will instantly recognize the label. A national trend, Gladwell wrote, cannot happen without at least one "connector" — a person with a huge number of acquaintances, all of whom the connector tends to view as close friends. Samtoy has read the book four or five times. "Do you want me to take the connector test?" he responds on Facebook, with a smiley face for extra punctuation.
The Tipping Point premise seems to apply here. Buffalo had monthly Cash Mobs beginning in August, but nothing took root outside of Buffalo. Within days of Samtoy's November mob at Visible Voice, Cash Mob hashtags for other cities started populating Twitter. Was it the sheer power of social media that advertising types are quick to crown? No, Cash Mobs went viral because of who Samtoy knows.
"My friends just saw what I was doing and thought they'd do it too," he says. Then he begins the list. "Lisa Gilmore in L.A. was the hot, hot girl on student council I never had the courage to talk to." Portland cash mobs are organized by someone Samtoy worked with on an Oregon gubernatorial campaign. Houston and South Carolina? College buds. Chicago? A fellow groomsman in a wedding. Boston? A fellow Case law school grad. Albuquerque? A girl he went to school with.
One of these "core organizers," as Samtoy refers to them, is childhood friend Lauren Way from his hometown of San Diego. "In eighth grade he used to terrorize my cat," she says. "He would pretend head-butt him."
The HIV researcher says she's always cared about small businesses, but at least in her case, it wasn't exactly a matter of jumping to volunteer. She was nudged. Way followed Samtoy as he deposited nuggets of the idea on Facebook, and she later saw that there was going to be a Cash Mob in San Diego. She wanted to attend and asked him who the organizer was.
"You're the organizer," he replied.
"He has a way of sucking you in," says Way, who recently guided San Diego through its third Cash Mob and is now caught up in the thrill of it all. And the media attention? "It's crazy — crazy," she says. She too has been on the national news, and she knows how they found her. "It's because of Andrew. He's amazing, and he just finds the press everywhere."
In fact, Smith in Buffalo says the first time he heard from Samtoy and Mordarski, they said they had media coverage planned and wanted to ask permission to give him credit for the idea. Samtoy had secured himself an NPR slot and local press coverage for the first Cleveland Cash Mob at Visible Voice the month before it even happened.
Despite the coverage, Clevelanders only learned of the second one through Facebook or Twitter. And locals were oblivious to any sign of the growing movement taking hold elsewhere.
One of December's few snowy evenings was the setting for Cash Mob No. 2. Mobsters gathered at Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City for pre-mob libations and to await Samtoy's announcement of the mystery merchant who would soon be buried in $20 bills.
A block away on West 25th, Candra Squire watched the clock at Salty Not Sweet, her store packed with local artisans' wares and salty homemade greeting cards, not knowing what to expect.
Samtoy estimates 25 people braved the elements, but Squire insists it was 40. "It was packed," she says. And in an hour and a half, she made enough to pay the month's rent.
On a quiet afternoon in mid-February, Squire is perched on a stool behind the cash register at her store, recounting how her mob came to pass. And then a text comes in. It's Andrew.
"He's having a photo shoot at the store Saturday — some business magazine," she says, as if it's an ordinary appointment she will need to keep. It doesn't surprise her.
She met Samtoy two years ago, and since then he has found the time to manage her husband Billy's stand-up comedy career, which will take him to Pennsylvania and Minnesota and around Ohio in the coming month. Samtoy does it for free.
"Andrew is so young, but has done so much," she says. And with a slight chuckle she adds this: "You know, he was over at our house for Thanksgiving, and out of the blue he announced that he joined a cult once. Some religious cult when he was in Wales."
It was but another detour on his long road to Cleveland.
"You've grown up in San Diego, with perfect weather, went to school in L.A., and lived in Spain. Really, Andrew? Cleveland? Really?" Lauren Way tells him.
"I've been there many times, but I've never seen the Cleveland of which he speaks. But he loves Cleveland."
Indeed he does.
"There's so much to do in this city," Samtoy explains at the wine bar.
Because he was the son of a prominent San Diego pediatrician, everybody seemed to know him. In college he was student-body president ("Then everybody really knew me"). Then came working on a gubernatorial campaign in Oregon.
"Then I decided, after all the things I had done, I wanted to be a literature professor. I thought it would be helpful to learn another language first, so I moved to Barcelona. And if I was going to make it, I wanted to do it on my own merits. And the only way I could do that was to get away."
At some point later, he found himself alone for three days on a deserted Florida beach — don't ask — when it came to him: "When people want something done, they don't call professors of literature. They call attorneys."
So, back in Spain, Samtoy drew a thousand-mile circle around San Diego and applied only to law schools outside that radius. He was accepted at Case. He arrived in 2005 and never looked back. "When people ask me if I'm going home for Christmas, I say I'm going to San Diego for Christmas. Cleveland's my home."
On that note, he pulls out a small black moleskin pocket calendar and opens it to the day's page — its place held by an attached ribbon — like a hymnal. It would have been very expensive, but Samtoy gets last year's outdated calendars for a steal on eBay and dates the pages himself. He displays the very long list of everything he has to do that day, recorded in the most minuscule scrawl imaginable, along with the occasional passing thought he couldn't trust to memory.
"I have seven minutes before I'm meeting a friend's stepdaughter to help her with career advice. When should we do this again?"
With the Salty Not Sweet Cash Mob behind him and his core organizers across the country pretty much running on their own steam, Samtoy increasingly hears of Cash Mobs he has nothing to do with.
And they are rising up everywhere. From Louisiana and Alabama to Washington, D.C., and out to Arizona and Nevada. "It's shocking," he says.
Samtoy is also thrilled with local efforts he's watched from the sidelines. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce held a Cash Mob at Wexler's Tavern last month. They told people where it was in advance. Medina sponsored a "shop local" day and called it a Cash Mob.
"My rules are just suggestions," he says. "People need to do what fits for them."
Chagrin Falls did really well. James Black, a resident with no association to Samtoy, e-mailed friends to spend $20 at the circa-1857 Chagrin Hardware Store. Two hundred shoppers filtered through in one day, and the Associated Press spread the story nationally.
Meanwhile, Samtoy's Big Fun Cash Mob is proving to be more daunting to organize. Unlike the others, which unfolded in virtual secrecy, he has decided to contact the city first. "The other communities didn't need to know about it," he says. But given Cleveland Heights' recent history with flash mobs, he figures they do.
"My first thought was mob. Cash, flash — whatever," says City Manager Robert Downey, his thoughts retreating to nightmares of last June.
Negotiations were strained at first. Downey asked Samtoy how he controls the people. "I said, 'We don't.' Then there was silence.
"About 20 minutes into the 30-minute call, I told him that the people who show up to these things aren't the people who throw bricks. But I never told him CNN was coming."
Eventually convinced, Downey put four additional patrolmen on duty for the night of February 9, worked out the appropriate gathering place — the corner of Coventry and Euclid Heights Boulevard — and with that, the Coventry Cash Mob would be a go.
When the evening comes, Samtoy appears, this time in a hat made up of a fluffy white creature wearing a red Fez. He tells the assembled crowd they're headed to Big Fun.
With cameras rolling, the mob shambles down the same sidewalk that troublesome teens had traversed last summer. Passersby ask what it's all about, and some of them join in.
"This is a party I didn't have to throw," Presser says of the dozens who've jammed his store. "There are people here from all walks of life — this is community."
Afterward, the party continues at La Cave Du Vin, the wine bar down the street where more than half the Cash Mobsters gather afterward. "This is networking: doing something fun with friends," Samtoy says. "Put-on events where all you do is exchange cards and talk about what you do doesn't work."
About half the post-mob crowd don't already know Samtoy. "What he's doing makes so much sense. The big-box stores have taken things away from the cities. It's got to come back at some point," says David Meyers, a Detroit native fresh out of the Cleveland Institute of Art who now designs furniture for Reclaimed Cleveland.
"I would have never come to Big Fun or this bar if it weren't for the Cash Mob," says Jim Lincoln, owner of Reclaimed. And he plans to come back.
Amid a group of young women playing with their Silly Putty and cellophane mood fish, there is Samtoy's friend, Knut Strom-Jensen.
If Samtoy didn't like being known by everyone out west, he has fared no better here. Strom-Jensen has done the research.
"I was fooling around on Facebook, trying to find anyone in Cleveland who didn't know Andrew within two degrees," he says.
He couldn't find anyone.
"Andrew is Two Degrees of Cleveland."
Samtoy is pondering his future with Cash Mobs, this time over his favorite Cleveland dish — shrimp saganaki at Mia Bella in Little Italy. He reaches over the bar and produces a leather and stainless-steel flask, a circa-1977 Dunhill he bought on eBay, and he pours a round of Laphroaig scotch. The expensive stuff. Ten-year cask strength, neat. He brought it for Mia Bella's staff to try.
A moment later, Samtoy notices a Freemason's ring he's wearing as if he's surprised to find it on his own finger. He says he dabbled with the fabled fraternity for two years, before differences over what he calls racist policies drove him away. Conversation then meanders to the time he filled in as a model for a Diesel ad, on that day he just happened to be hanging out at the Southern California home of renowned designer Dana Hollister.
Eventually he wheels back around to talk of Cash Mobs. He mentions that he has declared March 24 National Cash Mob Day, and his organizers are all onboard.
The national attention is great, he says — though Canada has been a disappointment. Mobs have hit Calgary, Winnipeg, and Victoria. "I don't know these people. None of my Canadian friends are doing these, and I think they should. I have a cousin and aunt in Toronto! I seriously don't get why we don't have Toronto."
But London will be onboard soon — a friend of a friend.
Samtoy has heard that the Occupy movement has adopted Cash Mobs in some cities, and he greets the news coldly. His own rules, after all, specify that there is to be no political or religious agenda. His personal view of Occupy doesn't matter, he says; he doesn't like them claiming Cash Mobs for their own.
Then again, he knows his rules are just suggestions. He's said as much himself.
"People need to do what fits for them," he has said. Andrew Samtoy, of all people, should know.