Thomas grew up in Clinton, Maryland, absorbing the lessons of his father, a salesman who worked at J.C. Penney (“If he didn’t sell, he didn’t make any money”), started a gas station, then opened a video store in Forestville.
The father was savvy, but the son was savvier. The young Bill Thomas didn’t see why it was necessary to maintain a fixed location to sell videos. He began pitching his father’s VHS tapes outside shopping centers. He rented tents in parking lots. He opened temporary stores at malls. He sold on sidewalks. At Christmas he’d sleep in his car to sell to people who had gotten up early to shop before work.
One year, a HoneyBaked Ham franchise opened next door to the video store, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the line to get in was blocking the video business. His father complained. Thomas began selling tapes to customers waiting for their hams.
Thomas also created two sideline businesses of his own. The first was a T-shirt company he started in high school with a friend. The other was a ticket-scalping business.
When he started scalping, he hired four employees. By the third week, he had 11 more. They would camp out in front of RFK Stadium, buy up blocks of tickets, then sell them for a profit.
Thomas bought his first house at age 20.
Somehow, while running three businesses between his teens and mid-twenties, he collected more than 130 credits at Prince George’s Community College, GW, and the University of Maryland. He never finished, but he’s never regretted it. “All I ever wanted,” he says, “was to live in the city, make a million dollars, and have a great house. And I’ve done that.”
The house is near Dupont Circle. Thomas lives alone; the four floors are scarcely inhabited. The refrigerator contains nothing but a bottle of water. The table is a 100-year-old piece of white oak on two whiskey barrels. The most obvious evidence of a human presence is his whiskey collection.
“Other than drinking whiskey and sleeping,” Thomas says, “I don’t really spend any time there. I could empty it out in four hours.”
Thomas doesn’t trust comforts.
I ask whether he distrusts success.
“Is that part of the bond you and Harvey have?” I ask.
“Definitely. He tells me, ‘You’re a young me, and you need to watch your liver.’ ”
Hearing this reminds me of a moment toward the end of my lunch with Fry at MGM Roast Beef. I’d asked him whether he considered Jack Rose to be a kind of monument to his collection. He was chewing the roast-beef sandwich he had requested be cut into ten pieces, and his face reddened as he thundered, “I don’t give a shit about posterity! When I’m dead, I’m dead.”
People turned and stared.
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