The first morning of the Great Reno Balloon Race, Sept. 6, dawned gray and drippy. Things did not bode well for the ballooning set. But Greg Graham, vendor of novelty mugs with special transformational properties, offered crowds a weatherproof product. “Even if the weather’s bad out, my balloons still fly,” he told onlookers as he poured hot water into one of the specialty mugs he was selling for $9.95. Sure enough, the mug’s inky black nightscape turned to day, revealing a mass of colorful balloons lifting into the sky. Spectators oohed and ahhed, especially the younger folk. Graham continued his demonstrations by pouring hot water into mugs decorated with sprays of birds and flowers, with shamrocks and with New York City skylines. “It’s night, so the lights go on, and then the clouds go away—night falls in the Big Apple,” he explained, pouring water into the New York mug. “And there’s the World Trade Center, smack dab in the middle.” When he isn’t selling mugs at special events, Graham, a resident of Eureka, Calif., sells other quicky stuff like laser guns. I caught up with him just before the balloons—didn’t fly.
Tell me about selling mugs.
The mugs I sell at Christmas, special events and at holidays like Valentine’s Day. Special events have always been great to me, like this one here. … I’m going to be working next in Seattle, for the Western Washington State Fair.
How do the mugs work?
It’s called thermo-cromatic ink. The idea’s been around for many years. Mainly, it’s been a promotional item. Companies would have them made with logos. They’ve been in national parks for years.
How long have you been selling at the Reno balloon races?
It’s my third year.
How many special events do you do each year?
With mugs? Only half a dozen or so. With [other merchandise], about 30 to 40 weekends a year.
How’d you get into mugs?
I was living and working on the east coast. I was working for a government contractor, living in Delaware. I saw these demonstrations by the owner of the company at a craft show. Once I got back to Eureka, I was as looking for a way to make a living, and I liked sales. Eureka is a pretty depressed area, and I was looking for something to do, and [mugs] stuck in my mind. It’s my first foray into sales, and it branched out into other things. At the time I was the only one on the West Coast doing it. … I like meeting people. People get a kick out of ’em. It’s nice to have a product where people go, “Oh, wow!”
What’s your most popular mug?
When I’m not at a balloon festival, this one right here—the hummingbirds. Butterflies are a close second. They’re mainstays.
Are your own cupboards filled with the mugs?
Yeah, I have got quite a few at home. I use ’em. I use ’em.
Kids seem to love your demonstrations.
Oh, they do. Their faces light up when they see them.