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Original Mobster

Andrew Samtoy's simple plan has sparked an international cash-mob sensation

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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.

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