Discovering Novi Bečej: Stories, people, history

By the paths of the past: Discover the rich history, interesting events and unforgettable people who have shaped Novi Bečej through time, as we return together to the heart of this beautiful city on the banks of the Tisza.

Petar Sekulić

Petar Sekulić was a merchant of manufactured goods, as I have already described him. In his dealings with assistants, he infused humor and jokes, but above all, he prioritized hard work and a friendly approach to customers. Perhaps that friendliness was often superficial, but no customer dared to leave the store dissatisfied. Regardless of whether they would later realize at home that they were deceived, paid a high price, or received less than what they paid for, they had to leave the store feeling calm and satisfied. Any scenes a customer might create in the store would result in a loss of business, as other customers would leave the store just to avoid witnessing arguments.

The atmosphere in Petar Sekulić's store among the assistants, as well as their relationship with the owner, was full of cheerfulness, and the day unfolded in such a mood during breaks. The subjects of jokes were everyone without exception: employees, customers, passersby on the street, but most often it was Pera Štrba, employed as an assistant, and the owner of the store, Pera Sekulić, whom all the assistants and apprentices called "gospodar" (master). Both not only accepted these jokes as harmless but often intentionally gave cause for new jokes and anecdotes through their actions. They did this with special delight, especially when these jokes were retold by others, which particularly impressed Pera Štrba.

Experienced merchants, not only Pera as the store owner but also all four assistants, were good psychologists. In most cases, they knew whether a particular customer genuinely wanted to make a purchase or just entered to "browse" the shelves. They personally knew many customers, adapting their behavior accordingly. In order to draw attention to the one assigned to serve a particular customer, they adopted some special expressions that had significant meaning and served as a warning to the entire store staff.

For example, the expression "lauf mas" meant "Watch out, this one is a thief!" or "one nikl," indicating that the customer haggled a lot and couldn't reach the desired price. In such cases, they compromised on measurements, compensating for the lost profit with a low price. The term "one nikl" is a translation from German - without nickel, meaning that when measuring with a wooden ruler that had metal parts 2 cm long at each end, they measured the goods without those metal parts, effectively giving 96 cm instead of a meter.

There were other expressions as well, for example, for a customer who only browsed the shelves without making a purchase, or for a customer who needed to be served with special care, etc.

As courteous and accommodating as the store owner, Master Pera, was towards customers, he showed little patience and tolerance towards traveling salesmen, especially the intrusive ones, who were usually all alike. As soon as he spotted them, he became nervous, fidgety, and tried to somehow escape from the store, leaving one of the assistants to deal with the traveler. Travelers knew that without the master, there was no deal, so they didn't easily let go of the opportunity to make a sale. Therefore, Pera tried, whenever possible, to simply avoid them.

When there were no customers in the store, one of the assistants always stood at the door, trying to lure in any potential customers who stopped in front of the display for any reason. On one occasion, a helper at the door spotted one of the well-known "bothering" traveling salesmen approaching and quickly shouted to the master, "Master, here comes a traveler..." With no time to escape from the store, Pera crawled under the counter, hoping that the traveler, upon hearing that the master wasn't there, would quickly leave.

Assistants always ready for a joke, instead of quickly getting rid of the traveler, intentionally keep him, so that the master is under the counter for as long as possible. During the summer, in the heat, with the master all "hunched" under the counter, exhausted and annoyed because the assistants are keeping the traveler, he eagerly awaits for the traveler to leave the store. As soon as he, groaning and sweating, comes out from under the counter, he starts cursing the assistants, calling them all sorts of derogatory names, claiming they are not human, and that he pays enemies who are plotting against him. They pretend to be serious, defending themselves and saying that the master taught them to be patient and kind to everyone, so they couldn't act differently on this occasion. Seeing that he can't handle them, a customer arrives in the meantime, and he quickly forgets everything that happened.

Perhaps taught by this incident, and with the increasingly common occurrence of customers seeking credit purchases, he orders that a canvas curtain be placed in one part of the store, closer to the cash register, hanging like a screen from the ceiling to the floor. Pera most often hid behind this curtain when he saw a customer who would ask for credit.

Once, he hid behind this curtain from a traveling salesman. As the salesman entered the store, all the assistants simultaneously said that the master had traveled to Bečkerek (Zrenjanin). The salesman complains about his bad luck, and one of the assistants points to the master's shoes sticking out from under the curtain. The salesman, understanding the situation, asks - when did the master leave and when will he return? Upon hearing an unconvincing answer, he roams around the store a bit more, then, before leaving, says - "Send many greetings to the Master and tell him I came and recommended that next time he goes to Bečkerek, he should bring his own legs."

During the period of the great economic crisis from 1929 to 1933, many workers who had previously found work outside of Novi Bečej were left jobless. In the winter, to feed their families, they engaged in weaving baskets from willow branches. Almost all wealthier merchants bought these baskets at very cheap prices - 2 dinars per piece. In summer or early autumn, before the corn harvest, merchants sold the baskets in areas where there were no willows, providing an additional source of income outside of regular trade in stores.

Among others, Petar Sekulić also bought baskets from the poor in Bečej, with the baskets being stored in his house, which had a large yard and was located near the Novi Bečej monastery. The worker-basket weaver brought the baskets to the store; Pera haggled with him and sent him home, sending a note to his wife about how much to pay for a certain number of baskets.

In such a common practice, Pera Sekulić's wife, named Jelena, otherwise a very strict woman, was jokingly called "Little Entente" by the assistants in the store because of her strictness. "Little Entente" was the name of the alliance between Yugoslavia, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. Pera himself accepted this nickname for his wife, which he also used in her absence, of course, in front of his staff.

One day, Jelena bought about twenty baskets. Since she didn't know how the prices were moving, she paid two and a half dinars each, as much as the worker-basket weaver asked for. At that time, this was a significant difference, and Pera Sekulić, being a merchant of his caliber, was particularly sensitive to it. Admittedly, everyone is sensitive to it, and merchants even more so, because it's not just about paying more than necessary, but it involves a lack of trading ability and skill. In the case of Pera Sekulić, it was especially significant that he paid more than he should have.

When Pera came home for lunch, Jelena, all important, informed him that she had bought 20 baskets. When Pera heard how much she had paid, lunch turned sour for him. However, as she was an irritable woman, he couldn't express his dissatisfaction directly to her. Instead, as soon as he opened the store in the afternoon, he despairingly told the assistants - "Imagine, guys, that 'goose' of mine bought baskets and, if you please, paid 2.5 dinars per piece. If she had bought 3-4, that would be something, but 20." - The assistants comfort and sympathize with him in his pain, but not for long.

Customers arrived, and Pera forgot about the baskets, becoming lively and enthusiastic in convincing customers to purchase goods. In the meantime, one of the assistants - after serving a customer, packing the goods - shouted, as was the custom, at the top of his lungs to announce how much the respective customer had to pay - "Master, cash register, 4 baskets!" - which meant the purchase amount was 10 dinars. This caused thunderous laughter from everyone present, reminding the master of his momentary agony. He began to curse and shout, "Villains, not people, how long will I endure this..." However, in business, all of that was forgotten, and relationships remained as before, full of cheerfulness and good mood.

As a wealthy merchant, Pera married his only daughter to the county deputy mayor, a high-ranking official position at the time. Despite his son-in-law holding a relatively high position, as a bohemian and a complete contrast to Pera, he couldn't cover the family's living expenses with his salary alone.

Pera was pleased that his son-in-law was a deputy mayor, but it was hard for him to accept that almost every month he had to come to the aid of his daughter or son-in-law to "make ends meet" until the next salary. However, he persistently and diligently fulfilled this obligation. He dared not complain to his daughter, wife, or especially to his son-in-law. Jelena, Pera's wife, was particularly impressed that her son-in-law held a position.

Pera vented his frustrations routinely in the store in front of the assistants and sometimes even in front of customers. He did it as a joke, but at the core of these jokes was always the darkest reality for him - that he worked and toiled, while his son-in-law "squandered."

Here's one such joke about his son-in-law. A peasant woman came to the store, Pera showed her the goods, set the price, but the customer found it too high and reacted immediately, saying it was too expensive.

"Please, it's not expensive at all," Pera said, taking out a pocket knife - "but look at this knife, it's expensive. This, please, costs 5,000 dinars."

Knowing that such a knife costs 4-5 dinars in any store, the customer, laughing, said, "What are you talking about, Mr. Pera? Right across the street at the hardware store, you can buy 1000 pieces for that amount."

The assistants, aware of the master's agony, immediately came to his aid:

Yes, ma'am, that knife really costs our Master that much. Knowing it was impossible, the peasant woman still asked:

Well, what kind of knife is it that it costs so much? Pera eagerly awaited the question:

"Please, my daughter and son-in-law were on vacation in Banja Koviljača. Before they left, I gave them 2500 dinars. After a few days, my daughter wrote, urgently asking for another 2500 dinars because my son-in-law lost the first 2500 dinars gambling. When they returned from Banja, my daughter brought me this knife, so you see how much it cost me, compared to the price of this top-quality merchandise that I'm offering you."

He avoided selling goods on credit, known as "veresija," and similarly avoided lending money. On one occasion, the son of his friend, known for not repaying loans, asked Pera to lend him some money because he urgently needed it, and he promised to repay it as soon as he received his salary.

Pera made excuses, saying that he had significant payments that day, a small purchase, and other obligations he had to meet the next day, among many other things. But the persistent young friend reduced the amount. So when he reduced the request to an amount for which Pera had no justification to say he didn't have, he politely said:

"Cousin, we are such good friends, I highly esteem your father, my old friend. I'll lend you, and you won't have to pay me back. Why should we ruin our relationship over such a small sum of money, avoiding and hating each other."

Seeing that he had no choice, the young friend left angry. Pera was happy that he had been persistent and had persevered in this persistence, and most importantly, he had freed himself from similar future attacks.

Perhaps Pera's contemporaries would disagree with my inclusion of Pera Sekulić in the ranks of Novi Bečej jesters because his social position as a wealthy merchant set him apart from the assessment I gave for jesting. However, I believe it would be a mistake to omit Pera Sekulić and his everyday jokes. He was primarily a jester and only then a business person. He certainly stood out from other jesters because he was particularly diligent and business-oriented, as I mentioned at the beginning, jesting did not always characterize him.

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