About twenty years ago Ric Anderson at the Journal World got a memo about subjects for the Monday "Profile" series. I had just sold his house and helped find another. He put my name in the hat, got the assignment and produced this:
(This story has been edited to keep it updated. Remember, everybody sees everything slightly differently. This is one version.)
In the button-down world of real estate, Charles Gruber is a merry prankster.
The 66-year-old self-described unreconstructed flower child goes to the office - where he's arranged more than $40 million worth of sales in the last 24 years - in sandals. All the time. No tie, either, which seems fitting for somebody who is still dropping the term "far out" and sometimes burns incense in houses he's trying to sell.
"I think it was Bill Cosby who said this, and I thought it was a great quote: "I don't know what the secret to success is, but I know that the secret to failure is trying to please everybody," Gruber said.
If pleasing all the people all the time means being conventional, Gruber is destined to remain in left field. Because being middle of the road has always been about as comfortable to him as a stiff new pair of wing tips.
After college and a stint as Peace Corps volunteer, Gruber traveled the country and landed in Lawrence in 1971. "I thought, 'This is far out. This is a town we could become comfortable in and become famous in,'" Gruber laughed.
A short time later, Gruber pulled down his first full-time job in Lawrence: Volkswagen mechanic. "I'd never touched a wrench," he said. "My first wife's brother got into it, and I thought, 'Wow, what a hip thing to do.'"
After working at a dealership for about a year, Gruber opened Charlie's VW Service. Its successor was named Metric Motors. He operated the businesses for more than 15 years. Even though he never became a stellar mechanic, he said, "I think I made it by being fairly competent and completely honest." Gruber said his approach was to "demystify the mechanic," using charts and diagrams to explain why cars weren't working and giving customers options for repairs. If none of the options worked, Gruber invited his customers to meditate over their vehicles, a tactic that he swears was successful. "Sure. What didn't always work was trying to repair them by conventional means," he said.
In the mid-1980's, Gruber's wife, Khabira, made an off-the cuff remark about his passing interest in real estate, which led to "an epiphany that I ought to sell real estate."
And just like that, Gruber changed careers. He received his Realtor's license in 1987 and went to work for the Gill Agency. In his second year, he made the $1 million sales club. Four years later he had bumped his annual sales to $2 million and this year he's surpassed $3 million.
Although Gruber has gone from peace and love to the fast-paced and competitive Lawrence real estate market, he has kept much of his '60's and '70's irreverence.
He pitches his services through weekly newspaper ads - "smudges and incantations," as he calls them - that feature little nuggets of wisdom from sources like fortune cookies and children's books. "Found in a fortune cookie this week: 'There are big changes for you...you will be happy.'" read the text of a recent ad, which, as usual, was accompanied by a photograph of Gruber and his telephone number. "Ring me up. I make house calls."
"I do think there are people who won't do business with me because I have a loosy-goosey attitude and I'm willing to play with it," he admitted. Behind the playfulness, though, there's someone who thirsts for the art of the deal.
"He's been one of the top agents in Lawrence and my top agent for a number of years," said Charles W. Hedges, president of Hedges Realty Executive, Inc. Hedges hired Gruber in 1990 after "heavily recruiting him" from Gill.
Hedges said that although Gruber used unconventional means, he succeeded in old-fashioned ways: establishing trust with clients, out-hustling the competition and thinking well on his feet. "He's a very bright, caring person...and he works extremely hard," Hedges said.
Work doesn't end when Gruber leaves his office or when he puts down his cellular phone, either. A foster father, stepfather, adoptive father, grandfather and great-grandfather, Gruber has volunteered on the site council at New York School and worked with school district officials to garner support for Lawrence's second high school.
Looking back, he said that during his hippie days he never thought he'd turn out like he has. "This is strictly Establishment, what I'm doing now." he said.
Yet he has no regrets. "For me, a compromise would be if my standards of compassion and honesty got sullied by my need for money and security," he said, "and that hasn't happened. Being true to who I am as I evolve is important to me."