I’ve always been a fan of Donald Trump.
I met the man in 1990, when I was a New York City street vendor. Four or five days a week, I’d sell the “Incredible Wiggling Hand” on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower. The toy squirmed around as if it were Thing from “The Addams Family.”
One afternoon, Trump was strolling along Fifth Avenue with his family and stopped to watch curiously as I sold to passing tourists.
“Hello, Mr. Trump,” I said after bagging the toy for a customer. I had read “The Art of the Deal” a few months earlier and was inspired by its message – that my success wouldn’t depend on my education or credentials (I had neither), but rather on my ideas and my confidence. Trump nodded at me and walked away.
That nod was all I needed. I’d been a street vendor since 17. At that moment, I decided to follow Trump’s advice and “think big.” I’d always loved prank toys. Why should I merely sell them when I could design them instead?
Over the next 25 years, I created many novelty products, marketing them first in flea markets, then to small gift stores and finally at major chains like Spencer Gifts and Walgreens. I’ve done well and supported my family.
One of my biggest sellers has been the talking pen, which I’m particularly proud of since I invented it with a former NASA engineer. It’s endlessly adaptable – with new sound chips, sculpted head toppers and barrel art, a pen can be Barack Obama or Rudy Giuliani. Each new design costs about $10,000 to develop. I order them in batches of 5,000 from a factory in China for $15,000 to $20,000.
In September 2015 I released the Hillary Clinton Laughing Pen, which featured Clinton laughing for seven crazy seconds. Fans asked for a Trump option, too, so I designed something that resembled a Mont Blanc with the Trump name stenciled in gold lettering. The pen’s packaging had photos of Trump with inspirational quotes, including “You have to think anyway, so why not think big?” A “Vote for Trump!” insignia appeared on the pen’s clip.
When I mailed a prototype to Trump’s campaign headquarters, I received an encouraging thank you. My pen, I was told in a letter, would be displayed in the office. I took that as an endorsement. Weeks later, 3,000 pens had been produced and flown to Florida, where my company is based.
That’s when things got hairy. Customs and Border Protection immediately confiscated the pens for trademark violation. I was told that unless I obtained Trump’s written permission, the pens would be destroyed. For years, I’d sold political gifts without incident. Copyright law had always protected my right to playful parody of political candidates. But Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama had not trademarked their names. Trump had.
I contacted a lawyer who helped me reach Trump’s general licensing attorney. He forwarded my pen sample to the Trump Organization’s general counsel. I was asked for a royalty proposal. I sent one offering 10 percent of gross sales, with a $5,000 advance and a $10,000 guarantee. I included a heartfelt letter about my small business.
But after weeks of back and forth, Trump’s lawyers sent me a letter denying my request. I emailed the Trump campaign and the Donald himself, but received no reply. I even reached out to my senator, Marco Rubio. His staff contacted border control on my behalf. No dice.
Eventually, the pens were destroyed. I was out $30,000 during the holiday season, when I make most of my sales. I had to pay my employees less that Christmas and buy fewer gifts for my daughters.
I was dejected. I had wanted Trump’s approval for most of my life. After all, I designed this pen to help Trump – and he fired me! I asked myself, “What would Trump do in my shoes?” He wouldn’t give up. So, I worked with a sculptor and painter to re-create Trump’s head. I listened to hours of speeches to pick the perfect catchphrases.
I made one other crucial decision: I omitted the “Trump” name from the packaging. The pens cleared customs. Within weeks, we were sold out, with thousands of back orders.
I’ve been advised by lawyers and friends that I should not write this article and instead fly under the radar. But I am proud of this pen and don’t want to hide or run away. And honestly, I think Trump would be proud of my persistence.
Jay Kamhi is the owner of Kamhi World, where the pens sell for $14.95. He wrote this for The Washington Post.