From Henry Mayhew's London Characters and Crooks:
These men have several articles which they sell singly, such as tea-trays, copper kettles, fire-irons, guns, whips, to all of which they have some preamble; but their most attractive lot is a heap of miscellaneous articles: 'I have here a pair of scissors; I only want half-a-crown for them. What? You won't give me 1 shilling? Well, I'll add something else. Here's a most useful article, a knife with eight blades, and there's not a blade among you all that's more highly polished. This knife's a case of instruments in addition to the blades; here's a corkscrew, a button-hook, a file, and a picker. For this capital knife and a first-rate pair of scissors I want 1 shilling. Well, well, you've no more conscience than a lawyer; here's something else - a pocket book ...
Very nearly two years ago to the day I talked about campaign design, and how designing from the ground up is the best way to put together a memorable scene, or even a longer story arc. I said then:
The basic layer is simply this: the things the characters encounter all the time, whether they want to or not. The characters will always want to eat, to sleep, to move around. They'll buy clothing, toys, game consoles. They will have needs and they'll want to fill them. At the same time there will be events happening around them regardless of whether or not the players are directly involved, because everyone else in the game world has needs to satisfy too. This is at the heart of every system, regardless of setting or mechanics, and you can play with this layer in many different ways - so long as you establish it first.
What more basic than a Cheap-John?
Magnifique Hooky Street, after all.
A Cheap-John has three characteristics. First, they have a main line of business. It's the up-front stuff which might have fallen off the back of a lorry, but it's what catches the customer's eye and brings them to the Cheap-John in the first place. It might be the tea-trays, whips or guns, it might be something else. In a Cyberpunk setting, it might be clothes - racks of Leisurewear, say. Or guns. Or kibble.
Second, they have their sideline - all the other stuff they're selling in a job-lot. A Cheap-John will sell almost anything, and make the most outrageous promises if it means making the sale. A half-dozen spoons, nothing inferior to silver, and that do not require half the usual quantity of sugar to sweeten your tea ... a splendid pocket-book, which must add to the respectability and consequence of any man who wears it ... a pocket-comb which possesses the peculiar property of making the hair curl ...
Notice the phrasing. 'Nothing inferior to silver' does not mean it's silver. 'Do not require half the usual quantity of sugar to sweeten your tea' means ... something, but probably not what the buyer thinks it means. The buyer hears 'I will use less sugar,' but that's not what the Cheap-John said.
Third, a Cheap-John is a transitory business. Here one week, gone the next. On the move. Trotter's Independent Traders has its 1972 Reliant Regal Supervan III, knackered yet sturdy; symbols of British eccentricity, Wikipedia calls 'em. Comedic yet dangerous; you could drive those on a motorcycle license, and they tipped over and crashed at the slightest provocation. Point being, it's cheap. Ubiquitous, at least in its day, and it will get you and your goods where you need to be, more or less in one piece.
A Cheap-John is someone the characters will encounter all the time. They are the base level of the market, whatever the market is. More expensive traders sell more reliable, authentic merchandise, but the Cheap-John sells whatever the Cheap-John can lay his hands on, and the lure is you just might find an actual bargain. Of course you rarely do; if that was at all likely, the Cheap-John would go out of business. The whole point is to sell cheap tat for more than you paid for it.
Legal? Of course it's not legal. Do you think someone selling cheap tat at the lowest possible price is going to pay whatever the local authority wants for a trader's license?
With all that in mind, let's talk about three versions of the Cheap-John, with plot ideas for each.
Bookhounds of London
Age: indeterminate, but definitely over 40. Fat and wheezy. Works with an associate, 'Ribs' Macavoy, whose job it is to stand watch for the peelers and give warning if the stall's about to be raided.
Main Line: tea sets and china.
Sideline: almost anything, but the characters are going to be interested in his collection of pocket books. These aren't for note-taking; they're small paperback versions of popular novels, printed in the tens of thousands. They're useful for bulking up a struggling bookhound's stock. Morris' collection isn't exactly what you'd call mint, pristine or even complete; pages might be missing, the cover torn. That doesn't matter to the bookhounds - much. Besides, these have colorful covers that attract the eye.
Plot Hook: Morris acquires a suitcase from God alone knows where, and the contents are a bit literary for him so he offers it to the Hounds at a knock-down price. Papers found inside suggest that this is the very suitcase lost by Hemingway in the Gare de Lyon, Paris. Legendarily, it once contained Hemingway's entire literary output up to that point plus a large chunk of an unpublished World War One novel. It's anyone's guess where those papers are now; a large hole, chewed by a rat, in the bottom of the case may provide a clue. Oddly, once the Hounds get the case they find themselves plagued by rats of all kinds, including Rat Things ... but Rat Things are intelligent. They might remember what the papers said, if they don't still have the originals. The group's forger may be very interested in talking to these knowledgeable rodents.
Swords of the Serpentine
Pasqualin the Contrary
Age: no more than 20, at least biologically, and no matter what he does those moustache hairs aren't getting any thicker. Thin and aggressive. Is on the outs with half-a-dozen different criminal gangs as he refuses to pay dues, tribute or any other fealty. Fancies himself a ladies' man.
Main Line: blades, mostly knives.
Sideline: oddments, particularly foreign oddments. If it came from somewhere other than Eversink and is cracked and damaged now, you can bet it will find a place on Pasqualin's stall. He doesn't discriminate; that peculiar game set with half the pieces missing is just as important as the tooled leather belt he got from a barbarian, or the colorful blown glass bottles with the odd green sheen.
Plot Hook: Everyone knows foreigners have strange ideas about how to treat their dead. Those born and bred in Eversink know you have to put up some kind of statue, but these horsemen from the Flatlands have odd notions. One of Pasqualin's cheaper items is a mask about right-sized for a child, which Pasqualin thinks is a death mask. Unbeknown to him it has magical properties, in that someone used it to channel Corruption into a blood relative by means of the mask. The child is long dead, and the sorcerer wants her mask back, for ... sentimental reasons. That's before the heroes realize that the dead child also wants it back, for ... sentimental reasons.
Age: probably 40s, they/them, loves Asia Pop, particularly Hot Monster brand accessories and glasses. Drives around in a bright yellow modified groundcar, the Forbidden Palace (cargo upgrade, counts as seating upgrade for spend purposes, housing upgrade, malfunctioning biolock upgrade - as in, doesn't always let Perfect in). Works with Nomad pack, Coronado Pagans, who help them with their vehicle. Sometimes Perfect has one or two Pagans with them on a run, usually Pixie Dust, seven foot tall shotgun-toting bruiser. Younger Pagans also travel along with Perfect as technical support; the Pagans see it as a good way of testing out wannabees and hangers-on.
Main Line: Asia Pop fashionware, also light tattoos if Pixie Dust is with Perfect.
Sideline: Perfect rummages around in all the forgotten or broken-down parts of Rancho Coronado, particularly abandoned strip malls, so they often come up with software and braindance chips, pre-Red. Not all of them work as intended and some of them are so retrograde they won't work with current technology, at least not without Tech modification. Perfect fancies themselves a braindance artist and connoisseur, and frequently splices in old dance material to their latest creation for extra buzz.
Plot Hook: Perfect needs a place to lie low after a braindance chip sale went bad. Perfect's not sure what the customer's beef is, but the customer has weight with the Happy Daze Posers and as Perfect's allergic to multiple Fonzies beating the snot out of them, Perfect's calling in favors. Anyone who can offer Perfect a quiet place to sleep at night gets whatever they want from stock, plus a tip on where to look for some sweet salvage.