I left school at the age of sixteen and went off to work. I could /should have stayed in school but as I had no interest in education that really wasn’t an option. As I think I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I think that I’d have done a lot better at school if someone had actually sat me down and told me why the hell I was supposed to be there.
I chose a retail path in life. Not because I had any interest in retail, retail management, or any other term to do with retail. No, I chose it because my mother knew someone who could get me a job on the Youth Training Scheme. Y.T.S. as it was known was supposed to be a great way to let youth get an idea of what it is like to work. It was actually more of a benefit to the employers who could get a full-time member of staff and only have to pay them 27 pounds (52 dollars) a week. Well below minimum wage in 1986.
Now the reason I decided to blog about my retail exploits is because of a couple of FB messages I have from Helen Miles a blogger from my home county of Suffolk in England. She knew I used to work in Burton Menswear and she mentioned it was shutting down after being in the town for 60 years or more. Helen used to work next door at Boots the chemist though back in the late 80s I was too shy to talk to her! It is just a co-incidence but now all of the retail chains that I have worked in have all closed down. A very sad thing because these places hold a lot of memories for me. I wasted a lot of hours stacking shelves helping people who were pains in the butts, so I had to come up with a few things to pass the hours.
Top Shop/ Top Man was my first place of real work. It was 1986 and fashions were bold and bright and stone washed denim was a new thing. It still makes me laugh today that the tag code for jeans at Top Man was 69. This place had it all, great clothes, great music, and in the Top Shop section a lot of great girls! It was at this fine establishment, in the stock room I had my first ever kiss. This is probably why I still love working in stockrooms and warehouses today! Sheena where ever you are, thanks, I had fun, even if I was too stupid to ask you out! I hated working on the shop floor and would love for customers to ask me to go look for something in the stockroom, this meant I could go sit in the break room for five minutes while I pretended to go look. On quiet days it wasn’t so bad, I would help rearrange the store to put the more exciting two-tone shirts in prominent positions. The music would help pass the time, and when the looped tapes would hit a certain spot you could always hear me singing out to Living on a Prayer at the top of my voice, well until the manager told me to shut it. It was at this very store I started my quest to annoy customers as best I could without them working out what I was doing. Quite a tough task, trying to be horrible and almost useless without getting fired. Though I managed it successfully for a long time. One of my favorite lines I would use would happen like this, someone would walk in and say “Can you help me out?” to which I’d reply, “Sure, which way did you come in?” For the most I’d get a half-hearted chuckle, that was enough for me to stay happy. Working in the stockroom did however come with its downside. Working by yourself you get to go a little nuts, so I invented an invisible anteater call George to keep me company. George was smarter than me, he had a degree in Ant-thropology and the bastard would never let me forget it.
After being turned down for a promotion I switched to our local rivals in the clothing industry Burton Menswear. I guess they really weren’t rivals as they belonged to the same company so it was more of a symbolic sticking up of the middle finger. It was here I met Colin, a man who was talk and skinny and would wear a long overcoat that made him look like he moved but had no feet. Colin would become a dear friend if not the best and I was greatly honoured to be the best man at his wedding. His wife was not too pleased at my decision to grow a moustache just for the wedding photos! Colin and I had the same outlook on life when it came to retail. If you can’t have fun then you have to do some work.
One day Colin brought his sisters glove puppet “Gordon the Gopher” in to work with him. Gordon was small and furry and squeaky, three word you would never be able to describe Colin as. I , recall the moment very well. It is one of my favorite retail experiences. A customer, a rather grumpy looking woman came up to me at the counter where I was avoiding real work. She asked my opinion on if the shirt and tie she was holding went together. I took them from her, made several humming noises, held the pink shirt and paisley tie up to the light hummed some more and said “I’m actually not quite sure, I think they are fine, but let us get a second opinion.” with that Colin stuck his glove puppet covered hand up from under the counter and squeaked the little Gordon as loud as he could
“Gordon,” I said, ” Do you think this shirt and tie go together?”
“Squeak, Squeak, Squeak, Squeak Squeak.”
“Gordon thinks they are fine,” with that I kept my straight face, Gordon disappeared, and I was left looking and a grumpy woman with a confused look on her face. Her next word was one that told me my sense of humour was wasted. “Manager!” she yelled. To which our poor downtrodden manager Paul would come out with that, what the hell did you do now look on his face. One that I so loved to see.
I believe we got a written warning for that stunt, though I could be wrong. Getting warnings became a sport for Colin and I. Of Course I won though! If we did get a warning we would tape them to our lockers as if they were certificates of merit. We had a new Assistant Manager called Marc show up one day. He was very nice right up until the point when he was officially given the job. Then he tried to be a hard ass. Meeeh, not going to work. You can try to be mean to me, but as the revenge song goes, “At some point you’ll have to fall asleep” I decided to play a joke on Marc, so I called the Sunday Sport and told them that our new Assistant Manager was Phil Collins, the musician. Marcs only resemblance to Phil was that his hairline was going backwards faster than an Italian tank. The reported I spoke to thought it was great and basically said they would come down and take photos. It would have worked but the reporter decided that he’d call back and ask for Phil and the call went to my Manager Paul. The reporter was kind enough to fill Paul in on what the story was. I still remember the wording on the warning to this day. Written warning, for improper use of the company telephone. That one stayed on the locker for a long time.
There was also the time Colin brought a voice changer in and hid under one of the racks making weird noises as people walked by. And the time we put over the tannoy that there was a bomb in the shop so could everybody please leave, this was done because we wanted to leave early and watch England play in a World Cup game. Happy Days.
It is a shame that we have to grow up. The late 80s early 90s were a fun time of fighting boredom with stupid things. I always dreamed of seeing the world, but never got as far as the travel agents magazines. That was until 2002 when I moved to the USA. Woo-hoo adventure at last! But before I left I worked one final retail position. Back where I started in the Stockroom/warehouse. I loved it, no dealing with customers, my own domain for me to do as I pleased… for the most part. I worked as many hours as I could to save up for my new life in Michigan, I worked overnight as well stocking shelves when there was no customers around which was always a riot. I’d been telling the women who worked there that the stockroom was haunted for weeks, most took it with a pinch of salt. Others were more worried about going up there alone at night. It would be great, I would wait in hiding for them up there, they would think they were alone and I would turn the lights off, to which I’d either get a scream or a Dave stop screwing around. One night the girls were taking a short cut through the stock room to the time clock as it was time to leave, the lights were all off already but there’s safety in numbers right?
Don’t you believe it.
As I waited for them to pass by I set off all the Furbies. “I’m Sleepy” they said in their creep voices. You will never see five girls run that fast in your life. It was a great way to end a retail career.