In 1979, as an ex- bank cashier turned shop assistant, with increased hours and reduced pay, Graham Higson felt the only prospects he had were of sliding into terminal poverty. With pretty much non-existent practical skills, he described himself as "to DIY what a toothpick was to deep-core mining." Here he shares the next instalment of his shop-floor memories...
The boss was an ex-Royal Navy man, where he'd served as a joiner. It seemed that every job he'd done on board was during some sort of attack – either from the enemy or the elements. Storms, sinkings and wreckage were all in a day's work and to hear him talk you'd think he'd spent more time at sea than Davy Jones.
"We're under attack!" he said one day, looking into the street. The council was lifting the old Victorian paving flags and replacing them with shiny black tarmac. Lovely. We later found that old flags were attracting premium prices as architectural antiques, and the council philistines were making a killing on them. Suddenly the boss shot outside to have words with the driver of the power roller that had just crunched our Edwardian coal grate. I wondered who'd be paying for its replacement if, indeed, there were any still available. Three days later we were fortunate enough to be presented with a concrete slab to block up the hole. It was lucky that no one had fallen down there.
Unkind locals warned me about daft Doris, an aged lady who scurried around town in her pre-war coat and hat. She could be seen on the streets poking around in corners, shop doorways and litter bins. I asked the boss what she was looking for. "The 1930s," he grunted.
The first time I served her, I was failing to explain about her suspect ballcock washer when suddenly she began talking to another person – only I couldn't see them. Bluetooth hadn't been invented, remember. Assuming it was a mental health issue, maybe I should join in to make her feel better? But that wouldn't work as I didn't know what this other person was saying – hang on a sec, did I really believe there was some invisible presence witnessing my pathetic sales technique? After a few stern words, Doris told them to shut up and we got back to the workings of her toilet.
If I told you how small was the shop, you'd wonder how the boss ever managed to pay me anything more than a paper-round wage (which was how it felt), but every day there were times when 10 or more people would cram in there, eager to buy what they thought could make their homes that little bit more complete and their lives happier. The DIY superstores hadn't quite reached where we were in the back of beyond, but it was clear that things were screaming out for change. We had just 215 square feet in which to trade, and when I saw it empty a few years ago it felt about as big as a telephone box. How on earth did we manage? All we had was the shop and a room next door where we cut wood to size and the boss parked his car.
Many of the town's shops had been face-lifted, having had the traditional covered doorways torn out and replaced with the new bog-standard flat-frontages. Okay, so this modernisation increased internal floor space, but it also zapped people being able to look in the display windows as they sheltered from the rain. Yes, maybe it was an old-fashioned design but, just like the water culverts installed by the Victorians – who really knew how to control drainage – it was design for purpose. But such ideas are easy to discard just because some modern-day bright sparks think they know better.
It was obvious that to survive in a changing marketplace we should follow our fellow traders by going down the self-service route, and there was only one direction we could expand and I knew it wouldn't go down well with the boss. "It's a bloody tale!" he said. "We're not doing that. What about the car?" I mentioned the car parks, every one of them free (oh, happy days!). We'd change the double doors for a huge display window and make a walk-round store like other shops. "I don't give a damn what everyone else is doing," was his response. Yep, this was going to take some time, and I would need to develop a strategy for convincing him that progress was essential.
"Where is it?" Doris screeched. It appeared she'd come in just to have a conversation, but not with me. I wanted to get back to sorting out piles of wood offcuts into cheap bundles for the hobbyists and firewood customers – the first stage in my expansion plan.
"Tell me again," she said, getting agitated with her friend. "I can't hear you!" Then she looked straight at me. "You've got a cat." I denied it. "No, but you have. It's a baby kitten and it's in your cellar. It'll die if you don't get it out," and she left.
Opening the trapdoor would mean humping the recent stock delivery out of the way, but something about her tone made me shift all the boxes and go down there. I emerged holding a tiny, tortoiseshell moggy, cold and shivering – which made two of us, but for different reasons.