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AN INDEPENDENT REMEMBERS


“WE HAD TO SAVE PEOPLE FROM THEMSELVES”


Dodgy electrics, lessons learned and a shop full of customers distracted by the dying minutes of a Wimbledon final – our independent hardware retailer takes a step back in time with part 15 of his stories from the shop floor


I


had become an ex-bank clerk turned shop assistant-cum- health and safety operative. It never failed to amaze me how determined


our customers were to inflict harm upon themselves. I’m sure that on countless occasions my other colleagues in the trade have thought the same.


The most-requested item at this time was rubber gas pipe. It just so happened that some homes in this part of the country still had gas taps to which fires could be attached – and unattached – which was worrying. Crikey, this sounds like I’m describing something out of the ark but I kid you not, I’m talking early-1980s here. Helping our customers to kill themselves didn’t strike me as a good idea so when I explained they shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing, they left and bought it elsewhere.


Another favourite was the BC adaptor; a small plastic gadget that looked like the business end of a bayonet cap light bulb. Having attached this to an appliance such as an iron, you could set up your ironing board under a convenient lamp, remove the bulb, insert the BC adaptor and iron away to your heart’s content. Of course, if you needed some light to iron by it was tough because, by this time, the double lamp adaptors – that would also take a bulb – were illegal. This didn’t stop people demanding them and I found some in a box upstairs, so old they were made from brown bakelite. As much as I disliked the idea of people sticking nails into my wax effigy, I thought it better to throw these relics in the bin. The single ones, now in bog-


22 DIY WEEK 21 JULY 2017


standard white, were legal and I suppose they fulfilled a need for somewhere extra to plug something in. When we suspected that the customer wanted to fit it to any sort of heater we refused the sale and were not thanked for trying to prevent untimely deaths. We had to save people from themselves; it was as simple as that. Of course, if there had been


sufficient sockets this wouldn’t have been a problem. Even in the new houses that sprang up in the early 1960s (concrete roof tiles and pebble-dashed walls, easy to spot) some builders were mean enough to fit only one 13-amp socket per room, no matter the size, so in the 70s and 80s we were selling loads of 13amp three-way adaptors. People would multi-stack these, sometimes in fours, concentrating the current draw of up to nine items all from one socket with the appendage of sparking and hissing adaptors drooping with the weight. Often one of the plugs would belong to a three-bar electric fire, the thought of which still sends a cold shiver down my spine, at the same time making me feel uncomfortably hot – and no, it’s not my age.


Foiled My property restructuring activities were put on hold throughout the summer as the shop became busier and every Saturday I would look at the tails of cable hanging down from the ceiling with only part of it boarded, and the boss’ car still parked beneath.


My guts felt as empty as a clapped-out tin mine. It was almost as if the public had got a whiff of my plans and were determined to put paid to them. At least they were spending money with us.


Butcher for the chop Of course, expanding the premises would have some downsides, one of which would be stock that we’d no longer be able to store including large pieces of genuine Formica. The company had made the boss an official stockist, supplying an illuminated sign that he displayed with pride, keeping it switched on late into the evenings to notify the local boozers where they’d be able to buy their easy-wipe surfaces. I remember food hygiene inspectors ordering a local butcher to line his shop window area with genuine Formica within 24 hours or he’d be shut down. Where could he possibly get fixed up with white, cut-to-size Formica at such short notice? Only an independent. I think you’d have difficulty matching that level of service these days. The boss had somehow acquired, not one but two lesser-known and lower-priced alternatives: Armabord and Decamel. By the early 80s – if not 20 years before – the name Formica - like Hoover and vacuum cleaners -– had become synonymous with any


make of plastic laminate. I wonder if any present-day hardwaremen remember these brands? This was one of my early lessons in marketing – to stock a brand-leader and a more comfortably-priced alternative so when customers almost fainted with shock at the price of the top-notch whatever, we could offer them a cheaper one, hopefully before they hit the floor.


Game, set and match


The boss had befriended my girlfriend (the motor engineer’s daughter) and wrangled it so that she would work with me when he took alternate Saturdays off. It just so happened that the Wimbledon tennis men’s final fell on the wrong day for me so I took a B&W portable TV to the shop, determined not to miss Borg and McEnroe slog it out on Centre Court. The reception was just about non-existent and I had to cobble together a makeshift aerial from a couple of wardrobe rail offcuts. The good news is that it worked; the bad news is that the shop filled with customers just as the match was ending.


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