Life-saving products, the recession bites, and an eerie night alone – our independent hardware retailer takes a step back in time with part 17 of his stories from the shop floor


ur hallowed walls were the repository of life-saving items to keep homes breathing soundly, including such

gems as XL mastic and 30p bags of Bartoline putty. You’ll notice that plastic doors and windows hadn’t yet made an impact in these parts, but times were changing: UPVC was on its way and our mass sales of mastic, putty, window glass and door furniture were indeed destined to be reduced to mere trickles. We shifted reams of Oakey abrasive papers and stacks of Marbal pre-packs of small nuts and bolts - not to mention fibre Rawlplugs in little cardboard boxes (I loved the smell). Plastic universal plugs were becoming popular, but new ideas were slow to catch on and, of the few people who were tackled-up with Black & Wreckers to make holes, few of those owned actual hammer drills for masonry, so needed to use Rawltools. These were star- shaped chisels you walloped with a hammer. They weren’t cheap. We also stocked an impact attachment, made by Mason Master, that would convert a standard drill, but by the time someone had forked out for one of these they might as well have put the cash towards buying one of the latest electric drills – not that we sold them. Big mistake.

Slump or dump?

Despite the tongue-in-cheek excitement of such high-powered sales of life-preserving sundries, the recession of the early-80s is the one that I don’t think we ever recovered from; each of its successors merely adding more water to the ever- leaking finances of the nation. We joked that, to save money, they even


switched off the light at the end of the tunnel. I doubt there will be many people who remember the increased taxes, shortages and redundancies from back then. But I do. In a previously low-unemployment town of healthy international manufacturing, our shop takings plummeted. People were impatient, demanded discounts, cheap tools and merchandise. Some of them thought we should provide whatever they wanted free of charge because we were rich. Yeah, I know. For some years, many people had been under the impression that small shopkeepers kept all the money in the till for themselves. Hmm, nice idea. Even now, the neck-end of 40 years later, so many people still don’t know the difference between turnover and profit – something they usually learn the hard way when they blow their redundancy money on setting up a “nice little business” that fails faster than a can of paint with the lid left off.

Operation shopfit

It was getting on for autumn 1981 and, if we were to survive, the shop extension and refurbishment could no longer be merely a dream that might come true at some un-plottable point in the future: now it was an absolute necessity. The motor engineer’s daughter and I began putting in extra time during evenings and weekends. I didn’t have a clue about fitting out a shop, but whilst on holiday I’d been looking at how one specialist firm managed to convert what, the previous year, had been a small grocer’s shop and, within a couple of weeks (so I was told), they’d cleared out everything, including the internal walls, and made one large retail outlet, its walls simply lined with

eight-by-four-foot sheets of white melamine. Together with plenty of fluorescent lights (bit old-fashioned now, I’ll grant you), this solution made a clean, sharp, well-presented shop selling Scottish tartan clothing and knitwear. It looked immaculate if, like me, you like that sort of thing. Okay, so not really suitable for hardware and building materials, but seeing what had been achieved there made the task ahead of us seem much less daunting.

Sill-y me But before the double doors were replaced with a new frontage of bricks and glass, I had one last welding job to do on a car – mine, which needed two new sills. The only time to do this was in an evening, when the town centre was quiet and the boss’s wife wouldn’t be around to throw a panic. I’m not certain how it came about, but it was late at night and across the street a live band was playing in the dance hall above the electricity board. I was alone on the premises, and when I paused from massacring

the bodywork, there was the eerie silence that’s not really silent. But having started, I couldn’t simply stop and go home until I’d welded on the new panels. And, if I’d got into safety difficulties, then I would have been well and truly stuck. It’s a distinct memory that, frankly, now gives me the shivers. Maybe an MOT test was due, I don’t remember. Even so, I must have been mad. At one point I heard the smashing of glass out in the yard we shared with the butcher. Cats and milk bottles, I thought, and welded on. The later it got, the more I became aware just how alone I was and that this job had gone on long enough. Finally, it was pushing two in the morning when I was ready to get away, making certain that I didn’t leave anything smouldering. There were so many draughts in that place it could have worked either way, blowing out the flames or feeding them. The next day the police came

round, asking if our premises were secure because, during the night, the butcher’s shop had suffered a break- in through a roof skylight!

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