From the time I left school, until I joined the London Ambulance Service, was a period of less than twelve years. During that time, I had an unusually high number of jobs, all but one of which involved selling, in one form, or another. I have written about some of those jobs before, but I have recently reflected on just how easy it was to get work, to come and go as you pleased, sometimes starting and leaving three jobs in the same year. In today’s world, of high unemployment, no-hours contracts, reduced Trade Union rights, and a return to the Victorian era. with no paid holidays, or sick leave, it makes me realise just how easy it was, to live in the 1960’s and 1970’s, compared to the present day. My own employment history, before settling down in the Ambulance Service, may seem like a poor CV. In those days, it was very much a way of life for many of us.
I will probably write in more detail about some of these job choices at a later date. For now, this is something of a list, and a story about Selling. My Dad was a salesman, from 1959, until the late 1970’s. He passed on his advice to me in one phrase, something I later discovered was not his own pearl of wisdom at all, just another old salesman’s maxim. He told me; ‘Don’t try to sell the product. Sell yourself, your personality, and the rest will follow naturally.’ I took him at his word, and spent many years of my life trying to do just that. Sell myself.
After a brief non-selling job, taken as I waited to pass my driving test, I was soon off the mark. Selling cheap records in various locations around the South Coast. Or rather, not really selling them at all, as all I actually did was to ‘merchandise’ them, by checking the previous sales, and filling up the rack to the requisite number, then invoice the outlet accordingly. This was done from a transit van, inside which I also kept all the stock, occasionally making the long trip to the West London depot, to fill it up again. Luckily for me, the company decided to go ‘up market’ shortly after I joined. They replaced the vans with new Vauxhall Vivas, and we did the ordering in the same way, with the goods delivered later, by bulk drops. I loved having my new company car, which in those days carried no tax burden, and with careful accounting, could also provide me with sufficient fuel to use the car privately. I also got to see a lot of the South Coast of England, albeit mostly in bad weather. I wanted more contact with modern records though, and soon tired of selling rehashes of chart hits, and back-catalogue cheapies. So, I moved on.
Through another of my Dad’s contacts, I got a job in a Central London record shop, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus. This was not my first foray into retail, as I had previously had a Saturday job, in the record department of a large store in Croydon. This was hardly comparable to my experiences in the West End though. I arrived at the shop, to find that I was to be the third man, to the existing pair that ran it. One was a likeable, smartly-dressed Jazz musician, who was only working there between gigs, to pay his bills. The other was a bearded hippy-type, overweight, and a heavy smoker. On paper, he ran the shop, in as much as he did the ordering, and banked the takings. In reality, he did little else, as he had numerous sidelines, that he used the shop as a base to pursue. The shop stayed open late, and traded at weekends, including Sundays, decades before Sunday trading was usual. The opening times were ‘flexible’, and dependent on when they turned up, not closing until they were fed up. Late starts, and later closing suited me well enough, even though I had no formal hours in my agreement, I was assured that I would get ‘extras’ to make up for the longer working week. We played music of our choice all day, and took breaks whenever we wanted. I decided that I would like it there.
The life of the shops around this part of London; Leicester Square, Coventry Street, and Piccadilly Circus, was not your typical shopkeeping. Souvenir shops were plentiful, and kiosks selling drinks and cigarettes overcharged alarmingly, though not to fellow shop staff. When customers asked to pay in foreign currency, we would take it at a rate derisory for them, change it up later, and pocket the difference. I was allowed, within reason, to keep any records that I liked, and if any of our friends came in, they would be substantially undercharged for goods. If we wanted something from a nearby shop, like food, cigarettes, or cold drinks, we would tell those assistants to come and see us later, and give them records, or sell them some at laughably cheap prices. It felt good, it felt like a family. We were not unduly concerned about the profits of the chain of shops we worked for. Regular sales were through the roof, and our weekly take was phenomenal. This was the heyday of record-buying, and we sold everything we could get. New releases were in such demand, that customers queued outside before we opened, much as they do now, for the latest Harry Potter book. We offered no discounts at all, in fact we often acted as if we were doing them a favour, by actually taking their money, at full retail price.
It was soon obvious to me, that some creaming off was going on. The manager could often be seen stuffing wads of cash into his pockets, just before leaving for the day. I was told that I could drive in by car, and that it was alright to take the change from petty cash to feed the parking meter, as I could then give him a lift home to North London. It says something of the differences then, that I felt confident in driving to Leicester Square, easily finding a space on a meter, then feeding it until the cut off period, in those days 6.30pm, on a daily basis. I wouldn’t want to try that now. Once taken into trust, I was made aware of much more goings-on. Our musician was an alcoholic, and I could always smell drink on him. I soon noticed his regular runs to the booze shop, a carrier bag full of records in hand, no doubt to exchange for drink. I was also allowed to go down to the cellar more often. This was supposed to be where we kept the extra supplies of top-selling discs, but was much more besides. At weekends, a steady stream of ‘special’ customers would arrive, and ask for the manager by name. I was told to allow them access to the cellar, where he kept a notional ‘office’. They were usually respectable-looking, well-dressed men, who were around middle age, rarely younger than 50. I had always presumed that they were involved in some kind of fiddle, involving currency, or rare records, something the manager also traded in, through his contacts in the shop. One Sunday morning, I found out the real reason for the visitors.
With just two of us in, our musician having played a late gig, and crying off sick, the manager told me not to open straight away. He took me down to the cellar, where I was startled to find a projector set up, and four or five assorted chairs placed in front of it. He told me that we would have some early arrivals, and that once they were all there, I was not to go down to get anything. He started the projector, and showed me a snippet of what they were calling on us to see. It was a reel-to-reel film, involving pornography, but not of a kind I had ever seen, or even heard about. Without going into offensive detail, it included scenes of young (apparently German) women, going about their most intimate toilet functions, as men lay underneath them. The second film, I was told, was to involve the participation of a Doberman dog, a farmyard pig, and assorted horses. I took him on his word, and looked upon our ‘visitors’ in a very different light, as each arrived, and sheepishly made his way downstairs, to the necessarily silent film show. As I later found out, the film mornings were free of charge. It was selling copies for them to take away, that made the big money. In the heart of London, yards from the notorious Soho strip joints and clubs, I saw first hand the real seediness, that lay behind the bright lights, and gaudy neon signs. It did occur to me that it was blatantly illegal, but for some reason, it didn’t really bother me in the least.
Eventually, the bubble burst, but not as I had anticipated it would. My all-too short venture into the exciting world of Central London retail, came to an abrupt end, when I was called over to Covent Garden one day, to see the Area Manager. It is so long ago now, but I think that I expected something good, perhaps promotion to another shop, or maybe a bonus. At the very least, I pondered, it will be a pat on the back, for a job well-done, and hours worked beyond the call of duty. When I was put in front of the Area Manager, he immediately bombarded me with questions about till shortages, sales of ‘unofficial’ items, and frequent staff absences. I shrugged to all of this, and launched into a form of defence; after all, I am only the new boy, what would I know? He offered to spare me further investigations, if I would just tell all about my colleagues, and confirm his fears of various scams. I kept quiet. Where I was from, you didn’t grass. If I thought silence would spare me, I was sadly wrong. I was dismissed there and then, wages up to date, cards in hand, even my personal stuff, already collected from the shop. Indignantly, I departed, fuming inside. I was only a small part of a well-organised machine in this tiny shop, yet I was the one being expected to fall on my sword. I tried to contact my former colleagues, but they would not let me into the premises, and refused to talk to me on the ‘phone. I had been offered up, in a carefully arranged set-up, designed to save their jobs. Lesson learned.
As was usual then, I soon bounced back. Through another contact, I quickly got another job, this time as manager of a small record shop in East London. You might think that this would have been difficult, given the hasty departure from one of the few jobs that I was ever sacked from, and the absence of any positive reference. Not so. They knew ‘the game’, and they expected me to learn from my mistakes. As manager, I would be poacher turned gamekeeper, and expected to be on top of any strokes pulled by my two female staff. The contact recommended me to the owner, who was a then famous TV personality, and a leading radio DJ. Although he is long dead, I will not name him, as identification might lead others to conclusions that would be in error. This owner took me on face value, and I started the next week. This next episode in record retail was to be markedly different from the one that preceded it. The new shop was on one of the main roads of East London, and not too far from a well-used street market. Like many shops in the area, it took the biggest percentage of its takings on a Friday and Saturday, and weekdays were famously quiet. My brief was to try to change this, and to hopefully generate a steadier sales pattern, that could justify the employment of three staff all week.
Easier said than done. Shopping trends in those areas were firmly entrenched, and I had my work cut out. I tried what I knew, and hoped that West End methods could make the short journey across London to the East. Window displays were my first brainwave. The ones that I inherited were lame, at best, consisting of little more than piles of record covers draped around some material in the windows. I went all-out, with new display materials, and dedicated one window to a specific new release each week. arranging the covers of that record as imaginatively as I could. My staff consisted of two girls, one slightly older that me, the other the same age. They were fairly disinterested, but happy that I was of a similar age, as the previous manager had been in his 60’s. They spent a lot of time chatting to their friends, who would just hang around, and never buy records. I approached local venues, and offered to promote new bands, and to display posters at the back of the shop. I also introduced headphones, so that prospective customers could listen to records, without everyone else having to hear them. I even arranged for the famous DJ owner to make a personal appearance, and to play some records, in his inimitable style. It was all useless. We were taking 75% of our weekly takings on a Friday and Saturday, even after my efforts. It was hardly worth opening the rest of the week, let alone staying open for the half-day closing, when all the surrounding shops were closed after lunch. The travelling was also getting me down, as I had to drive through the Blackwall Tunnel, morning and evening, to get to and from Kent. This is a notorious traffic black-spot, and it was taking me well over an hour each way, sometimes two, to make the journey. Then there were the customers. Nobody was interested in unusual Soul records, as I was, or even the big progressive rock bands of the day. They liked traditional stuff, or rock and roll, and even the stomach-churning Country and Western. Save for a few big number one singles, even the stock was boring me to tears. I resigned, and recommended the older assistant for my job.
I hadn’t lasted long, but I already had my eye on something new.