Monday 26 January 2009

Shop Girl Lives Dangerously

Rita used to have the market stall in front of our shop.
She’s known me since I was as big as a bedside table lamp.
I watch her looking at the picture frames and it dawns on me that I’ve never given her a hug.
“How are you?” I say, rubbing her arm.
“Alright...” She glances at the door. “Don’t you get afraid when you’re in here all by yourself?”
I notice that I’ve left the yellow Stanley knife on the display shelf.
“No, not really,” I say.
I reach over and pocket the knife.
“Do you remember the man who took the clock?” she says.
“Yes. My brother got it back though.”
He’d gone for the thief like a tiger.
He’d jumped so high he’d got the guy’s cap as well as the clock.
“You should keep the door shut,” Rita says.
“But then no one will come in.”
I spot a screwdriver on the floor and pick it up.
Perhaps I should be more worried. This shop is armed.
“It’s not that easy to steal a chandelier,” I say.
Unless it’s lying on the floor.
“And you’d probably break it before you got too far.”
“Well...” she says.
Frankly, I’m in danger of being knocked out before anyone’s even come in.
It’s the low hanging lights.
You either stand up underneath one and get concussed, or you get caught up in the crystal.
Yesterday I got hooked up in the shop window.
I was crawling around the picture frames when my hair was pulled back by a gold-plated special offer.
The more I struggled the more tangled I became.
I was stuck.
Passersby looked on and wondered what sort of bulb I took. Maybe they thought my transformer had packed up.
Shoplifters could’ve cleared the whole shop out in the time it took me to break free.
We call them Dippers.
They work in twos or threes.
One of them fires endless questions at you while the other does the stealing.
“How much is that light?” they’ll say, pointing at the ceiling. “Is that good for a bedroom?
I’ll feel something is wrong.
“What about that one?” they keep on, “is that good for the kitchen?”
They point upwards to keep my eyes away from their friend who is either trying to nick stuff from the front of the shop or slip pass me to get to the till.
I’m less worried about offending now than I used to be.
I don’t follow the finger.
“Yes, it’s great for the bedroom,” I say flatly. “It’s great for the kitchen. In fact, you can put that light anywhere you want to.”
“What, that one?” they insist.
I stare ahead.
“What about that one?”
“Yep. Perfect.”
Someone tried to take a bulb without paying for it once.
I was too annoyed to be afraid and pulled it out of his hand.
He told me to stick it up my derriere.
Charming, I thought, but I was smug I’d got it back, even if I was more snatching monkey than leaping tiger.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Shop Girl Shows Up

Every year we go to Birmingham for the Light Show.
Every year we say we’ll go early.
“Leave at nine?” Mum suggests the night before.
“Yeah, at the latest,” I agree.
I wake up at 8.51. Plenty of time.
We’re still in our pyjamas at ten, eating toast and registering our tickets for the show.
“Oops, I’ve put you were born in 1951,” Mum says.
My name badge says I’m the Manager.
It also says I’m the Designer/Specifier.
“What does that even mean?”
“It means you specify what you want,” Mum says.
So could I ask for a tortoise lamp shade with my name on it?”
No I don’t think so.
Could I ask for a chandelier covered in purple sequins?
I can’t specify anything really.
We arrive at lunchtime and meet up with some fellow shopkeepers.
They are a team of mother and son who are clearly keener retailers than us having arrived at the same time as I got up.
“So what sells best then?” I ask the son, later in the day.
He hesitates, smiling a little nervously.
“Come on, our shops are on different sides of the country!” I say.
He mumbles something about ‘trade secrets’.
I’m baffled. We’re about as threatening as Woolworths.
He offers some information a little reluctantly and Mum and I trundle off to the suggested wholesalers where we succumb to a free glass of wine.
At one point the rep tries to top up our glass.
“No,” I say, “Or we might buy the whole lot.”
He looks hopeful and hovers nearby with the rest of the bottle.
I suppose I understand why the son might’ve felt a need to be secretive.
To the naked eye, we appear to be just small time shopkeepers.
Aah but we are so much more.
The trouble is I never know who should know what.
So when we are called over by the friendly son and mother, to the stand of a major distributer who we’re probably the only people who don’t buy from, I feel a little apprehensive.
Are we their competition? Do they know my dad? Has my dad copied their lights or have they copied us?
“This girl is very clever!” the mother gushes to one of the company owners. “You should read what she writes about all this.”
“It’s a blog,” I say.
At which point my Mum develops a twitch.
Have I said too much?
A rep from the same company sits down beside me.
“Oh yes? So who are you then?” he ask, cheerfully.
“In what sense?” I say. “I am many things.”
He looks at me like I’m an idiot.
“Your name,” he says.
It’s hardly a secret; it’s hanging around my neck.
I am Miss Emily Benet, Manager, Designer and Specifier.
If he’s impressed, he doesn’t show it.
A few moments later he gets up and wonders off.
I throw caution to the wind and take one of their free sweets.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Shop Girl - 1 Customers -1

I fill the window with ex-display picture frames.
I’m clearing them for peanuts.
A woman comes in and points vaguely at one.
“I want the frame for a pound,” she says.
“It’s scratched,” I warn her.
“What size is it?”
“Five by seven.”
I hand her the frame.
“Now I measured the photo,” she says, running her finger along the glass. “It’s six this way and eight across.”
“Then you want a six by eight,” I say.
“No, that’s too big.”
“But...” I frown. “You said you measured it as a six by eight.”
“I’ll take a risk,” she says, pushing the coin into my hand.
I want to call after her, tell her she’s making a big mistake.
But they say the customer is always right.
A smart young man in a cashmere coat and pink shirt comes up to the counter.
“I want a screw-in push-in bulb please,” he says, confidently.
“A screw-in push-in bulb. 60 watts.”
“It either screws in or pushes in. It can’t be both”
“Oh. I’ll just have a 60 watt one then.”
“O-kay,” I say, smiling slightly. “A 60 watt screw or bayonet?”
He shrugs.
“There isn’t a big difference is there?”
But again, the customer is always right.
Another woman is after a specific light shade.
I tell her we are unlikely to order from that company anymore.
“We want to clear what we have,” I explain, “because we’re closing.”
“You’ve been closing down for a long time,” she says, looking at me over her severe black glasses.
“Uh... well...” I’m aware it’s dragging on but it’s not like we can shove all these lights under our bed. “I suppose it has been a few months.”
“No,” she says. “You’ve been closing down for at least five years.”
Five years! And to think I hadn’t realised.
Now really, how can all customers be right if half of them think the flowery light above my head is Art Deco?
That’s just silly.
Which is not the same as saying they are silly.
Most of them are wonderful and fantastically loyal.
Even the occasional good humoured barterers can be fun. Barterers who choose to ignore price labels, even when they are big, red and have ‘half price’ scrawled across them.
Like the south London plasterer who has finally narrowed his choice down to two chandeliers.
“Come on. Two hundred for both,” he pushes. “I’ll give you the cash now.”
“I’ll buy them myself for that,” I say.
“Come on love, two hundred or I’m going.”
“I’m not arguing anymore.”
Mum once told someone to keep his money and buy some crisps.
“Come on love, we’re having fun!”
“Two sixty. Take it or leave it. ”
“You’re difficult. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I feel sorry for him.”
“He’s newish,” I say.
“I don’t want to know what happened to the last one!”
“He went to Vietnam.”
That makes him laugh and I realise I’m not helping my cause.
“I bet he did. I’m going to join him in a minute.”
“Don’t be so rude,” I say.
Nowadays when customers push me too far I usually suggest they go to Argos; they really hate that.
“Come on love, let’s not muck about,” he insists. “I’ll give you two ten, bulbs included.”
He sticks his hand out. I’m not shaking it.
“260,” I say.
We stare each other in the eyes.
Most of the time, it’s a pretty level playing field in my shop.
We win some. We lose some.
It just wouldn't work if the customer was always right.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Shop Girl Party Plotters

If we only invited current staff to our belated Staff Christmas party, it would just be me and my mum.
Not much of a party.
So we invite past-employees. That means, my old school mate, P, and my neighbour.
My Dad comes and my neighbour brings his wife.
The preparations are in full swing when I arrive late with P, having been to the opticians.
“I met a very nice bloke for you today in the shop,” Papa announces.
“She’s already got one!” Mum calls from the kitchen.
My date has been away for over a month but I’m not looking for a replacement just yet.
“What about your cousin?”
“What’s he like?” I ask; the silly party mood taking over.
“He’s very nice,” Papa says, “I spoke to him for some time.”
This is breaking news. My dad isn’t a small talk man and has never been one to chat to young men. Perhaps the key is this young man is Spanish.
Either way, the idea of setting my cousin up is rather exciting.
“He’s coming tomorrow morning to collect a table lamp,” Mum says.
Brilliant, I think.
The next day I head into the shop and start cleaning.
I have all the picture frames in the middle of the floor when a young man comes in and tells me, in a Spanish accent, that he’s come to collect a table lamp.
“Yes, I was warned,” I say.
His collection is clearly marked which makes the operation all a bit smooth, leaving little opportunity for conversation. I suddenly worry that he’s going to leave without me extracting any information.
“Oh you met my Dad, didn’t you?” I say, scrabbling for something to say.
“Yes, you’re the traveller, aren’t you?”
I don’t know what my dad’s been saying but at least it gives an opening to talk. So I really go for it. Luckily he’s friendly and clearly not in a hurry to get away.
I’ve no idea how I’m supposed to get his number though. To make it worse, the shop phone doesn’t stop ringing and I keep saying I’m busy, which makes me look desperate to talk to him.
At one point I hear myself say, “Oh you live around here? Wow, we could meet up.”
And I can imagine my date despairing at this conversation because it sounds like I’m flirting.
But he's so easy to talk to and as lovely as my parents said.
By the time Mum arrives we are chatting about his hometown, the very place where my cousin and I were intending to go on holiday, and he’s inviting us to stay at his house.
And it’s all great and I soon mention I have a date so he no longer thinks I’m drooling over him.
Then a man walks into the shop and stares at the three of us.
Mum, my new best friend and I, stare back at him.
The conversation dies.
Everyone is waiting for me to recognise him.
I feel my cheeks turn red because now I remember.
The tension of the moment could only have been broken by an unexpected fart. I’ve no idea what he’s doing in my shop.
He’s someone I briefly chatted to in a passport control queue and mentioned I wrote a blog.
But I don’t know how he’s found me.
My cheeks are burning.
“Do you need any help?” Mum says.
“I’ve come to speak to your daughter,” he replies, calmly.
It pretty much goes downhill from there.
The Spanish guy makes his excuses and heads off.
I rush over to help a customer, leaving Mum to do the talking because the shock at being found like this has scrambled my brain and I’m feeling pretty bad-tempered.
To get over it, I make myself a strong cup of tea.

I think about upgrading my date to my boyfriend.
In fact, I think about a lot of things.
I look at the e-mail address scribbled on the back of a price label.
Now I'm really hoping the Spanish guy isn’t regretting inviting us because my cousin and I have just booked our flights.