Christmas was fast approaching. The town's shops were glitzed up to the roof tiles, some of them even had trees with decorations. The grocer had sourced some mistletoe, with an offer that for every £10 spent you got to kiss one of his young female assistants. You wouldn't see that happening these days, even if the assistant was up for it. And what did we, the town's soon-to-be best hardware store, have in to offer in the way of celebration? The boss pointed to some dusty packets of Christmas tree lights, telling me to give them a blow off and get them in the window at £4.99. So that was it. The other shops were going all-out and it was like we were in denial.
On the run up to Christmas we did get busier, despite our lack of desirable stuff that people might buy as presents. Did we sell power tools? Of course we didn't! The boss wouldn't entertain them due to the low profit margins, yet he had a Black & Decker catalogue with colour pictures that, I have to admit, made my mouth water, even though I was so bad at DIY and using a power tool could mean making unplanned and painful alterations to my anatomy. I lost count of the number of people who asked if we sold electric drills, jigsaws and sanders. Despite the minimal margins, these enquires screamed out "lost opportunities" for further purchases; something else I would need to work on.
When the fairy lights sold out I was told to re-order, but not to go crackers as they were dead stock most of the year. We had a run on the beaten copper-effect plastic that we sold by the foot from a roll, like we also did with quilting, which meant that customers were tarting up their homes for the festivities. Home drinks' bars were the thing back then, which is what the copper and quilting was for, although we sold plenty of the latter for replacing the covering on worn-out bed headboards. I had no idea how the locals were getting through so much of it, though I did hear one theory.
I asked our biggest wholesaler if they could offer any stock to us with festive packaging, which I thought was a reasonable request. "We've got a special offer on draught excluders," was the reply, leaving me so impressed with their foresight and meticulous planning.
I'd had enough and thought hang the expense!, and I bought my own tinsel, wrapping paper and ribbons and lined the window, arranging a selection of tools and other stuff with gift tags attached. It doesn't sound much, I know, but it worked and on Christmas morning a load of local blokes got Stanley knives, scrapers, tape measures and torches in their stockings. Buoyed-up by the extra sales, even if low-ticket ones, the boss didn't comment on this reckless departure from frugality and told me he'd pay for the display materials – so long as I could provide him with the receipts.
Twist in the tale
Twice a week the boss would send me along the street to Mr Morris, the tobacconist. He'd retained the Victorian covered doorway, with its fancy curved glass panels and, inside, the mahogany fixtures and display cases from a bygone age with racks of briars and other pipe-smoking paraphernalia, looking superb – despite my lack of interest in the stock. There are such places still to be found in Germany. To this day I still remember the lovely, rich odour of tobacco. But I found Mr Morris, with his six foot seven thin, bendy frame imposing and intimidating, looking like he might wilt at any second and take my head off with the backlash.
When I asked for an ounce of twist he'd pause, like he was trying to see into my soul. "Is it for that chap in t' DIY shop?" By this time my voice was a mere squeak, and every time I jumped when he bawled, "Speak up – I'm a bit deaf!" Then, "Money on the counter, first!" And the twist, in its greaseproof paper, was plonked down and the money had gone. In all the visits I made to that shop, I never actually saw him scoop it up.
As he got older, he set on a woman assistant, who was less-miserable, but still cautious, so I supposed that he'd trained her up. One day I went in and no-one came out. But from somewhere in the back there were noises. I'll say no more.
A very sherry Christmas
The wholesaler's rep paid a flying visit the week before Christmas. "Is the boss in?" Sighing at his – and his firm's – lack of acknowledgement of the season, I rang a bell to summon the boss. This was to be used in emergencies only, and I'd suffer the inevitable reprimand if it were not a life or profit situation. But I just felt like being awkward. As the boss emerged, the rep produced – as if by magic – a bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry. "Just a little something to thank you for your custom," he said. Hmm, so they did celebrate Christmas after all.