So, having decided at fifteen that I really wasn’t cut out for baby-sitting I scouted around for another way to earn money. As luck or not would have it, I discovered via our Parish Magazine that a Saturday boy/girl was required at a book shop in our nearest small town, accessible by an ancient and not wholly reliable hourly bus service.
A bookshop! I’d be in seventh heaven. I phoned them up, secured an interview and went on the bus to meet the owner. Crooks Books, as I shall from this point refer to the establishment, took up half an old Georgian house, the other half of which sold antique furniture. Mr Crooks owned both and we had a nice chat across a massive mahogany table. I was a pretty precocious and voracious reader for a fifteen year old which must have impressed him because I landed the position and arranged to start the following Saturday. I can’t remember the exact salary but it was probably in the region of around £2.50 for the day. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams.
When I arrived the following week, slightly nervous but aspiring to become young book sales person of the year I was puzzled to find not Mr Crooks in charge but his rapidly introduced elderly mother and her side-kick, Miss Lemon-Wedge. I was hurried through the shop with its shelves tantalisingly full of rainbow spines to a cramped little office at the back where the walls were lined with filing boxes and piles of papers, odd books and other office paraphernalia. Miss L-W cleared me a space on a surprisingly untidy desk and an in-tray filled to over-flowing was put in front of me. She advised me to get everything into alphabetical order before showing me the next stage.
It was chilly in that dark little office with only a single bar electric fire to heat the place. The atmosphere was decidedly chillier. I very soon realised that I would be playing Cinderella to the wicked step-sisters; Cordelia to Goneril and Regan or James to his Aunts Sponge and Spiker without ever getting near the stories themselves, out of reach in the shop. I might have been any number of Dickens characters …
Once I’d sorted the contents of the in-tray which I deduced were publishing house invoices, all stamped with PAID on them, Miss L-W showed me to the filing cabinet: through a door in an even colder corridor running down the side of the building with a main door to the outside. All I had to do was to put these wretched invoices into the corresponding folders.
Not rocket science but it took the best part of the morning, only broken up by Elderly Mother bringing me a weak-looking cup of tea and one digestive biscuit balanced on the saucer. Every time I see Green Beryl crockery I’m transported back to that filing cabinet. Shame really – it has in recent years become somewhat iconic in ceramic circles.
The shop closed for lunch, I was booted out and had to amuse myself for an hour in a small town with no appealing shops, no cafes or anywhere that was remotely interesting to my fifteen year old self. I optimistically thought that my afternoon might prove more exciting but sadly I was deluded. When I arrived back, two minutes early, I was again ushered through to the back room and shown how to cover books in plastic. These books would then be sent out to the local libraries: there were boxes and boxes of them. The job took ages, I kept creating bubbles under the plastic or for the loose covers I found that the tape wouldn’t stick. It was a horrible job but once I’d acquired the knack I begrudgingly admit that it has given me a skill for life. (Not that I have ever supplied any libraries with books, but you know what I mean).
I was allowed into the shop for the last hour of my day where my task was to dust shelves and straighten the books. Miss L-W dealt with customers and Elderly Mother counted the proceeds. I have never known time pass so slowly, even in a Maths exam but I stuck this slave labour out for about six months until another opportunity presented itself and I jumped at the chance, vowing that anything I did in the future would not involve filing.
The opportunity that presented itself came in the shape of Viv’s mother (remember Viv – she of the babysitting monopoly?). She was the manageress of an independent chemist shop in Croydon. Viv was already working there and another Saturday position had just become available. I could see that running monopolies obviously ran in Viv’s family but why should I worry – I was going to work in Croydon, shopping mecca of the south-east.
Croydon has now merged into the sprawl that is south London but in those days it was our largest nearest town. It was where we all went for serious shopping. There was a new precinct with Habitat, Chelsea Girl, Miss Selfridge and the like as well as lots of strange little units selling cheesecloth, joss sticks and loon pants. Now I’d have something to do in my lunch hour and I’d have plenty of scope to spend my hard earned cash. This was more like it.
Working in the chemist was a complete antithesis to the bookshop. It was light and modern. It was fun. It was busy. Viv and I were allowed to serve customers, to work the till (an old-fashioned one, mind; we had to work out any change needed. My mental arithmetic improved overnight). We marked up stock, we created window displays. We had a laugh. We had a stream of regular punters, some of whom would drop in for a chat with Viv’s Mum. One of her ‘specials’ as she liked to call them was a chap called Tommy. He was a female impersonator, as was the description provided to Viv and me. Outrageously camp, Tommy sang in a night club in Streatham wearing a sequinned evening dress and would swan into the chemist seeking advice on his makeup and false eye lashes. Viv and I were fascinated. The song Lola, by the Kinks always reminds me of Tommy and my chemist days.
At the end of the afternoon Mrs Gracie, the owner, would arrive with our pay packets. She was an eccentric old bird who chain smoked Capstan Full Strength cigarettes – even in her shop. Her gash of red lipstick never quite followed the contours of her mouth; she was always clad in black with uncomfortable looking high heels and seamed stockings and she was a million miles away from Miss Lemon-Wedge. I worked for her until I had a proper job. My starting salary was £3.27 a day.
I had hit the big time.