I was assigned to the toilet department and had appalling visions of being surrounded by mountains of toilet rolls.
In 1951, at the tender age of sixteen, I rushed, headlong, into my first employment as a shop assistant with Boot’s the Chemist. (I had applied for a position with the Civil Service but, of course, my interview letter arrived during my first week at the shop – more of that later!)
I stayed there, approximately two years, and worked with a very nice group of girls, an eccentric manager, an odd-job boy who resided in the vast depths of the warehouse area out back and an old curmudgeon of a chemist, who did not know how to smile and wielded immense power over us poor youngsters – in short, a typical bully! We later found that he was outnumbered at home by females, a very large spouse, plus four daughters – rather like a hen-pecked husband in a Donald McGill cartoon postcard, in fact!
Despite his gloomy presence, which never altered, we managed to create a nice friendly environment there, exchanging birthday and Christmas presents and taking lots of interest in the usual “girlie” things, clothes, films, make-up, boyfriends etc.
I was told, initially, that I was to be assigned to the toilet department and had appalling visions of being surrounded by mountains of toilet rolls, toilet brushes, chamber pots and sundry linked items. How thrilled I was to find out that, on the day, I was led to the cosmetics counter and was enveloped in the most heady mixture of perfumes imaginable, luxury soaps, face powders, expensive scents etc. To this day, whenever I enter a chemist’s shop, I inhale rapturously recalling happy memories.
Oddly, after being there a while, I no longer noticed the perfumes, although many customers remarked on the gorgeous smells.
I look upon my time there as experimental and vital in improving my appearance, as we were allowed discount on toiletries etc. and we were always keen to try out the latest hair products, make-up, nail polish and so forth. It was essential that we appeared clean and smart. We wore white overalls, which did not stay clean for very long, unfortunately, due to handling dusty cartons from the warehouse area and constantly trying to clean our hands by rubbing them down our, originally pristine, fronts not to mention our rears! They soon showed signs of grubbiness and wear and tear, even after one day’s wear.
One other member of staff, who attended to the ‘laundry run’, was the tea-lady/char, a general factotum called Mary, who acted as a ‘go for’, at her own pace of course, and was rewarded by savouring all the tit-bits of shop gossip, both staff and customers’, ears moving like radar, although she was meant to remain discreetly upstairs where the tea-room was located.
‘Shielydoggers’ of that period may recall that Boots was situated in a prime position on Saville Street, then the main thoroughfare, and was very narrow and congested, especially on Saturday afternoons when I used to jockey for a good position on a bench in the tea-room during my brief break. This overlooked the heaving mass of humanity surging back and forth. I used to look for familiar faces to wave at, including my boyfriend, later to become my husband.
Speaking of crowds, the steady build-up of excitement as Christmas approached, affected all and sundry, as the huge crates of goodies kept arriving from Nottingham and Heywood in Lancashire. These were packed full of gorgeous coffrets for the ladies; toiletries for the gentlemen, all carefully placed amid piles of straw. As I ferreted through the packing cases, the excitement of finding each new and different package was akin to the feeling I experienced as a small child exploring my Christmas stocking. The whole atmosphere was very jolly and infectious and carried through till well after the New Year.
That is not to suggest that the work wasn’t exceedingly hard at times, as the shop was usually busy. On the rare occasions that customers were few, we assistants were never allowed to sit down, save during tea-breaks. In addition, if we lost a sale, the manager was immediately over to begin the inquisition. What had we done wrong? The customer was always right! I got to know many regulars and knew exactly what they wanted before they asked. Every sale was hand-written and coded on the paper rolls of the old wooden tills, painstakingly copied out in duplicate and old coins were very heavy. I vividly remember plonking seven half crowns into a man’s hand instead of carefully counting it out – I was swiftly shown the error of my ways but I needed to learn and managed to pick things up quickly. This background stood me in good stead in a few short-term shop jobs.
As early marriage, prior to my husband’s National Service in the R.A.F. and later, a family took up my time, I eventually gravitated to the Civil Service in 1976, after all, but, even though it was my longest period of employment and supposedly, several steps up from a lowly shop assistant, I still retain fond memories of my very first job and the pleasant staff serving behind the counters daily, cheerfully and politely. I never managed to achieve this spirit of camaraderie elsewhere, due, no doubt, to intense pressures and a very much faster pace of life.
I’m sure there will be little pockets of the ‘olde worlde’ places around; where meeting a variety of people on a daily basis and no chance of boredom will prevail. It is within these places that job satisfaction will be maintained, I’m sure.
North Shields has lost some wonderful shops over the years including Todd’s, the Scotch Wool Shop, G. K. Lee’s, Bell Bros., Maynard’s, D. Hill Carters, Allan’s to list a few. But that’s progress for you, though I doubt the new Shields Centre will ever see the crowds of shoppers of yesterday!