[5 minute read]
It was mid-December, and I needed money to buy Christmas presents. I was seventeen, and had found a Saturday job at Russell & Bromley, the most exclusive shoe shop in the London suburb where we lived. In 1966, this kind of job paid less than a pound for a day’s work, plus a percentage of the sales I made. I had to have at least that much to cover my vital expenses. In those days, these might include a pair of “pearl” earrings from Biba, some false eyelashes, or even a dress from Laura Ashley, if I saved for long enough. Then there were tickets to films or Saturday night dances and a host of other expenses essential for a teenage girl.
I definitely needed money. So when Iapplied for, and got, the job at Russell & Bromley, I was thrilled.
It wasn’t perfect, however. I had previously worked at Manfield Shoes, where shoppers were searching for the squared toes and chunky heels which were in fashion then. The R&B clientele turned out to be older, more chic, and much less friendly than the dolly birds who frequented Manfield. And they were much more exacting. I made constant trips to the stockroom to find a narrower shoe, a wider shoe, a higher heel, a lower heel… It went on.
But the commission was an impressive threepence in the pound. If I’d been better at math, I would have realized that was only 1.25%. But ignorance was bliss. On the brighter side, the percentage on handbags and ‘sundries’ was twice as much. I rarely sold a purse, but could often persuade clients to buy some shoe cream or waterproofing spray, to go with their new purchase.
The snooty senior saleswoman, Ethel, had first pick of the customers, while we Saturday girls got the less promising prospects. Luckily, I enjoyed selling. Finding the right footwear for the customer and sending them away happy was rewarding.
It was almost Christmas, and nearly five o’clock. The store closed at 5.30 and a murky drizzle seemed to be discouraging shoppers. Then the store doors opened with a gust of damp air and a singular couple walked in. The man was about five-seven, and the tall, suspiciously blond, woman hanging on his arm was wearing a fur coat, high heels, and bright red lipstick – all very out of date in the mid-sixties.
“Hopelessly déclassé,” murmured Ethel. “Why don’t you deal with them, Gabi?” She turned to me with a smirk.
I didn’t mind. I showed them to a couple of seats and sat down on the shop assistants’ stool to measure the blonde’s feet.
“Thing is,” the man began, “she ‘as to have ’igh heels. None of yer clunky rubbish. I mean, look at them legs. She needs to show them off, don’t ya, darlin’?”
“Bless ’im,” replied his consort. “He does like to see me in stiletto ’eels. But I have got rather a large foot,” she added. “So I’m not easy to fit.”
She was right. I’d never had to find a size 10 shoe among the hundreds of pairs we stocked at the back of the store. And I didn’t think we had any stilettos. They’d been the thing in the 50’s, but now?
I trudged to the stock room and began to hunt. Wedge heels, short heels, even kitten heels, but no stilettos. I was about to leave in despair, when I caught sight of a dusty box with the magic number 10 and a picture of a stiletto-heeled shoe on it. I pulled it off the shelf to inspect it more closely. There was surely something wrong with the price. It said £40 (about £700 today) but I knew perfectly well the most expensive pairs we had were about £15. Lifting the lid, I peered inside. These were special all right – gleaming crocodile leather in a dark brown shade which would look striking with her fur. They must have been there forever, because they were hopelessly plain, with pointed toes, but I decided to give them a chance, anyway.
Ethel stared as I took them out to the client. I lifted her foot and slid the shoe onto it.
“How does that feel?” I asked.
‘Lovely. Really lovely. They’re so soft,” she said. “Can I try the other one?”
She got up and sashayed along the carpet towards the front door and back again. Her consort eyed her appreciatively.
“See what I mean? She needs the ‘eels.”
I coughed politely.
“There is one thing,” I ventured. “These are absolutely wonderful quality, because they’re made of crocodile leather. Your wife…” I glanced at him to see whether I’d said the right thing, but he was still eyeing the blonde. “Your wife,” I reprised, “will have them forever – they’ll never wear out. But…they do cost £40.”
“Right,” he said. I was waiting for him to turn them down.
“We’ll take ’em won’t we love.” He smiled at her indulgently. “I mean, it’s Christmas, isn’t it?”
My heart stopped beating for a second. They would take them! I reviewed the sundries shelf. Maybe we had some patented crocodile treatment I could sell them? I skipped the polish because my eye came to rest on a spectacular brown crocodile leather handbag. It cost the same as the shoes. Oh, well. Nothing ventured. I stepped over to the shelf, and returned to my customers.
“Well, as long as it’s Christmas,” I smiled. “What about this gorgeous bag to go with the shoes?” The woman reached for it, stroked the surface and then opened it to scrutinize the inside. She tossed out the tissue paper and began to check the compartments designed to hold a powder compact, lipstick and valuables.
“Oh darlin’,” she said with a wistful smile. “It’s fab, but you really shouldn’t.”
The man remained silent for a moment while the blonde and I held our collective breath.
“Okay,” he said. “But it’s birthday too, mind.” And he kissed her.
“Let me wrap those for you,” I said, anxious to seal the deal before he changed his mind.
“Bet his cheque bounces,” hissed Ethel, but she needn’t have worried. When I handed him the bill, he put a hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of notes. I’d never seen so much money in my life. And I had made a whole pound in commission, more than my base wages.
I could feel Ethel’s eyes boring into my back as I escorted the couple to the door and wished them Happy Christmas. It was certainly going to be a happy one for me.