Anybody who works in retail – at least, anybody who works at the sharp end, the ‘client facing’ bit, the ‘dealing with actual people’ part – and they’ll tell you that one of the more fascinating parts of the job is The Regular Punter. I dare say that’s true enough for the average supermarket checkout worker, or the nice young lady who makes your latte in Starbucks when you pop in on the way to the office, but it’s especially true for those of us who toil in the more specialist arena.
Our regulars have a more intense relationship with us, as we are essentially their enablers. There’s a strange mix of condescension, respect and yes, possibly a little awe passing from them to us – regardless of the nature of our shop and regardless of their need for us to provide their weekly fix, we are, after all, just shop workers – and in all honesty it’s a two-way thing. We’ll smile and have a little chat and by all means we’ll get on fine with you, maybe even be glad to see you, but when it comes down to bare basics the driving force behind us is that we’re after your money.
Harsh? Maybe. True, though.
Having said that, we have Regular Punters who we adore. One of them phones us every time they’re on their way to the shop and asks us what we’d like from the Costa he passes on the way. Another - who works in the film industry, as quite a few of our RPs do – always turns up like Rik Mayall’s Flashheart character, swinging his battered old Merc into the parking space outside, pushing his ever-present shades up into his wild mane as he strides through the door, barking “HI!” and at the same time shaking hands with anybody in reach, just like the old-time actor-manager that he isn’t. Then he’ll march around the shop demanding “HAVE I BOUGHT THIS? DID I BUY THIS LAST TIME?” while he picks up a huge pile of things. He’s a genuinely funny bloke. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll drop at least a hundred on every visit, but that’s almost a bonus given the fun I have when he’s in.
Other side of the coin? Well, there are the quiet ones, the bookish ones – and there’s nothing wrong with them, believe me – and the ones who know everything about this industry better than you do and quicker than you do and by jingo they’re going to make sure you know that they do.
And then there’s the weirdoes. There’s Stinky Steve. There’s Mad Rasta Jim (“I’m from Jamaica, mon! Mmmm, Irie!” he says from beneath his big rasta hat and from within his Jamaica trackies, despite being even whiter than I am and having a Surrey accent and no dreadlocks) (Actually, I tell a lie. He did have dreads, a big old mass of ‘em, but for one week only). There’s Alfred, who has the biggest, most spectacular mutton-chop sideburns you’ve ever seen outside of The Victorian Illustrated Weekly Gentleman. There’s Jombo – yes, Jombo – who is a huge, shaking, sweating mass of a man, who spends his week collecting stray shopping trolleys for a large local supermarket and his Saturdays turning up at the shop fifteen minutes before closing and who suffers from… being odd. Jombo loves one character in particular and talks and talks and talks about him all the time. Jombo’s Dad came in with him once, and it turns out that Jombo’s Dad is equally enthusiastic about a fictional character, but in Dad’s case it’s Jesus. That was when we found out that Jombo actually is brain-damaged, which gives him an excuse none of our other customers have.
But as is always the case, there’s a downside. There are the ones who have to be… watched. There are the cocky kids who think it’d be an idea to try steaming the place (Hey kids! That’s why we have an entryphone system! If we don’t want you to, you can’t get in – and you can’t get out!) And then there’s the ones with – and let’s be as polite as we can here – somewhat lower personal standards than most.
No, sod it, let’s not be polite here. There are the ones who shamble about in shattered tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt that saw better days before they were even born. There are those like Mikey, who carries around his own Linus-like cloud of fuggy, musty stink that fills the whole shop, getting into your clothes, getting under your skin, getting into your very flesh. Who stays for at least a hour, rooting through the cheap bins which are on the far side of the shop and so afford a little distance, but who then comes to the till to have a bit of a chat and then – and only then – reveals his secret weapon of chemical weapons-grade halitosis.
And the star of our show? There’s this one man; stinks – positively reeks – of stale pee despite outwardly looking clean to the point of shininess. Always wears a thick coat no matter what the weather. Wears it because that’s what he tries to tuck things under when you’re not looking. That’s your double threat, right there. A stinky bloke who’s also a shoplifter. But that’s not enough! If he was just a rancid-smelling tealeaf we’d simply kick him out with directions to the nearest soap and water. But the bastard actually spends money. Every time he comes in he drops a good sixty quid, which is lovely, but you’ve got no idea how much he’s sneaking under the macintosh. So you not only have to put up with the smell, you’ve also got to keep a sharp eye on him and that means staying within a couple of feet of the bugger without, y’know, making it too obvious what it is that you’re doing. Last time I drew the short straw and had to stand on guard duty, I had to go for a walk afterwards to get the pungency out of my lungs, and I speak as a man who used to have a deep love of Marlboro Red ciggies.
He came in today; we saw him coming down the road so we put the advance plan into operation. If we had to let him in, we could at least ameliorate the problem by taking pre-emptive action. Out came the air-freshener, both of us walking around the shop with our fingers clamped to the spray nozzle, clouds of chemically fragrant loveliness filling the workspace and our lungs.
I opened the door to let Mr Smelly in and had a pang of conscience. We couldn’t, surely, make it that obvious? So I said the first thing that came into my head: ‘Blimey! That was a lot of spray to kill one bloomin’ fly, eh?’ Then, as soon as he was gone, we got the sprays out and danced our chemical pas de deux again, because believe me, that bastard absolutely hummed.