THE MANAGER brightened visibly. Not only was the pretty girl buying champagne, but she was also asking if he had any jobs available. He did, it seems. “Not for me,” she declared, tossing her head in my direction. “For him.” Girlfriend was light-years ahead of me. I was twisted backwards, surveying a ceiling made entirely of advertising posters, stapled in fantastic disarray on top of each other. Fortunately, Oddbins managers are unfazed by contortionism. “Come in tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll have a chat.”
Never having undergone a job interview before, I had no real expectations of this encounter. The manager however, was highly experienced in these matters. He had honed his appraisal technique to two main questions: “do you take sugar?” and “when can you start?”. My career in wine retail was underway.
This was around 1995, and it turned out that I had joined a remarkable British institution enjoying what was pretty much its heyday. Oddbins was started in 1963 by one Ahmed Pochee, who had the wizard wheeze of buying the remnants of wine shipments – odd bins – and selling them, at the beginning quite literally out of the back of a van. It passed into other hands during the 1970s, and a few years before I got there had become the property of Canadian drinks giant Seagram.
Normally, corporate ownership is a death sentence for maverick retail, but Seagram had a remarkable approach to Oddbins. As long as it turned some kind of profit, and provided a funky shop window for Seagram product, it was allowed to do pretty much what it liked. This gave its buyers freedom to stock some truly brilliant products, alongside well-known brands. In many ways, Oddbins invented eclectic British wine retail, providing a model that the supermarkets were wise to follow.
The company at that point had some 200 stores, each of which operated autonomously. There was a core stock list, but in addition the managers could order things they thought customers locally would buy, or which they just fancied having in. Some point-of-sale material would be sent by Head Office, but most of the labels and all of the displays were created individually by the staff at each shop. The result was that no Oddbins was quite like any other. What I didn’t know was that the one I had stumbled into was already notorious, both locally and within the company. How many wine shops do you know that have a rowing boat in one corner, filled with sand and bottles?
Whether by accident or design, retail companies tend to attract staff that reflect their attitudes and values. Oddbins at this point seemed to be a kind of career beach, upon which would wash up shoals of overqualified, talented yet directionless young people. Most of us in my shop had at least one degree. One bloke had a PhD, for crying out loud. Whatever our academic resume we all shared two core skills: drinking and learning. A great many tasks awaited us when we opened up the shop, including keeping it stocked, getting orders out for delivery, actually serving customers and keeping the place clean and tidy. We tended to eschew the latter for reading about wine and spirits. This was an age before wi-fi Internet, so we had a library of reference books in one corner.
As a result, the place was unbelievably filthy, but we really knew our stuff. The aim of the place was to match the product with a customer’s needs and price expectations, and we were very good at this. We weren’t so talented at dusting and tidying, but few of the customers seemed to mind. They were too busy reading the talkers.
Talkers are those labels that hang around the neck of bottles on the shelf, bearing important information such as the name and price of the product. They were also supposed to contain a nicely-reasoned description of how it tastes, who made it, what one might find interesting about it. Often though, our talkers would feature cartoons, limericks or not-hugely-helpful comments. The dreadful, generic Liebfraumilch for instance, bore a talker on which one clown was shooting another with a pistol. The word “cak!” burst forth from the gun’s muzzle, and as a cork flew out it was followed by the word “whine”. Cack wine, £1.99. Marvellous. Or not, depending upon your palate.
What customers didn’t get to read was the Witticism Books, a series of at least ten small notebooks in which we recorded our shop life in cartoons and poems rather more scatalogical than the talkers. It was like being back at school, a hot-house environment where we developed and portrayed our own world, by and for ourselves. That sort of madness takes hold when you spend successions of twelve-hour days with the same few people, then go out drinking with them afterwards.
But then there was much to put down. The shop occupied a corner plot, with a counter opposite the door. There were two large windows, but these were obscured by shelving, so the outside world was viewed mainly through the door frame. This created a theatre of the absurd, into which those who lived out there would stroll to perform for our entertainment. This cast of characters was enormous and ever-changing, but some of them tread the boards of my memory to this day.
Brian was a large man in his Sixties. He had evident learning difficulties, and rather than being an actual customer used Oddbins as a telephone kiosk to coordinate his love life. He would loom up to counter and ask to use the phone. He didn’t know the number for the local care home, but we had it on speed dial for him. “Is Mary there?” he would ask. “Aye, it’s me. I’m in Ogdens. I’ll be round.” Brian would replace the receiver, always upside-down, then loom away to meet his paramour. As he whisked her by the door a few minutes later in her wheelchair, the couple would wave cheerily. The manager once caught them in flagrante delicto, on a Sunday afternoon, propped on the bumper of his Land Rover outside the shop. He walked home that day.
Mr Smelly, the man shunned by skunks
It took a short while to become aware of Mr Smelly, a raincoat-wearing gentleman who would slide unobtrusively into the shop and head for the Bulgarian wine section. If he was spotted, long-serving staff would melt away, leaving the newest arrival alone to approach the customer and help him choose his wine. Little did I know, when my turn came, that my colleagues were bunched round the CCTV monitor in the back room, sniggering. Mr Smelly really only drank cheap Bulgarian red, but any new assistant would at first earnestly try to get him to spend his £2.99 on something slightly less toxic. They would only do it once however, because up close a terrible, fetid, deathlike stench would steal into their nostrils and begin to burn all their senses to a crisp. To watch the newbie paralysed, torn between the obligation to assist and the desire to run out into the street to heave into the gutter was a delicious pleasure for old hands. Eventually the £2.99 Bulgarian bore a talker featuring simply the name, the price and a drawing of a skunk, saying “Oh Christ, I’m off!”
A cohabitee with Brian’s Mary at the local care home, Mrs Drool would come for our expert advice on cigarette selection. She had arthritic hands and usually-unworn false teeth, which proved an unfortunate combination. Mrs Drool would frequently drop her change. When she bent down to pick it up large quantities of dribble would escape from her unshod mouth. This in itself was no great problem, unless you happened to be closing a large champagne deal further down the counter. It did cause us to mop the floor afterwards, however, something that was usually long overdue.
Friday night would bring entertainment to Oddbins. The inebriated and plainly unentitled to buy alchohol legally would stop by on their way between the pubs of the suburbs and the nightclubs of the city centre. Their requirements were simple: a pack of cigarettes and a couple of alcopops – which were invented around that time – to make the walk into town bearable. Most under-age customers would accept our message that without proof of age they were unlikely to become Oddbins customers, but my favourite would-be wino had different ideas. He may have been nearly six and a half feet tall, but he lacked the necessary paperwork to get pissed on my watch. His response was to lean over the counter and pat me paternally on the head. “I mean,” he asked, illogically, “how tall are you, eh?” The air was thin, aloft.
Those of felonious intent
Naturally, things would occasionally go missing from a store rammed with boozy goodies. We loathed thieves, especially those known to carry weapons. We were advised that in most cases of theft we were not to apprehend the suspect, instead leaving CCTV and the local police to do their work. A report would have to be issued to the long-suffering officers. The best of these read: “the man picked up a bottle of sparkling wine and asked me ‘is this any good?’ I replied that it was exceptional at the price, and that I had enjoyed it myself just two nights before. ‘Brilliant,’ he replied, ‘I’ll take two.’ At which point he picked up another and ran out into the night.” A robbery is no more than a robbery unless done with style.
Alchohol and pugilistic desire go hand in glove, so fights in off-licences are not unexpected. After one particularly nasty Friday night encounter, the manager made a tactically brilliant move. He gave a part-time contract to Psycho Sam, a well-constructed student with borderline bipolar tendencies and significant anger issues. From then, if you wanted to start a fight in the shop you were invited to leave. Should you refuse, you would be shoved bodily out into the street and again invited to leave. Should you wish to take things further you would be thrown around like a sack of potatoes until Sam had swayed you towards his point of view. Oddbins was known for being a cut above the rest. In our case it was an upper-cut.
Once a month she would bustle into Oddbins, stare wildly around, fix her gimlet eye on the person behind the counter and yell: “used to be a pet shop this, you know.” She would then leave, as suddenly as she arrived. Odd. We never did know this lady’s name, but her sporadic insights into local history served as a timely reminder that Things Change. Still, at least she recognised what the shop was all about at that point. Others found it hard to grasp the concept of a decent wine and spirits retailer. With depressing frequency we would be asked “where do you keep the right cheap wine?” The answer of course, was “Threshers, sir”. Not stocking a wide range of snacks was also held by many as a failing on our part. “If you just sold crisps and pies I’d come in here more often,” barked one flammably-clad member of the public, blind to the fact that we omitted these things from our retail proposition precisely because we didn’t want him among our client base. Public expectations are sometimes downright unfathomable. “Do you not sell cheap babbies’ nappies?” demanded one man, looking up and down the serried ranks of bottles on our shelves. We did not.
The customer may always be right, but if you were in my Oddbins between 1995 and 1997 and were in any way pompous, stupid or annoying, know this: while the dishevelled fellow behind the counter might have been outwardly pleasant to you he was glancing occasionally below it for inspiration. Taped to the middle shelf was a motivational message which read: “oh F***k right off, you painful t**t”. It worked for us. Suffering fools is no easy task.
Time, tide and liver condition wait for no man, and after two years I swapped wine retail for another enjoyable job on mediocre pay. Motoring journalism was light on opportunities to gorge on the greatest booze on the planet, but offered pleasure of a different kind. It turned out also to be about the right time to quit Oddbins, as its glory years were soon to be over. A French company took it over in 2002, and it entered an uneasy alliance with its counterpart brand Nicholas. The manager left a few months after I did, and our shop became gradually cleaner, lighter, blander. Cartoons, customer abuse and borderline swearing disappeared from talkers and the life seemed gradually to ebb out of the place. I gradually ceased to feel wistful about my days there.
I myself have a curious legacy of my Oddbins years, even 15 years on. I still find myself facing up – bringing a bottle to the front of the shelf – when I buy wine, even in supermarkets. I still find myself selling decent booze to innocent bystanders. Two weeks ago I was to be found in a West Country Waitrose, explaining to a Romanian why a Bowmore single malt on offer would make a much better souvenir of his trip to Britain than a bottle of generic Irish whisky. I still seek out work that is pleasurable rather than hugely remunerative.
Today we hear that Oddbins is to enter administration, having had a large contratemps with the Inland Revenue over its debts. This is a terrible shame, and the landscape of the British high street will be distinctly poorer for its departure. However, I would like you all to raise a glass to the memory of this once-great icon of left-field retail. The good ship Oddbins steered an unsteady course, but I for one am tremendously glad of the time I spent aboard.