“I rang up on the fourteenth of the fifth about Gerry and the Pacemakers…” the customer began.
He was a little old man in little shorts that were pulled way too high. His clean-shaven face had those errant patches of wiry grey strands that old-timers inadvertently sport – small clumps of whiskers that had somehow managed to elude the razor. His Buddy Holly thick-rimmed glasses had flip-top shades in the ‘up’ position.
“And we were holding it for you?” I enquired, slowly rising from the stool behind the counter as he nodded. “Was it a CD or a record?” I asked, about to make my way to the far end of the space behind the counter, to the milk crates on their side that constitute the ‘hold’ box. “CD,” he replied.
“What name was it being held under?” I asked, as I pulled out all the CD-sized bags from the milk crates. Although I didn’t catch his name, I realised that as it was now the thirteenth of the month, anything put away on the fourteenth was at least a month old; if he had phoned to ask us to put it away, there was little chance that it would still be in the ‘hold’ box. But I checked each bag just to make sure.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I explained to him back at the counter. “Our policy is to only hold something for a day without deposit. We need a deposit to hold it for a month. When did you say you rang us to hold it?”
“The fourteenth of the fifth.”
This time I actually heard him. “Fourteenth of May?” I said, disbelief in my voice. It was now mid-November. But he was an old-timer after all; there was probably nobody to bring him into the city. “I’m so sorry, Sir, there’s no way we’d keep something on hold for six months even with a deposit. But let me check to see if it’s still in stock.”
Only the items deemed ‘collectible’, ‘fragile’ or still shrink-wrapped actually contain their discs – they are kept behind the counter or in locked cabinets. All the other CD and DVD covers on display are empty cases, their discs filed — alphabetically by artist — in a set of drawers behind the counter. And, luckily, there was a Gerry and the Pacemakers disc in the drawer – Ferry ’Cross the Mersey, a live collection of the band’s best-known songs with an additional smattering of unlikely covers, recorded and released in the 80s. Although it took a while, I located the case and, inserting the disc, popped it on the counter in front of the customer.
“Here you go,” I said. “‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’.”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s it. ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’.”
“Yes,” I said, with a contented smile. “‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’. That will be ten dollars, thanks.”
“Isn’t it free?” the man asked me.
“I’m afraid not,” I said, proffering a brief courtesy laugh. “It’s ten dollars.”
I stopped laughing when I realised he was serious.
“I thought it would be free,” he said.
I felt myself stand a little taller, heard my voice hardening ever-so-slightly. This is an early step in a process of behaviour I regularly display that is best described as ‘turning into Basil Fawlty’. Under pressure, in retail, I frequently find myself turning into one of those tense, coiled, John Cleese characters that, on the verge of emotional explosion, enunciate every syllable through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry, Sir, this is a shop,” I began to explain in a patronising tone. “The way a shop works is that I give you stuff in exchange for money. This is known, from my point-of-view, as ‘selling’. From your point-of-view, it is ‘buying’. So I cannot give you stock for free. You have to give me money for it.”
“Okay,” he said, never losing his pleasant, genial, shorts-too-high, some-whiskers-missed old man demeanor as he handed over two five-dollar notes.
I shook my head after he left, but didn’t have any time to think about it because I had a few customers in need of attention.
However, before long, the old man was back.
“Look,” he said, “I got to the corner and decided I don’t want it unless it’s free.”
I paused for a moment, attempting to process this information. But it was no use. “I’m sorry?” I demanded.
“Well,” he said, “I thought about it, and realised that it hasn’t been quite six months yet; this should still be free.”
“Tomorrow will be the fourteenth of November,” I explained, “six months after the fourteenth of May. We are shut tomorrow. This is as close to six months being up as we can get. But it doesn’t matter. I still don’t understand – why should the disc be free?”
“You said that you don’t need money after a day, but after six months…”
I took a deep, emphatic breath that cut him off.
“What I said was, we hold things for customers for a day without a deposit, or a month with a deposit. If we hold it for a day without a deposit, then you have to come in and buy it, or leave a deposit; if you leave a deposit, then, within the month, you have to come in and buy it, otherwise it goes back on the shelf.”
“Oh well, I don’t want it unless it’s free.”
Another deep breath.
“This is a shop,” I began again, carefully. “We sell stuff. Why should I be giving this to you for nothing? Do you go to other shops and ask for things for nothing?”
“No,” he said.
“Then why are you coming here to ask for free stuff from me?” I was uncomfortable. I didn’t understand. I really wanted to, but I didn’t.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I just thought of it.”
“You just thought you might come in here and ask for something for free?”
It was no use. Comprehension and I were not within spitting distance of one another. “Did somebody put you up to this?” I demanded, just in case.
“No. I just don’t want the CD anymore. I’d like my money back.”
“But I don’t understand. Why? You just bought it. I just sold it to you. Why should it be free?”
“I just think it should.”
On the verge of losing it, I tried one more time.
“I still don’t understand,” I began, relatively calmly. “Shops have been in existence almost from the beginning of time, and they all work the same way: you want something, you exchange something of value for it, in this case, money. When do you get stuff from shops for free?”
“Sometimes things are free,” he reasoned, hitching his shorts up that extra half a centimetre or so for emphasis as he delivered what he must have imagined was the clincher. “Sometimes you might win something when you go to the club. Then it’s free.”
I didn’t know anything about any clubs, but I knew about give-aways on th radio, so I tried to run with that example.
“Okay, so, say you ring a radio station and win something from them, they have to send it out to you.”
“So why are you trying to get this CD for nothing from a shop?”
“Because I thought it would be free.”
Now we were going in circles. Ten dollars was not enough justification to embrace the insanity that was slowly creeping over me. I wondered who’d believe me when, some time in the future, I try to re-tell this story.
“I’d really just like my money back,” the old man said. “If it isn’t free, I just don’t want it.”
I’ve never been in this position before, but I’d been near enough to it to know that no matter how you try to rationalise what has happened, no matter how calmly and sensibly you attempt to reason, there is no way out, really. It’s much easier just to give in.
“You know what?” I said, “I’m gonna give you your money back, and then I want you to leave this shop and not come back. Is that okay with you?”
“Yes,” he said, all genial shorts-too-high old man again.
I took ten dollars out of the cash register. But before I handed it over I decided to have one more go.
“Okay. Let me try to understand. Six months ago you rang us and asked us to hold a ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’ CD for you.”
“You wanted it then?”
“But you don’t want it now.”
“Because we didn’t keep it on ‘hold’ for you.”
“Would you want it now if it was still on ‘hold’ for you?”
“Okay,” I said, taking the plastic bag with the compact disc in it over to the ‘hold’ box, and then sauntering back to the counter.
“Hello, Sir,” I said pleasantly, as though I’d only just caught sight of him. “I suppose you would like the ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’ CD we’ve had on hold for you for nearly six months.” Before he could trick me by saying “no”, I dashed to the ‘hold’ box for the disc, and handed it to him. “Here it is, that’ll be ten dollars thank you, you wanted it, now you have it. The transaction is over.” I put the money back into the cash register as he shook his head and walked out, a little older and somewhat less genial, his shorts still way too high.
I was reeling from the experience, and needed to tell someone about it in order to try to make sense of it, so I rang the boss. When I got to the “… and he thought it should be free,” part of the story, he said, “Why? Because it wasn’t delivered in thirty minutes?” He couldn’t make sense of it either.
Suddenly, a slightly younger, taller, bald man with a moustache underlining an aquiline nose — essentially the spitting image of Jerry’s Uncle Leo on Seinfeld — was standing at the counter with that damn Gerry and the Pacemakers CD.
“That old guy’s an idiot,” Uncle Leo announced, before I - goggle-eyed and open-mouthed - could say anything about the CD in his hand. I assumed he worked in one of the other music shops along the street and he was going to tell me that shorts-too-high old man had been performing his routine in there as well. I didn’t care. I’d gotten him to take the CD and give me money. The transaction was over.
“He certainly didn’t seem to understand the concept of ‘retail’,” I agreed, hoping Uncle Leo did. I didn’t want that bloody CD back.
“He won a competition for a free CD of his choice from the shop two doors down,” the man said, pulling a second, and, truth be told, better Gerry and the Pacemakers CD out of a bag.
Jesus H.M.A.S. Christ! Now it all made sense. The little old man had phoned six months ago about a Gerry and the Pacemakers CD that would be held for him to pick up for free, because you can win free stuff in competitions at clubs. He had won such a competition. It was just that MY SHOP WASN’T THE SHOP RUNNING A COMPETITION THROUGH THE CLUB!
All of this must have gone through my head in an instant, because my immediate reply consisted of the following sentence fragment:
“But I’ve just been…”
After a pause, I started to feel remorse. “I absolutely tortured…”
“Yeah, he’s an idiot,” Uncle Leo let me off the hook again.
“That’s as may be, but, knowing that he’s an idiot, shouldn’t you have come with him?” I demanded.
“I had to wait in the car,” he explained. “I was in a loading zone.”
“Oh, you bloody idiot...” I thought to myself, putting the CD on. “Life goes on day after day/Hearts torn in every way,” Gerry Marsden reminded me as I withdrew those ten dollars one last time from the cash register, defeated.
That shop I was in when visited by the little old man has subsequently closed. That fact that it was on a clear slide towards its ultimate end - too many 'ten-dollar shops' and eBay teaching everyone the cost of everything and the value of nothing - explains why I went to some length to become the sort of shop assistant who would impress Ronnie Barker’s ‘Arkwright’ character from Open All Hours.
However, imagine how much funnier the whole ‘theatre of the absurd’ incident would have been had we not had a Gerry and the Pacemakers CD in stock. Pants-too-high would have made me search the entire premises, ‘cheese shop sketch’-like, until I found something that he actually wanted… and then he would have wanted to have it for free!