More than twenty years ago, I trudged through a rain-lined street that led to a shop where I was about to start my new job. It was a day early in December, not quite cold enough to be comforted by a blanket of snow. A fog hung like a damp cloak in the air and the streams that ran through the town were full almost to the brim even before they spilled into the dark flowing river. Before I left home, I’d had a hard job deciding what to wear that first day as the new manager of the charity shop. In the end, I had opted for a smart pair of trousers and jumper, wrapped myself up in a warm coat and scarf and pulled on furry boots to keep my feet warm.
I was to be the first ever paid manager in a shop that had been open for fourteen years and been set up by a team of volunteers to help raise money for funds into cancer research. Over the years, the shop had done well with its team of volunteers. It had been led by a dedicated manager who was also unpaid. However, from a retail point of view, the shop left something be desired.
“Joan, the present volunteer manager has decided to take a step back. The shop needs consistency and we feel having a paid manager will help things move forward.” This was what Bruce, the area manager and my soon-to-be boss, a smartly dressed man buzzing with energy, had told me at my interview.
“So will Joan still be continuing as a volunteer?” I asked.
“She has said she’d like to continue to volunteer at the shop. That won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No, of course not,” I lied.
The previous week before starting my job had been spent “learning the ropes” with a training manager in another town in the area. Val was an older woman, immaculately dressed, who looked more suited to running the department of a major London store rather than a charity shop. Apparently not the type to get her hands dirty, but appearances can be deceptive. I soon discovered on my first day of training Val was indeed made of stern stuff. Not the kind to take any prisoners, as they say.
I was serving customers on the shop floor when I spotted someone pick up an antique typewriter and head for the door with no intention of paying for it. Quicker than the speed of light, Val held out her hand.
“Thank you.” She took the item from the man. “I think you’ll be wanting to pay for that.” Needless to say, he made a sharp exit, presumably never to darken the shop’s doors ever again.
Val framed her office doorway. “How are you getting on?”
“Getting there, I think. There’s a lot to take on board.” Val’s office was surrounded by potted plants and a view onto a busy market street where shoppers flitted from shop to shop carrying large bags of gifts. I had my head stuck in one of the shop’s manuals. “A lot of rules to learn,” I remarked.
“Carefully thought out rules. Stick by them and you’ll find you can’t go far wrong.”
But didn’t you just break one of them by accosting a shoplifter before they’d actually left? According to the rules, you’re only supposed to approach a shoplifter once they’ve either gone past the cash register or actually left the premises? Come to think of it, you were standing beyond the till point by the door so it’s a mute point.
Val looked like the cat that had got the cream. “I’ve had my eye on that one for some time. I don’t think he’ll be coming back again.”
I simply nodded. I couldn’t imagine myself being so bold if placed in a similar situation.
“Hmmm. Well, I’ll leave you to get on.” I got the impression Val was distinctly underwhelmed by my presence. She probably didn’t think I’d last too long in the job anyway.
The following Monday, I started at ‘my’ shop. The sight of the heavily decorated Christmas tree in the town’s market square opposite, cheered my spirits somewhat. By late afternoon, strings of lanterns would light up the town’s darkening sky in a warm glow. It was a sight I never tired of every year.
That first day, Val was waiting to welcome me to my team of helpers.
“Is Bruce not here yet?” I asked.
“He’s got held up. He’ll be coming later in the morning,” she explained.
That was a relief. I wasn’t looking forward to meeting him. Our last encounter had been awkward to say the least.
There had been nothing sunny about Bruce’s greeting when he appeared on the last day of my training upstairs in Val’s office.
“I need to talk to you Julie.” His manner was artic.
“Is something wrong?” I’d asked nervously.
“I’ll say there is.” He slammed down his briefcase.” People didn’t carry laptops in those days and he wore a fashionable suit. “I’ve just received the reference from your last job. I have to say the one from your immediate boss wasn’t exactly glowing.” People certainly felt freer to write what they really thought when it came to references then.
“Oh!!” I was mortified.
“Perhaps you can give me an explanation? You came across so well at the interview. What was the problem?”
I’d so hoped the question wasn’t going to arise, but here it was staring me in the face!
I took a deep breath. “The problem was I didn’t get on well with my last boss. There was a clash of personalities. I was hoping to make a fresh start with this job.”
“Right.” He was tight-lipped.
I felt like the ground was waiting to swallow me. “My other reference was good, I hope?”
“Yes, it was very good,” he said, slightly mollified.
“I’m sorry. It was an unfortunate clash with my old boss. I really wanted to put all that behind me.”
“Right. Ok. Well, so long as it doesn’t affect your new job.”
He left me with the definite impression I was going to have to prove myself.
“This is Joan,” Val said. A tall, rather formal-looking woman with iron grey hair and a will to match, stepped forward and grasped my hand. If it was her intention was to intimidate me, she succeeded.
It struck me as odd she’d already let herself into the shop, considering she was supposed to have relinquished her role to make way for me. Apparently, she’d been in the habit of arriving an hour before the shop opened for the past ten years so she could catch up on paperwork without interruption. In another ten years, the computer would finally take over, although some forms remained, albeit in an updated format.
“Julie, meet Joan. Joan, meet Julie,” Val announced brightly.
“How do you do?” A pair of cool green eyes appraised me. I couldn’t help feeling they found me wanting in some way. She probably considered me too young to work with a team of people who were mostly old enough to be my grandmother. Well, almost. I have to say that is no longer the case, but back then, it was.
“How do you do? Er, nice to meet you,” I replied.
Val matched Joan in height. “Perhaps you could show Julie round the shop, Joan. Show her where everything is. After you’ve introduced her to the team, I mean.”
“Yes, of course.”
By now, most of the Monday morning crew had arrived for their shift. I was politely introduced to a group of about eight or nine women of “a certain age” whose names mostly seemed to consist of Margaret, Sheila or Pat. I wondered how long it would take for me to put names to faces. Not too long, I hoped.
They briefly looked up from their tasks, greeting me with a series of mostly friendly hellos, nods or smiles. I received a curt grunt from one whose eyes were so grey, they drew to mind a foaming sea on a wind-tossed day .
“Let me show you where we keep the safe and shop records,” Joan said.
I followed her into a back room where she expertly demonstrated how to open a safe with a mind of its own. The key had to be turned and the device swivelled exactly the right way to release the contents.
I felt sharply relieved when the thing opened on my second attempt. I later found out it was notoriously tricky and had a habit of getting stuck.
“I’ll show you where all the fire exits, extinguishers and fire logs are kept,” Joan said stiffly. “Then, we’ll get back to the team.”
“Oh, you will be needing these.” She unhooked a fob from her waist and handed over her set of shop keys without looking at me. “We have another set we keep at a nearby shop for when I’m away,” she explained. “I’d like to carry on as the shop’s treasurer and do the weekly paperwork, as usual.”
“Erm.” I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of this.
As if sensing my hesitation, she added, “I hear you live in the next town and will be relying on public transport to get to the shop.”
I nodded dumbly. She’d clearly done her homework.
“Trains aren’t always as reliable as we’d like them to be, especially when they’re doing engineering work, are they? I can open up most mornings, unless I’m away, to save you the trouble.”
“Thank you. That would be helpful.”
So it was a fait accompli. It was true about the travel. I might indeed have problems getting into the shop on occasions. Better to be safe than sorry.
Trailing behind her, I returned to the main sorting room, feeling somehow wrong-footed.
Vera, the woman with the grey eyes and the air of an indomitable sea-monster, proudly turned to Joan. “I’ve steamed and priced my rail of clothes, Joan. What would you like me to do next?”
“Hold on a minute, Vera,” Val interjected. “You will be needing to ask Julie what needs doing from now on.”.
“Humph,” Vera panted. “No disrespect to the young lady, but I don’t see why we need a new manager. Joan’s more than good enough.”
“We’ve already had a meeting about that, Vera. Before we took on a new manager,” Val said tersely . “Only I don’t recall you being there.”
“What was the point?” Vera asked witheringly. “The matter had obviously already been decided.”
“Yes, well…” Joan examined her watch. “It’s almost 11 o’clock. Maybe you wouldn’t mind making us all a cup of tea, Vera? You usually do at this time.”
“Certainly, Joan. Anything to make your life easier,” she said, before swishing off.
Val answered my despairing look with a sympathetic one. “It will take time for them to get used to you,” she said quietly.
Suddenly, I became aware a small woman was scrambling up a mountain of bin bags containing clothes. They had been donated earlier by a member of the public who had emptied the contents of two wardrobes and were now piled up in the middle of the sorting room. A group of volunteers were itching to get through them when things got back to “normal.” A small shelf of books had been built above them. Oblivious to anyone else, she selected a handful and wordlessly carried them to the sorting room table.
“Ah, This is Irene, I believe,” Val said. “I’ve heard she sorts and prices the books.” Irene’s reputation had clearly preceded her.
“Hello Irene. I’m Julie. The new manager.”
“Hello Julie, the new manager. I’m Irene, the book volunteer. I hope you plan to keep the book prices low. We do want to be able to sell them,” she said.
“We all want to do that. I’m Val, Julie’s training manager. I’ve come over to help Julie on her first day.”
“Nice to meet you,” Irene said unenthusiastically.
“We have to bear in mind that our donors don’t expect us to sell their goods for too little. For many, the purpose of donating them in the first place is to get as much money as possible for our cause,” Val pointed out.
The point seemed lost on Irene who raised her eyes to the ceiling. The next moment she was scurrying up to reach more books.
“Oh dear,” Joan groaned.
“Ye gods. You need to use a stepladder to reach those books,” Val said, despairingly, a Norfolk brogue breaking out. “Remember health and safety. We don’t want you to go having an accident.”
“Health and safety!” Irene gave a moue of distaste “ Health and safety, my foot! It’s all you hear about these days! Cosseting everyone up in cotton wool till they’re too scared to step out of their houses. Stuff and nonsense. I’ve never had a serious accident in my life and I’m ninety this year. I’ve climbed the Himalayas and Ben Nevis without any serious trouble. Always such a fuss about everything now!!”
“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out there,” Val muttered under her breath.
“I’d call that perfect timing. You’ve arrived just in time for a brew, Bruce.” Having transformed from a sea monster into charm itself, Vera returned from the kitchen armed with a large tray. “If my memory serves me, you like your tea strong with a hint of milk and no sugar.”
Bruce beamed at her like a long-lost son. “Surely you know by now I’m sweet enough.” He swirled the tea in his mouth like it was nectar. “Ah, that tastes so good.”
A little later, he smiled at me in the office area, out of earshot of the volunteers. “Well, Julie. How are you finding your first day here? Enjoying it, I hope.”
I gritted my teeth. “It’s been a bit of a baptism of fire so far. I can see this is going to be a hell of a job! If I’m to turn the shop round and modernise it – like you asked.”
“They are a bit set in their ways,” Val admitted.
“You are going to need a hell of a manager here,” I said, forgetting myself..
“And you are going to be that hell of a manager! I have every faith in you,” Bruce announced, clipping every word as if he was the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“I’m going to have to make changes here if you want the takings to increase.”
“But only gradual ones, Julie. I don’t want the apple cart completely overturned. Some of the volunteers have served here for years and are very dedicated. Many have lost loved ones to cancer or been affected themselves. We don’t want to upset them.”
He stood up. “Me and Val are going to have to love you and leave you to manage the afternoon shift without us, I’m afraid. I’m sure Val has given you a good grounding and plenty of solid training when you were at her shop.”
“This isn’t going to be easy,” I grimaced to Val at the doorway while Bruce was saying his final goodbyes to the team.
“You’ve certainly got a lot on your plate here. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t expect too much too soon. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. You can always call me if you have a problem.” She stopped in her tracks and winked at me. “Don’t forget, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
That was Val’s parting shot before she left. Even now, the words are as fresh in my head as if they were spoken only yesterday. I didn’t know they would turn out to be her last words to me.. A few weeks later, I heard she had decided to retire a year earlier than planned. She wanted to spend more time with her first grandchild. Bruce stayed in the company a few more years, though he stopped being my boss, when the shop areas were switched round.
Twenty years later, none of the original Monday morning team exist. Bruce left to work for another charity; Vera continued to work like a Trojan, only finally giving up her volunteering duties due to ill health. Joan moved away to be near her son in the midlands where I hear she continues to perform stellar work fundraising for the charity she loves.
With the help of many other amazing people, the shop has gone from strength to strength. None of the founder members who kindly donated some of their own things to sell in that first week of trading, remain, but three people who joined the shop before I started, are still very much there, quietly beavering away. For me, along with others who have given so much of their time since, they are the true unsung heroes.