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Jun 162014

Steve Lake

Foyles have always been very good to Smoke; they were the first shop to take copies of our debut issue, and have supported us ever since. Last week, after more than a century at 113‑119 Charing Cross Road, they moved to a new shop a block south in the former Central St Martin’s College of Art. To mark the occasion, we’re republishing this piece from Smoke 6 in which Steve Lake, who worked there in the 1980s, describes revisiting the store on the occasion of its 2005 refit.

Please Pay At The Till. Not an instruction you’d have thought necessary in a bookshop. Where else would you pay? The toilet? On the door? In the pub after the shop shuts? But this is Foyles, W&G Foyle Ltd, where I worked in the 1980s – the latest in a family line following my mother in the 50s and my sister in the 70s. The Foyles website states in its vacancies section: “You will be part of a team of intelligent, slightly quirky people who make life fun and interesting.” That, I have to say, is a considerable understatement.

Foyles was founded in 1903 by brothers William and Gilbert Foyle, and has occupied its Charing Cross Road site since 1906. William’s daughter Christina – Miss Foyle to you and me – started working in the shop as a seventeen-year-old in 1928 and later assumed sole control, running Foyles for forty years like a latter-day Lucretia Borgia, only without the compassion. Whether or not stories of her collecting all the unopened letters sent to Foyles from around the world, steaming off the stamps, and reselling them in the philately department, were true, I don’t know, but the fun stopped with her death in 1999. Christopher Foyle, her nephew, took over. He presides over five floors, seven miles of bookshelves and fifty-six specialist subjects.

I’d not been back to Foyles more than once or twice since my ignominious departure (everyone’s departure was ignominious in those days). Any ex-employee knew that Foyles was the last place to go if you wanted to actually purchase a book. But I was lured by news that a four-million-pound refit had dragged Foyles into the 21st century; given it had spent the entire 20th century thinking it was the 1780s, this Herculean endeavour demanded investigation.

Within seconds of entering I was assaulted by a tannoy outlining the day’s special offers (I braced myself for a further announcement alerting security to the presence of an ex-employee, but seemed to have slipped through undetected). The staff were not only operating computers but had name badges identifying themselves as staff members, happy to help; in our day, we wore civvies, and tried our best to blend in with the customers lest someone should approach us with a query. The books appeared to be organized A-Z by author in sections determined by subject matter, as opposed to the less rational but more challenging system of cataloguing by publisher. There were store maps and a department selling greetings cards, stationery and board games (board games?). The shop was open until 9 p.m. as well as on Sundays. And you could, indeed, “pay at the till”, instead of collecting a scrap of paper and trekking across the shop to a separate cubicle. This was beginning to look like a disturbingly normal retail experience.

A smattering of oddities remain. Sleek new customer lifts, introduced alongside the old service lift which we used and always assumed to be one frayed cable from disaster, lose their nerve and don’t make it as far as the basement – instead, a sign suggests you take the lift to the ground floor, then get out and walk. And I found a tank of piranhas incongruously located beyond the children’s department. But the only real reminders of the past were the sepia-tinted photographs dotted around showing such scenes as Christina Foyle walking the shop floor in the 1950s – presumably looking for someone to fire – and Margaret Thatcher speaking at a Foyles Literary Luncheon. Someone had set about her with a sharp instrument, little realising they were picking on the more liberal of the two women. Curiously, there were no pictures showing half the staff smoking in the loading bay or walking out the side door with piles of “free” books in their arms, but maybe my memory is playing tricks, for working at Foyles in the late 80s wasn’t unlike a trip on some fairly serious hallucinogenic drugs. There was, for example, the story – possibly apocryphal, but probably not – of the disgruntled employee sowing seeds into the specially moistened carpets of the rarely-visited Philosophy Department on a Friday evening and returning on Monday to find a small field of cress, ready to be added to his sandwiches.

These days, there are security personnel in smart blue pullovers on constant patrol. Sadly, we were not afforded this level of protection. It was up to the staff – mostly feckless, drunken ex-students like myself – to deal with any incidents. We did at one point have a store detective, a thin weasel of a man with a pencil moustache who had apparently come to us straight from fighting the triads with the Hong Kong Police and who used to bombard us with tales of his gun-toting work in the colony, but I don’t think we ever believed him. It was difficult to judge his efficacy as a law-enforcer, as he spent 90% of his time telling us these tales while smoking roll-ups in the loading bay. Maybe he had, not unreasonably, been detailed to keep an eye on the staff rather than the teams of shoplifters who used to strip the place like locusts? I should perhaps make it clear here that I am in no way suggesting that there was any systematic “liberation” of books by staff; nor, indeed, would I dream of implying that a system in which no till receipts are kept and the only proof of a cash transaction is a small handwritten receipt which can easily be “lost” would lead to the – how shall I put this? – “redistribution” of some takings to the pockets of underpaid staff. Suffice to say, there are impressive private libraries in the homes of some ex-Foyles employees, and the rather flash Ming Chinese restaurant off Greek Street received more business than it might have expected from a bunch of scruffy shop assistants.

If wet-behind-the-ears amateurs like us could profit from Foyles’ eccentricities, how many more opportunities were available to the pros? Unscrupulous sales reps took full advantage of the fact that they were dealing with heads of department who had no idea what they were doing. Lack of knowledge, experience or ability were never seen as barriers to swift promotion; it was not unknown for people to be made head of department, with sole responsibility for ordering new stock, on their first day; and, in the unlikely event that you had used your time at university profitably and acquired some specialist knowledge, it was company policy to assign you to the least appropriate department. Fine Art graduates floundering in Applied Mathematics and not even entirely sure which floor they were on were not much of a challenge for the reps, who would routinely stock the shelves with hundreds of books that wouldn’t even have made it past the door at Waterstone’s.

Our superiors were faced with a stark choice: fight a doomed rearguard action against the corruption, or muscle their way in for a piece of the action. They chose to muscle. Actually, the muscle was often provided by those of us working out back in the loading bay. Sometimes, boxes bearing a strong resemblance to those we’d taken delivery of earlier in the day would be loaded into vans driven by shady characters straight out of central casting. I was never sure what became of these books, but it was noticeable that many of the second-hand bookshops along Charing Cross Road started to stock titles that were not so much second-hand as… well… new.

Foyles had a determinedly laissez-faire attitude to matters of personnel. We were all on weekly contracts (I say contracts, though I don’t recall anything being written down), which gave Miss Foyle plenty of opportunity to hire and fire with reckless abandon. I don’t think there was ever any strategy to this, save for the fact that a high staff turnover helped to minimize losses, as new employees generally took some time to work out the extent to which they could abuse their position. Continued employment was certainly not based on ability. One guy came in, worked his fingers to the bone for two weeks, took a day off to attend a family funeral, and was never seen again. In contrast, some staff lasted over a year, despite having worked out that the clocking in system which determined salary contained the fatal flaw of being located in the basement – five floors away from management – thus allowing one person to clock half a department in and out while his colleagues retired to the beach. I don’t remember being given any kind of official notice that my employment was at an end. We were paid in cash every Friday afternoon – a catastrophic state of affairs for youthful alcoholics who suddenly found themselves working on the edge of Soho – and, if your pay packet felt unusually thick, you knew your time had come: an extra week’s wages in lieu of notice and an unspoken instruction not to come back on Monday.

It took me a while to find them after all this time – strangely, all the shiny new signs and maps neglect to direct people to the heartbeat of the store – but, finally, there they were, tucked away at the back amidst the dictionaries and cult fiction: the double swing doors that led to the netherworld of RECEIVING. Receiving was where book deliveries were unloaded and stored by me and an assortment of generally unwilling helpers: Tim, who was too cool to speak and disappeared to the south of France with a girl from the Art Department after two weeks and never came back; Ben, an ex-monk and Coca Cola addict; John, a tireless young buck until he discovered sex in the form of the nubile Abigail and started coming in for an hour a day; and Dermot, who spent more time wrestling with his sexuality than the daily Parcelforce delivery. Receiving was also where the giant wheelie bins lived, with their bags of “discarded” books waiting to be reclaimed by staff on their way home from the Pillars of Hercules; where up to half the staff could be found smoking at any given time; where Clive the chauffeur would park Christina Foyle’s incongruous Sweeney-era Granada; where Danny La Rue would give us a jaunty wave on the way to his penthouse in Goldbeater House; and where we would listen, with contrasting emotions, to the engines of the approaching lorries – joy for a post van (small delivery, light packages), horror for Parcelforce (up to 150 back-breakers), fear for Lynx (driven by a cheery psychotic who resembled a young Sly Stallone and took the hairpin into the yard at 50 mph).

Not much had changed. There were fewer boxes, as the old storeroom with its balsa wood shelving (never ideal for supporting thousands of books) was now used only as an overflow. The big deliveries went down a chute to the basement (what fun we’d have had with that – another event for the Foyles Olympics). But it still had the chained-up bikes, the broken pallets and the dead pigeons.

Foyles is now close to being a normal shop; it may even be making a profit. I for one, though, hope its history, traditions and stories don’t just become photographs on the walls, but continue to underpin an establishment in which it was always an experience to shop and work.
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