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Before we moved to the store we’re in now, we had one on Oldham Street, in Manchester’s city centre. It’s the one in the photo, look. We were there for almost 20 years.
When we first moved to Oldham Street, in the early 1980’s, the area around and about was quite neglected and had remained largely untouched for the last 50 years, or more. The developers had yet not begun to turn the old nearby mill buildings into trendy and expensive apartments for trendy and expensive people.
Our store was on the corner of Oldham Street and Stephenson Square and at the top of Oldham Street, some few hundred yards away, was an area called Ancoats where the old mills and large tenement buildings stood. Behind the tenement buildings was an old and overgrown and unused park.
In the early days we had to park our vehicles down the side streets along the tenements and the park and this was also the home of the city’s many tramps. On warm summer mornings I’d often see a long line of these guys snoozing away and sleeping off yesterdays intake of methylated spirits and cheap liquor, and I have to confess that once or twice I slipped one or two of them a few quid to help them find their chosen oblivion.
As the morning wore on these guys would gradually wake, stretch, retch and gradually wander off through their chosen corridors of the city beyond.
Oldham Street was also home to many old fashioned and very traditional pubs – large and small. And facing our store was the epicentre of drinking establishments for the seasoned and dedicated alcoholic. It was a small place with just some basic bench seating, a few tables and chairs and a small stage with a standing microphone.
Each lunchtime would see a small and shuffling crowd gather outside the pub. Watches would be checked and windows would be peered through and the closer it got to opening time the more fidgety and restless the small crowd became until finally the landlord, unshaven, unkempt and fag in mouth, would ‘open up’.
I imagined at the time that the same bar and the same crowd and the same landlord existed in parts of New York, or Boston or, well you tell me???
The clientele were largely men and they more or less all adhered to a general dress code of cheap and poorly fitted suit teamed with a plain white or blue shirt and some sported several of those sovereign type rings you used to see – classy. Those that didn’t would have each finger tattooed with the obligatory, LOVE & HATE. Serious style icons did both!
A number of them also used about a quarter of a pound of Brylcreem so they could comb back their hair – bit of a quiff on top and straight back and down behind. They always carried a comb, usually in the top pocket of their suit jackets and every twenty minutes or so they’d pull out the comb, drop their heads but still keep eye contact and comb everything back in place while smoothing it all down with their other hand. The party piece was to do all this while talking to their com-padre and smoking a fag. You just can’t find that kind of style amongst the pages of Cosmopolitan, or Conde Nast or the swankier bars of Manhattan’s Upper East Side anymore. But then standards have slipped so much these days…
The women who patronized the place were usually the old bar and nightclub singers, or similar, and they wore sparkly dresses – a bit too short and a bit too low and a bit too tight – teamed with corned beef legs or fishnet stockings.
As each day wore on the men would swop ‘hot-tips’ on dogs, and horses and (forgive me) women and certain of these would be noted down as ‘sure-fire-bets’ and be accompanied by a wink of the eye, a quick comb of the hair and a flash of the sovereign rings.
The women meanwhile would swop tales of nightclubs and bars and men and beatings. Once in a while I’d enjoy a quick lunchtime pint in their company and I counted myself as no better and no worse than any of them for we are all Gods children and who amongst us should judge the other.
Anyway, at any given point during their hours of intoxication any one of the assembled cast was likely to take to the stage and offer up a song for the benefit of all. Usually, the song told of love or lost chances or both and predictably Mr Sinatra’s, ‘My Way’ featured heavily.
Sometimes a shoe or ashtray would fly across the room and strike the crooner and cause much merriment and shouting and swearing. Sometimes a song would strike a chord and a woman sitting alone in a corner nursing a port and lemon would shed a tear onto her cheek remembering a lost youth or love or both.
Late afternoon in high summer was the time for fights to break out – the heat, the drink, the baloney.
Of course, fighting was strictly forbidden in the pub – by order of the landlord and guilty parties were banned for 12 months. And so, when the talk of dogs and horses and women met with too much disagreement everyone would stagger outside blinking in the sunshine and the fight would ensue on the street. This usually coincided with someone in our store trying to demonstrate a Bernina, or Elna, or Pfaff etc to a smart and well-dressed and fragrant lady…
Afterwards the winner and the loser and their audience would stagger back into the pub, Several of the men would take the opportunity to pull out their combs and, well you know the story by now…
Drinking would resume inside – it was a serious business.
One day I saw a man take a beating from his wife, or girlfriend, or acquaintance and she was in a wheelchair. He stood obediently still as she swung at him with her large black handbag. Each blow was accompanied by a curse and she timed blow and curse quite well – as if she’d done it before.
Thoughtfully, she informed him when the beating was at an end and his punishment over and he then dutifully and gently wheeled her back inside. The small crowd shuffled in behind them.
One day two men walked into our store one casually dressed and one in a smart three-piece pinstriped suit. We had many sewing machines on show and one of our sales girls, Alison (now a very close family friend) let out a shout as she spotted the men trying to steal an Elna TSP – the swine.
I was in the workshop at the back of the store and I heard Alison scream, they’re stealing a machine. I gave chase – being somewhat younger, dafter, slimmer and fleeter of foot than I am these days.
Outside on the street the casually dressed man had disappeared but I spotted the pinstriped thief and he spotted me. He broke into a run and I began to chase after him and I began gaining on him. He was older, and chubbier and he was running out of puff. The gap between us shortened and suddenly he stopped and turned and reached inside his jacket and pulled out a large and cruel looking knife. Looking at the weasel I could see that he didn’t have the Elna about him. So, after giving him the benefit of my thoughts on the matter, I departed the scene, intact, but cursing my luck for surely I had chased the wrong thief and the casually dressed guy had made off with our Elna. I was quite downhearted, well, it was personal.
All turned out well though because when I returned to the store Alison had found the Elna. The two swine had dropped it in a corner as they fled the scene.
We moved from Oldham street to our present store around 11 or 12 years ago when the local council changed a bus route. This meant we could no longer park outside the store and, more importantly, neither could our customers.
This ‘new’ store is in a much quieter and safer area and our customers like it, but I often cast a glance to the street outside and wonder where all the ‘action’ went.