BHS: It's hats off to the high street chain I'm very attached to many years on
As British Home Stores goes into administration, in an affectionate, poignant and at times hilarious account, Joe Cushnan recalls working in its Belfast branch at the height of the Troubles, and the day he met the woman who would become his wife in the men's underwear department.
Anyone familiar with British Home Stores (I still call it that) in Belfast will know the staircase to the first floor at the Castle Lane side.
Every morning, 10 minutes before opening, the store manager would stand halfway up and address the gathered staff of whatever stripe to deliver the day's news and instructions. These steps were also used to introduce new managers to the team and on September 17, 1973, I stood there all a-flush while I was being welcomed aboard.
The discomfort was heightened when the new boy was asked to say something to the audience. Some words came out but, a la Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the right order. So, blushing, nervous and a little damp in the oxters area, I began 11 mostly very happy years working for the company, three years in Belfast and the rest of the time in England. I had joined the trainee manager scheme, which was basically a year's worth of training before being confirmed as a department manager. Most of the managers at my level and above were from what they irritatingly referred to as "the mainland". Some of those English guys were a bit cocky towards us locals, but our natural rapier wit and sharp stares cut them down to size more often than not.
The years I worked in Belfast city centre were a mixture of fun and fear. The 1970s were bloody times and the security forces fenced in Belfast's core. The daily ritual of travelling to work included queuing at a gate awaiting a body search by a uniformed official armed to the teeth. Bomb scares, random incendiary devices, riots and an occasional explosion took care of the fear factor. The fun part was working with a lively team, full of banter, individuals from all parts of the city and beyond, working in harmony and good humour - before we all went back to our enclaves at the end of the day. BHS taught me so much about the mechanics of business and the importance of respecting people regardless of backgrounds and beliefs.
The English managers within the team shared a house in Templepatrick and were under instructions, for foreign accent reasons, to be careful where they went. They were advised not to draw attention to themselves unnecessarily. However, jaws dropped when their company car was shipped over from London. It was a lovely shade of Army green! After several gasps and a few phone calls from the manager to head office in London the car was replaced with a nice blue model. Oh how we locals enjoyed that one.
In the early 1970s BHS was seen as the slightly poorer relation to the mighty Marks & Spencer, but still a force in its own right in fresh food and clothing. After my apprenticeship I was appointed department manager of menswear as well as becoming the security co-ordinator. Stores employed security guards at entrances to search customers for incendiary devices and anything else threatening, and it was part of my job to look after this team. It was a pretty ineffective way to stop terrorists but it was the done thing to give customers the impression that we were thinking about their safety. It brought a whole new dimension to customer care. Tending to customers rigid with shock and bleeding after a bomb exploded outside our shop in Castle Place one afternoon was an extension of customer service that I hope I never have to get involved with again.
But there were lighter moments. I can honestly say that I have shovelled 'you know what' for my employer. On one of the many evacuations we endured following a telephoned bomb scare threat the police and Army personnel brought a sniffer dog to roam the store in a bid to detect explosives. As the brave dog scrambled around and over the top of counter displays, it decided to stop at my department and do its business. After the all-clear I grabbed a bin and a shovel and scooped the poop before customers were allowed back in. So, whenever anyone talks about rolling up sleeves and getting hands dirty, they are talking to an old campaigner here.
One of our departmental managers' pranks involved a mannequin's hand. Each afternoon, about an hour before the shop closed, our keyholder would come in and tour the building to start locking windows and fire doors, ensuring a fully secure shut-down when we all left for the evening. One part of his tour took him down some stairs, around a corner and down a further flight to a fire door at the back of the store. One day a couple of us disconnected a hand from one of the fashion department's mannequins and placed it on the handrail just around the corner of the stairwell. The keyholder, observed in advance by us as a handrail holder as he descended the stairs, almost jumped out of his skin when he touched the cold extremity. He was normally a gentle plodder as he did his rounds, but on that day he bounded up the stairs and shot out on to the shop floor like a banshee with its tail on fire. In our privacy, we screamed with laughter for ages and he developed a suspicious eye in our company from that day on. It is shameful, of course in retrospect, but I include it as an illustration that we were prone to a little childish fun from time to time in those days to counteract the seriousness of the business and location we were in. If we had been identified as the culprits we reckoned that our defence rested on us arguing that we were only giving him a hand.
In 1974, at the Castle Inn pub, I became the British Home Stores' Belfast dominoes champion. I have the engraved tankard and I can claim to be undefeated because the event was never staged again. I had not played the game before but luck guided me through and I blanked out the grumbles from seasoned, seething veterans. But, once a champion and all that.
Customers were the usual mixture of good, honest folks and chancers. The biggest scam in those days involved hats. We had a magnificent display of ladies' hats and experienced a little sales surge on a Friday followed by a refunds surge on the following Monday. Some hats bought on Fridays were obviously worn at weddings and christenings over the weekend and returned as "not suitable" on Monday mornings. Customers involved in this wheeze developed stony faces that would not have been out of place on Mount Rushmore.
In the days before health and safety was invented we would teeter on rickety stepladders to reach lighting products hanging from the ceiling. On a busy Saturday afternoon we took risks unscrewing chandeliers and replacing display bulbs as people jostled by oblivious to the fact that we were taking our lives in our hands wobbling around clutching at live electrics.
At Christmas we could always rely on a wee drunk man standing in a puddle of his own making while trying to slur out the name of a perfume that his wife liked. On hot summer days we would keep a beady eye out for anyone wearing a heavy overcoat, as sure a signal for banditry as a mask, a striped jumper and a bag marked 'swag'. I can remember many times when we chased shoplifters, running down the street after them but not always clear about what we would do if they turned on us. What started out as The Sweeney could easily develop into the Keystone Kops.
The BHS phase of my career took me, as department manager, to stores in Belfast, Manchester, Romford in Essex and then Wood Green, East Ham and Hackney in the London area. From the stores, I moved to head office on the Marylebone Road in London to head up a team in a new IT project and then on to the role as UK audit manager. By and large it was one of the most enjoyable and productive periods of my working life and I have a lot to be thankful for. In Romford I met my wife-to-be. She was a staff manager then. The team would gather round the men's underwear counter for morning meetings and so, yes, we can claim a brief encounter of a sort, though we are still together 36 years later.
I am very sad to hear that BHS has filed for administration. It is a company that I enjoyed working for and I remember many of my colleagues fondly. I recall happy days in some troubled times. I remember a lot of camaraderie and fun. I feel for the 11,000 employees at risk and for sentimental reasons as much as any other emotions, I really feel for the Belfast store where I started my long career. It was a great store to work in and a great company to work for. The next time I come home, British Home Stores might have disappeared, unlike my good memories.