If the Shoe Fits
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas, and I was very short of money to buy presents for my family. I was seventeen, and had just found a Saturday job at Russell and Bromley, the most exclusive shoe shop in the London suburb where we lived. In 1966, a job like that could pay the equivalent of $35 for a Saturday, plus commission. I needed at least that to cover my vital everyday expenses. In those days, these might include a pair of “pearl” earrings from Biba, some false eyelashes, or even a dress from Laura Ashley, if I saved for long enough. Then there were tickets to films or Saturday night dances and a host of other expenses essential for a teenage girl at that time. And now there was Christmas looming, as well.
I definitely needed money. So when I applied for, and got, the job at Russell and Bromley, I was thrilled. The shoes were expensive, which meant I could earn more than in lower priced boutiques. And the shop itself was elegant, with a pale coffee colored carpet and toning espresso seats for the customers. As they walked in, I could see them sniffing appreciatively, as the light scent of leather reached their noses.
It wasn’t perfect, however. I had previously worked at Manfield Shoes, whose customers were looking for the squared toes and chunky heels that were in fashion then. The R&B clientele turned out to be older, more chic and much less friendly than the dolly birds who frequented Manfield. And they were much more exacting. For almost every customer, I made constant trips to the stockroom to find a narrower shoe, a wider shoe, a higher heel, a lower heel… the searches through the shelves of almost identical boxes never stopped. When business was slow, I was assigned to tidy the stockroom, which meant arranging all the boxes by style, size, width and color, which was boring, but gave me a pretty good grasp of the shoes we had available.
The commission was an impressive threepence in the pound. If I’d been better at math, I would have realized that was only 1.25%. But ignorance was bliss. On the brighter side, the commission on handbags and ‘sundries’ was twice as much. I rarely sold a handbag, but I could often persuade customers to buy some shoe cream or waterproofing spray, to go with their new purchase.
The senior saleswoman, Ethel, had first pick of the customers, while we Saturday girls got the less promising prospects. Ethel must have been about forty-five - practically ancient to my seventeen-year-old eye. She always wore a navy skirt and white blouse with a string of pearls. She had no wedding ring, and I wondered if it was her sour personality that kept suitors away, or whether the sourness came from having no love life. Anytime she saw a customer who looked ‘classy’ in her words, she would step forward down the long narrow shop to accost them as close to the front door as possible. She’d usher them to the comfortable seats, and begin to sell. Luckily, I enjoyed selling, too. Finding the right shoe for a customer, no matter what she might look like, I found rewarding.
So, it was nearly five o’clock on a Saturday evening just before Christmas. The shop was due to close at five-thirty and a murky drizzle seemed to be discouraging shoppers. Just as we were giving up hope of another sale, the store doors opened with a gust of damp air and an odd-looking couple walked in. The man was about five-seven and in his forties, I guessed, with slightly receding hair and several gold chains around his neck. The statuesque, suspiciously blonde, woman towering over him was wearing a fur coat, high heels and bright red lipstick - all very out of date in the mid-sixties.
“Hopelessly déclassé,” murmured Ethel. “Why don’t you deal with them, Gabi?” She turned to me with a smirk.
I didn’t mind. I thought they looked quite nice and more interesting than our usual clients. So I showed them to a couple of seats and sat down on the shop assistants’ stool to measure the blonde’s feet.
“Thing is,” the man began, “she needs ’igh heels. None of yer chunky rubbish. I mean, look at them legs. She needs to show ‘em off, don’t ya, darlin’?”
“Bless ’im,” replied his consort. “He does like to see me in stiletto ’eels. But I have got rather a large foot,” she added. “So I’m not easy to fit.”
She was right. I’d never had to look for a size ten shoe before. And I didn’t think we had any stilettos. They’d been the thing in the fifties, but now?
I trudged to the stock room and began to hunt. Wedge heels, chunky heels, even kitten heels, but no stilettos. I was about to leave in despair, when, on a top shelf near the door, I caught sight of a dusty box with the magic number ten and a picture of a stiletto-heeled shoe on it. I pulled it off the shelf to take a look. There was surely something wrong with the price. It said £40 (about £700 today) but I knew perfectly well that the most expensive shoes we had were about £15. Lifting the lid, I peered inside. These were special shoes alright - gleaming crocodile leather in a dark brown shade that would look striking with her fur coat. They must have been there forever, because they were hopelessly out of style, but I decided to give them a chance, anyway.
Ethel stared as I took them out to the blonde. I lifted her stockinged foot and slid the shoe onto it.
“How does that feel?” I asked.
“Lovely. Really lovely. They’re so soft,” she said. “Can I try the other one?”
She got up and sashayed down the shop towards the front door and back again. Her swain eyed her appreciatively.
“See what I mean? She needs the ‘eels.”
I coughed politely.
“There is one thing,” I ventured. “The shoes are absolutely wonderful quality, because they’re made out of crocodile leather. Your wife…” I glanced at him to see whether I’d said the right thing, but he was still eyeing the blonde. “Your wife,” I reprised, “will have them forever - they’ll never wear out. But…they do cost £40.”
“Right,” he said thoughtfully. I waited for him to turn them down. I eyed his cheerful round face, just beginning to show some five o’clock shadow, trying to read his mind.
“We’ll take them won’t we love.” He put a meaty hand on her arm and gave her an indulgent smile. “After all it’s Christmas, isn’t it?”
My heart stopped beating for a second. They would take them! I looked over at the handbags and sundries. Maybe we had some crocodile shoe cream I could sell them? I skipped over the shoe cream because my eye came to rest on a large brown crocodile leather handbag that matched the shoes exactly, and cost the same, too. Oh, well. Nothing ventured. I stepped over to the shelf, and returned with the bag.
“As long as it’s Christmas,” I smiled. “What about this gorgeous handbag to go with the shoes?” The blonde reached for it, stroked the surface and then opened it to look inside. She tossed out the tissue paper and began to check the compartments where she’d be able to keep her powder compact, her lipstick and her valuables.
“Oh darlin’,” she said with a wistful smile. “It’s fab, but you really shouldn’t.”
The man remained silent for a minute while the blonde and I eyed each other and held our collective breath.
“Okay,” he said. “But it’s birthday too, mind.” And he kissed her.
“Let me wrap those for you,” I said, anxious to seal the deal before he changed his mind.
“Bet his cheque bounces,” hissed Ethel, as I stood wrapping the shoes and sliding them into an elegant navy blue and gold Russell and Bromley bag. But she needn’t have worried. When I handed him the bill, he put a hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a wad of notes. I’d never seen so much money in my life. And I had made a whole pound in commission, more than my base wages.
I could feel Ethel’s eyes boring into my back as I escorted the couple to the door and wished them Happy Christmas. It was going to be a happy one for me, that was certain.