Mark Arbuckle: Glasgow October 2021
Following my stint as a Saturday boy at Burtons in Sauchiehall St, in 1977 I transferred to Burtons’ flagship store along with my friend and colleague Charlie to join the management training scheme.
The Manager at Argyle St, Max Black (who was rumoured to be married into the Burton family) looked like a thinner, pinstriped John Cleese.
6’6″ tall and 4 foot of that was legs! He also had incredibly long arms and size 13 feet…more on those feet later.
One busy Saturday I was on ‘shop lifter spotting duty’ (no electronic tags in those days, (Burtons were far too stingy to install them anyway) at the front door. I spotted a well known thief and gave the agreed alert to Charlie ‘Is Mr Thomas back from lunch yet?’ or something equally banal!
Max also heard my coded message and reacted like a coiled spring bounding up the stairs to a half landing to gain a better vantage point! Unfortunately he tripped on the first step and sprawled flat out with his telescopic arms in front of him! He covered the entire 13 stairs with startled customers stepping over him in both directions! I don’t know what happened to the shoplifter as Charlie and I were doubled over laughing!
Every Tuesday morning the branch was closed from 9-9.45 for Staff Training.
Max had just returned from a Mangers’ meeting and was eager to impart his new information to us.
The entire staff was gathered on the 1st Floor around the Made to Measure desks with it’s high stools. Max was telling us about a new concept of Individual Staff Responsibility. In other words the sales floors were to be divided up into smaller depts and each staff member had to maintain, stock and merchandise it. Sales per square foot would be monitored and you could earn a bonus at the end of every month. (the scheme lasted less time than it’s taken you to read this!!)
Anyway to demonstrate how to calculate ‘Square Footage’ Max proudly held up his size 13 shoe and said ‘My shoe is a foot in length, so it’s easy to work out square footage!’
He then began walking heel to toe and counting out ‘One, two, three…but when he got to five he began to lose his balance, struggled to stay on track and lurched sideways disappearing through the open door that led to the staircase!
He just lurved those stairs!!
Most of the staff who had been dozing up to that point burst into laughter!
Even wee John, the head of the Made to Measure dept. was suddenly alert!
Wee John had been with Burtons for about 30 years and was nearing retirement.
He could be a bit curmudgeonly with the yung-uns but I got on well with him.
Because we shared a secret….
One morning I was early, a very rare occurrence, and was walking down Buchanan St. when I spotted him looking into John Menzies window about 50 yards from Burtons.
I loudly greeted him.
He started to choke and splutter, turning an alarming shade of purple! It was only then that I noticed a cigarette half hidden in his cupped right hand. ‘Are you all right?’ I asked as he frantically waved me away.
He cornered me at tea break and asked if I could keep our earlier encounter just between the two of us, which of course I agreed to.
It was the shop’s worst kept secret that John smoked as anyone who used the staff toilet after him would attest.
You could cut the smoke with a knife!
He’d smoked all his life but had recently experienced some heart problems and had promised his doctor, his family and his formidable wife Anne, who also worked for Burtons that he had quit!
When I say Anne was formidable she was about 5′ and weighed 7 stone but OMG she could destroy anybody with a couple of vicious words. However she liked me and I did feel kinda guilty about keeping John’s ‘not so secret’ secret.
After the summer sale the store was getting a bit of a refit so Max asked George the assistant manager, Charlie and myself to come in on a Sunday (no Sunday trading in those days) to work on the refit.
George was a big, easy going, amiable guy probably in his mid 50’s with a passing resemblance to John Le Mesurier.
He never got flustered and was quite happy to play second fiddle to a succession of (poor) managers.
The shop had floor to ceiling windows and our task was to place 12′ aluminium poles into pre set fixings in the floor about a yard from the glass. Then place 8′ x 4′ boards in between the poles to create a wall onto to which metal shelves and/or rails could be attached.
The side facing the window was used for mannequins and displays.
The boards were very heavy and had metal pegs on the sides about 8″ from both ends which slotted into holes in the poles and tightened with a screwdriver.
It was cumbersome work and took all four of us to manoeuvre each board into place. Charlie and I lifted the board a foot off the floor and guided the pegs into the bottom two slots while Max and George were both up ladders and had the same task to secure the top two.
We had successfully erected three boards but the fourth was proving very tricky.
Charlie and I had secured the bottom two but George’s side wouldn’t line up so we disconnected them again and tried to get all four inserted simultaneously.
We were ‘cussin’ ‘n’ fightin’ my friend’ but to no avail.
We took a break and examined the problem. The slot on George’s side of the board was misaligned so the only solution was to force it in. We tried again and George said that the problem was he couldn’t tighten the slot because it was off kilter.
Suddenly Max from the top of his ladder exclaimed
‘I’VE GOT A BIG RED ONE!!!
Charlie and I dropped the board causing George to nearly fall off his ladder. The three of us were crying with laughter while nonplussed Max muttered something about ‘it being in his car’.
He left and came back shortly with a big red screwdriver which, to be fair to him, did the trick.
We finished the job with no further issues, although every now and again Charlie and I would catch each other’s eye and descend into fits of giggles once more.
A couple of week’s later Max decided to get the Sunday ‘band back together’ (more overtime!)The task this time was to clear old shop fittings out of the basement.
To do this we had to carry them up a flight of stairs, out onto the street where there was a door on the side of the building that led to a lift down to a sub basement and then narrow sloping stairs to an area that was basically just a hole in the floor.
I hadn’t even realised that this area existed before then. George did however and started to tell us stories about Rodents of Unusual Size!!
The first four hours, though hard and physical, went by without incident. Later we were nearly done for the day when one of the last heavy, cash-desk units jammed in the steep, narrow staircase leading to the sub basement level which Max had insisted we filled up first.
Charlie being the smallest managed to squeeze between the bulky unit and the sloping roof of the stairwell hoping to release whatever was making it jam. He quickly succeeded… but too well really as the heavy unit slid down the stairs trapping him between the piles of stuff we’d already placed there.
‘Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring’
The unit’s new angle made it impossible for Charlie to climb back over the obstruction and he had no room to manoeuvre behind him. George, Max and I started to haul at the bloody thing trying in vain to pull it back up the steep slope.
After 15 minutes our arms were aching and it hadn’t budged.
Should we get a rope? Would we have to phone the Fire Brigade? This was bad!
I suddenly realised that Charlie had gone very quiet in his imprisoned area. ‘Charlie are you ok?’ I asked but didn’t get a reply. ‘Charlie stop messing (he didn’t say ‘messing’) about’ shouted George, but still no answer.
We exchanged worryingly looks….Then there was a loud bang and Charlie’s head appeared through a trapdoor hidden from us by old cardboard SALE signs about 10 feet from where we stood! He was filthy and covered in cobwebs but was apparently unharmed.
He gave Max a look that said ‘Ye canny get rid of me that easily!
By Autumn ’78 I’d completed my first year of management training and had been asked to join the Burtons Group new, young fashion concept Top Man. I jumped at the chance.
They would open their first Scottish branch in the basement sales floor of Burtons! (Yes the same basement I’d helped to clear the previous year!)
Top Man would have it’s own distinct branding and identity, and carry stock aimed at a much younger, trendier market. We were also given window space on the ground floor, much to Max’s disgust.
He did however say he was sorry to lose me and wished me well, but cautioned me saying ‘It wouldn’t last!’….
Part 2 of All Over The Shop and how I met a famous porn star through working at Top Man to follow next week…..