When I first joined my dad in the shop in those distant sunlit days when petrol was three and six a gallon and cigarettes were advertised as being good for your throat, there was a ritual which never varied.
Every fortnight I would climb into the passenger seat of our van and we would drive to “the suppliers”. This was a dimly-lit Victorian warehouse with dusty shelves of Tommy Lawton football boots and Walter Hammond cricket bats. Magic.
Men with names like Arthur and Cyril, in long brown overalls with pencils behind their ears, could unerringly find the most obscure and long-forgotten item of sports equipment and still have time to put the kettle on and tell my father about the latest sexual adventures of Beryl in accounts. Happy days.
Of course, today’s suppliers are as remote from Arthur and Cyril as the man in the moon. Everything’s online and you pay by relentless electronic banking systems which have been known to send my assistant Norman sobbing into the garden at 3am.
The good news is that there are still a few Luddites in the sportsgoods wholesale trade, clinging grimly on like limpets on a rock, and I feel we should do all we can to encourage them before, like dinosaurs, carbon-paper and Carter’s Little Liver Pills, they disappear forever.
One of my favourite prehistoric suppliers was a youngish man always known as The Boss. He had a liking for bright blue and white striped shirts and had the pink damp look of someone who had just emerged from a very hot shower.
He ran a small wholesale sports goods business which always seemed to exist in a state of suspended animation with his staff sitting silently in the shadows on piles of cardboard boxes eating cake and The Boss in his office talking to his girlfriend on the phone.
Occasionally a customer would come in to ask why an order placed two months ago still hadn’t been delivered and The Boss would send out for éclairs and settle down for a chat.
The explanation was always the same: “We’re waiting for a delivery from Taiwan. The moment it comes we’ll have your order completed and with the express carrier in an hour.
The guys out there are just aching to get on with the job”, indicating a youth who was apparently asleep. The rest of the workforce had gone for lunch.
It was hard not to like The Boss. It was just a mistake to do business with him if the job was remotely urgent. At the root of most of The Boss’s problem was what he referred to as merchants.
These included rip-off merchants, cloud nine merchants, woe-woe merchants (pessimists) and blah-blah merchants. There were even ear-blowing merchants who apparently had designs on his girlfriend.
My dealings with The Boss came after I had unwisely placed an order for a variety of goods ordered by customers on the understanding that they would be delivered within a week and The Boss said that would be absolutely no problem.
He would contact his suppliers immediately and the stuff would be on its way before I had eaten one of the cream slices his secretary had just brought in.
I heard nothing for a month. After a succession of angry customers has asked what the hell was going on, I drove to The Boss’s warehouse feeling decidedly liverish and determined to sort things out once and for all.
I would sue The Boss, report him to the bloke on the motorbike on Watchdog, refuse to pay and make sure that every trade association knew what a useless twerp he was.
But over coffee and several large teacakes in The Boss’s office I began to wonder if I was being unreasonable. After all, he had heard only that morning that all my goods were winging their way from Taiwan. As I left we shook hands warmly and I heard myself say: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you”.
The order, needless to say, remained undelivered for another five weeks. By the time it finally arrived, the customers had, not surprisingly, gone elsewhere, but Norman was able to sell the lot at a very handsome price to a mate who was restocking his shop after convincing the insurers that his front window had been smashed by a meteor fragment. So against all the odds, everyone was happy ever after.
And the Boss? Inevitably he moved to pastures new, but you’ll be pleased to know that he later became the right-hand man of a dynamic Premier League merchandiser.
To the astonishment of all who knew them, the partnership was highly successful. All we could assume was that The Boss must have had to buy an awful lot of cake.