Apr 4, 2020

Under the counter - it’s just a question of trust

A sideways look at the world of independent retailing

“I hope you’re getting the AA to give it the once-over,” said my assistant Norman when I said I was finally replacing our van.

“There’s no need for that,” I said. “The bloke said his mother-in-law just used it once a fortnight to buy cat food at Tesco. It’s only got 3,000 miles on the clock and the ashtrays have never been used. OK, it’s 1998 but they knew how to build them in those days and technically speaking it’s hardly run in.”

I picked up the van on Monday and although it does seem to use a lot of water, the tape-deck is really good. I didn’t use it from Tuesday to Thursday.

Then on Friday, coming back from the wholesalers with a load of minimal training tools, I was stuck in a traffic jam when I gradually became aware that the van had caught fire and that it was being covered in foam by the fire brigade.

When I eventually arrived home on the bus with two singed parcels of training tools and my high-energy drink flask covered in what looked like coconut icing, my wife Doreen’s only reaction was: “Before you bought that heap why on earth didn’t you have it looked at by someone who knows about vans?”

“Of course I did,” I said. “The man I bought it from knows all about vans. He said he won’t charge me anything for taking the burned bits back.”

I mention this minor incident to illustrate my theory that small businessmen are, by and large, a pretty decent lot who try to see the best in everyone. In my experience, trusting people usually brings out the best in them

For instance, my friend Dave, who runs a fitness gym and is reckoned to be pretty astute when it comes to summing up strangers, could see no harm in giving a tour of his establishment to a middle-aged man he had met in a pub, who said he was interested in health and fitness.

Nor could Dave see any objection to lifting a few weights for his visitor and rowing the equivalent of Putney to Mortlake on his new rowing-machine.

After all, you’d need to be pretty cynical to guess that the stranger was a private detective employed by an insurance company to dispute Dave’s claim that he was unable to work after a car accident. The case comes up next week.

Of course, just because you try to see the best in people it doesn’t mean you’re automatically a soft touch, and when Dr Ben Wadi El Haroun Bey came into my life recently I was understandably suspicious. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.

Just why Dr Bey wrote to me from Lagos, Nigeria, in the first place, was not clear but as an experienced independent retailer I could immediately see he had a problem.

As project implementation director he had over-invoiced a Lithuanian contracting firm for a total of $28 million and now he needed to find somewhere safe to keep the money while he decided what to do with it.

So could I open a bank account for him in my name? As someone who once paid a telephone bill twice by mistake, I could understand his distress. Also, $28 million in the shop’s account, for however short a time, might well impress the bank manager.

As a reward for any inconvenience, Dr Bey proposed to give me 30 per cent of the $28 million, which could mean we could have the shop decorated and replace the glass in the display cabinet Norman fell into during our Christmas party in 1991.

I would have discussed the matter with Doreen but Dr Bey had asked me not to mention it to anyone. “I have reposed my confidence in you,” he wrote. “And hope and pray you will not disappoint me.”

Business has been a bit slack lately so I rang Dr Bey on the number he gave and was put through to an answering machine in a fish and chip shop in Basingstoke. Not a promising start.

I have e-mailed Dr Bey and there for the moment the matter rests. I would like to help him if I can, and if he could lob a few bob in the direction of the van repair bill, then I can’t see the harm in that.

I’ll let you know what happens. In the meantime, Dr Bey, who seems a decent sort of chap, would appreciate it if you would keep our secret to yourselves.

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