Monday 14 April 2014

Remembering Our Price

When I left college, jobs were scarce. Perennial underachiever that I was, I ended up joining the YTS. The Youth Training Scheme was a typical government initiative to get school leavers to take a very, very low-paid job funded out of social security. The benefits? The government gets people off the ‘official’ unemployment figures; employers get extremely cheap labour in exchange for ‘training’ their new recruits; the poor suckers who ended up in these schemes get paid little more than they would have on benefits, but at least get experience of the job market and potentially land a ‘proper job’ at the end of it. The same old idea has been endlessly recycled and repackaged since then by successive governments. It’s been given numerous names and titles, but let’s face it, there’s been no real improvement after all these years and it serves only to place a shallow veil over the real problems of youth unemployment.

My placement was at a small, independent music shop selling sheet music and musical instruments. In fairness, my time at Barnstaple Music Centre, under the tutelage of Roland and Pearl (two perfect names for music shop owners![1]) probably did do me quite a lot of good. After a year on the YTS, Roland and Pearl gave me a full-time job with proper wages (although being a very small independent retailer, this was far from big money, but it was a darn sight more than the YTS) and I was delighted. Within six months however, I was laid off. Financial pressures meant they couldn’t keep me on. It was a blow.

I soon learnt that Our Price, the biggest record store chain in the country, was to open a branch in Barnstaple. This was it – my chance to land a dream job. Let’s face it – we all want to work in a record shop. What could be better than standing around listening to all the music you ever wanted to hear all day, eh? That’s what everyone who never worked in a record shop would ask. Let me tell you, retail is bloody hard work, very low paid and ridiculously underappreciated. I’d already learned this in Barnstaple Music Centre. What’s more, you can’t listen to everything you ever wanted. You’d get the sack pretty bloody quickly if you played Crass or Bolt Thrower during opening hours!

I applied and got a job at the newly opened shop, slap bang in the middle of Barnstaple High Street. So there I was, the 19-year-old me, obsessed with music and with a chronic addiction to buying records, working in Our Price. I really was as happy as a pig in shit.

Some great fun was had. The thing with working in retail is, in spite of the god-awful wages, there is rarely a dull moment. A great deal of the most memorable stuff tends to come from customers. My mum, who worked in a succession of shops during her short life, always used to tell me: “There’s nort so queer as folk.” She was spot on (as always). 

You see, the public are cunts. The public regards the poor retail assistant on shitty wages and, more than likely these days, an oppressive zero-hour contract, as the lowest of the low. Yet, it is the poor retail assistant who must always remain polite, cheerful and helpful while some moron insists on acting like a complete prick towards them. Mrs Robster encounters numerous members of the public that fit this description every shift. She gets a kick at being ‘over-nice’ and smiling ironically at them while secretly inflicting severe pain on them in as inhuman way possible in her head!

Let’s face it, the one thing the public loves more than anything is to moan and criticise in the direction of a shop assistant. Yes, in Our Price there was no shortage of people consistently moaning about the “so-called music” we played in-store. The thing is, we had a policy in our branch where each morning had a different genre as its theme. Mondays was always new releases, but Tuesdays was classical, Wednesdays was rootsy stuff like folk and country, etc. The ‘moaners’ were notably absent during these times and only chose – and yes, it was always a choice – to come into the shop when something they didn’t like was playing.

My favourite was the little old lady who came in most Tuesdays (market day) just after midday. More often than not she would buy a cassette of classical music. Included in the transaction would be a disparaging critique of the “rubbish” or “noise” that was being aired in the shop at the time. We would explain to her that from 9 to midday on a Tuesday we were non-stop classical all the way, so if she came in a little earlier she might enjoy it. Then one week, she actually did make it in a little earlier. We were playing some Debussy or Dvořák, I think. When she reached the counter, I made a point of asking her if she liked the music we were playing that morning. She didn’t. In her usual grumpy way, she informed me that, basically, if it wasn’t Mozart, it wasn’t worth a jot!

Then there was the time short-lived teenage indie-pop band EMF were riding high in the charts with Unbelievable. Now this was at a time when the singles market was dying on its arse.[2] The multiple format marketing ploy was keeping the single alive, though the traditional 7” record was almost completely dead. The top selling format was the bloody cassette single for chrissakes - that’s how bad it was! Anyway, EMF released Unbelievable and it was all over the radio. Their keyboard player, Derry Brownson, was from nearby Instow, so there was extra interest in our neck of the woods as North Devon had never been a hotbed of celebrity. The single sold steadily that first week, nothing remarkable, but then the indie shops in town were selling it much cheaper than us thanks to the freebies they received from the label reps.[3] This is why we rarely stocked large amounts of singles – it was the one area where we could never compete with the independents. Sadly, this could not be explained to Derry’s parents, who during the record’s rapid rise up the charts, paid us repeated visits to check our stock levels and make a point of telling us each time, rather curtly, to get more in!

I took great delight in ordering things in that the manager was convinced wouldn’t sell, then watching it fly off the shelves. One such record was Chumbawamba’s fourth album ‘Shhh!’ We were sent a single copy on the day of release which I bought myself. I then placed an order for another half dozen. Pete, the store manager, wasn’t happy.

“Trust me,” I said. “If there are any left at the end of the month I’ll buy them myself.”

Of course, I knew Chumba had a bit of a following locally and gigs were being lined up for them in the area. When the six CDs arrived, I found a space at the end of the chart wall for them and waited. Less than a week later, they’d gone and another order was placed! That album ticked over nicely for a couple of years, a real cult record in North Devon.

Our Price was also where I experienced, for the very first time, the delights of the caramel doughnut. It was Darren, the store's resident Kylie fan, who introduced me to this delight on returning from one of our semi-regular ‘bun runs’ from the bakery opposite.  

“They didn’t have any éclairs so I got you one of these,” he announced.  I’ve never looked back.

Sadly it was also during my time at Our Price that my mum passed away and, perhaps understandably, my mood and attitude changed from that moment. I started to become frustrated at what I saw as an increasingly oppressive regime following the company being taken over by WH Smith. The final straw was being wrongly accused of stealing a measly £10 from the takings after I’d cashed-up one day. I’d recently lost my mum and thanks to her was OK for cash. The last thing I needed was someone else’s stinking tenner, but Terry, the snooty WH Smith security guy, seemed to have a suspect list of one. He had no proof whatsoever so couldn’t pursue it, but the damage was done as far as I was concerned. I slept on it for a few days and couldn’t get the incident out of my mind. I quit under a cloud, unhappy, bitter and frustrated at my treatment and life in general. I entered a new phase in my life which I now call ‘my hedonistic years’.

Our Price itself bit the dust in 2004 after multiple buy-outs and constant mismanagement. Are they missed? Hmm, maybe, maybe not. Are we better off having had them in the first place? Well, for me, that’s a definite yes!


[1] For non-musicians: Roland is a famous keyboards manufacturer; Pearl is one of the top brands for drums and percussion. Roland, the shop co-owner, played piano. Pearl, the other co-owner, did not play drums, though I love to imagine her doing so…
[2] A shame as there were some outstanding singles around during this period. I recently heard Dee-Lite’s Groove Is In The Heart for the first time in years and it reminded me of Our Price. What a good track that was.
[3] The superb book ‘Last Shop Standing’ by Graham Jones details the whole ritual of hyping records into the charts using numerous less-than-honourable techniques by sales reps. There’s also an excellent documentary and website inspired by the book. More info here.


  1. Another masterpiece, mate, wow!! Before my own "hedonistic years" (God, I really like that phrase!!) I was lucky enough to be able to choose between not less than four really good indie record shops in the nearby town: this being the reason why I never had to enter the German equivalents of Our Price.

  2. Unbelievable remains one of my favourite songs - a great record

  3. I did about 6 months service in Our Price. The highlight was selling an Ozzy Osbourne CD to Vic Reeves. The lowlight was the Christmas when Robson and Jerome released their debut album. I still have my Our Price sweatshirt somewhere although I doubt it would fit me now.

    1. Derry from EMF was the closest I came to a celebrity customer. He didn't buy anything. My mate Steve did serve Kevin Rowland from Dexys a couple of years after I left. I also left before WH Smith insisted on bringing in those sweatshirts for staff. Thank god!

  4. mmmm....Our Price Girl.....Sorry, was daydreaming....I miss Our Price. I bought a copy of 'Hup' by The Wonderstuff in Our Price for 89p on vinyl once. 89p. You should have posted 'Behave' from Ssshhh. A lovely record, or a 'cock up the arse for homophobia as yours truly once wrote in a to remain nameless broadsheet - SWC.

    1. Plenty of Chumba to come in a couple weeks time, so I didn't post anything by them this time around. 'Hup' was well worth the whole 89p too.