Christmas amongst a Stack o’ Toys

It’s been far too long since I last posted something, so I came up with a nice seasonal post for you. A couple of days ago, I was fondly (haha!) reminiscing on my first full-time job, and how much “fun” it was in the run up to Christmas.

It was back in 1993, when I’d freshly emerged from my year out with an extremely dodgy Christian organisation, and wasn’t sure what to do next with my life. I needed money, so I hunted around for the first job I could find. One day, I walked past the Toy Stack store in Kingston, and saw they needed staff. As I’d previously had a Saturday job in a toy shop a few years earlier, I figured I was likely to get it, and so I enquired within. After a brief interview a couple of days later, I was offered a job on the spot. This was around September.

The only picture of a Toy Stack store I could find anywhere. It isn’t the one I worked in, but they all looked the same.

Toy Stack is probably not the most well-known toy retailing brand. They were a small chain of shops mostly in the London area, and they had about ten shops at the height of their success. The company seemed to be doing fairly well at the time, though, having established a good reputation for keenly-priced toys. The company stocked a few well-known brands to get people in, but tended to specialise in selling whatever they could buy in bulk at low prices, so we had an ever-revolving array of sometimes quite obscure products. It made the job a bit more interesting, because each delivery contained a few surprises.

There’s not much online about what happened to the company, but it’s long gone, and info on the Companies House website suggests they’d ceased trading by about 2007. Companies like Toys R Us had a huge amount of clout back then, and saw off a lot of independent retailers. But, back in 93, when I showed up to sell toys to the good people of Kingston, the shop seemed in good shape, and indeed, at the company’s Christmas party that year, our branch won the “Shop of the Year” award, which gave our boss an excuse to drink even more than he normally did.

The store manager was slightly terrifying as he had bit of a hair-trigger temper and was fond of a bit of shouting (how much he shouted seemed directly proportional to how drunk he was). He also took his job deathly seriously, and I think this and the drink formed bit of a vicious cycle. His deputy, a woman only a year or two older than me who took her entire life FAR too seriously, was more sober but ultimately one of the most boring and dull people I’ve ever met.

I say this as someone who was pretty unbearable at the time, as I’d spent the previous year being indoctrinated into thinking it was my solemn duty to convert everyone into very full-on charismatic Christians. My efforts were futile, and revival never broke out at the Kingston Toy Stack, but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Looking back, I’m actually surprised I didn’t get sacked for being an obnoxious little shit, but that’s probably only because other staff were even worse, and keeping enough people working there was clearly driving the boss to drink. One of the stranger people I worked with was Dean, who I’d previously known as a friend of a friend at primary school about ten years earlier. He came along full of determination to develop the business, especially in model railways (we sold the odd train set or two), but he ended up spending about 90% of his time asleep, and got caught napping in just about every location it was possible to nap in. At least I spent my time at work awake. There was much speculation as to what he got up to outside work to make him so tired – I reckon it was either illegal raves, or he was a spy or something.

Most of the other staff were pretty decent, and I got on quite well with Ruth and Helen, who had been there a while. The other significant character was Joan, a terrifying harridan who seemed to regard work as an unfortunate interruption to her favourite activity, which was smoking. She had a horrible raspy, rattly voice, an almost permanent cough and absolutely stank of smoke, even more than my fond-of-smoking parents did. I did my best to keep out of her way.

The job was quite easy, and involved either serving people at the till or keeping the toys “stacked” on the shelves. It wasn’t just a clever name. When I started there in the autumn, weekdays were generally pretty quiet and offered plenty of opportunity to talk to the staff about interesting issues (translation: attempt to convert them). Saturdays tended to be quite manic, though, and we were assisted by a bunch of Saturday staff. They’d be presented with a twenty-pound note at the end of each day they worked, which sounds a bit laughable now. I was on the princely sum of £3.50 an hour at the time. Again, sounds incredible, but it certainly wasn’t the lowest wage on offer at the time, and £3.50 bought a lot more in 1992 than it does in 2023. In fact, it didn’t sound too bad until inflation began spiralling out of control a couple of years ago, but that’s another story.

Everything began to get crazily busy once December dawned, and the mall was bedecked with cheesy decorations. Every year, since time immemorial, there’s a must-have toy that everyone is determined to get hold of, and in 1993, that toy was “Baby All-Gone”. I have no idea why – in all honesty, it was absolute crap, but it seemed every little girl in the Kingston area wanted one. It was basically a doll that came with one of those bottles in which “milk” would disapper if you held it to her mouth at the right angle, and a pot of “cherries” with a special spoon. Put the spoon in the pot, and “cherries” would appear on it. Hold the spoon to the doll’s mouth, and the “cherries” would vanish, producing a crappy illusion that the doll was eating them. Maybe kids were easily pleased back in 1993, but anyway, these dolls flew off the shelves the second we got any.

Soon, increasingly desperate parents would arrive and beg us for Baby All-Gones, having heard rumours that we had them in stock. Usually they’d all just (ironically) gone by this point, but they’d refuse to believe us, convinced we had some hidden away somewhere. It was, of course, difficult to confirm stocks of things back then, before mobile phones and social media, and you couldn’t just order stuff online, so it was a case of tramping around physical shops until you found what you needed. Clearly there had been a lot of tramping going on – Kingston was quite a big town and visiting all the toy shops was a demanding task. It’s no surprise people were tired and fractious by the time they got to us – they were worse than the kids!

People seemed convinced that we must have had an aircraft hangar-sized stockroom filled floor to ceiling with secret Baby All-Gones we were refusing to sell to them. In reality, our stockroom was about the size of a phonebox, and as soon as deliveries arrived, we had to put everything out on the shelves as there was nowhere else we could store it. People just didn’t accept this. I’m sure I was offered bribes for releasing this secret stock of Baby All-Gones on at least a couple of occasions.

The phone would frequently ring with people trying to reserve them, but again due to our lack of storage space it was company policy not to offer this service for any items. It made people extremely angry, but made it easy to communicate quickly to other staff what the phone call was about.

Colleague A: “Who was that on the phone?”
Colleague B: “Baby All-Gone.”
Colleague A: “Oh, OK.” (gets on with whatever they were doing)

I can’t remember how much we charged for Baby All-Gones, but they didn’t seem price sensitive at all – we probably could have sold them for a few grand each, and still shifted every single one of the stupid shitty things.

Things were a chaotic frenzy in the last few days before Christmas, as the quest for Baby All-Gones reached its peak. It took us quite a while to clean up the blood and move the bodies, after parents fought to the death over the last one. I was somewhat apprehensive about going to work on Christmas Eve, expecting things to be even worse, but it was in fact very quiet the whole day, especially after lunch. A strange, serene quiet descended on the stacks of toys, leaving us with little to do, and it was actually quite a nice day, standing out as a fond memory in a job that was generally pretty awful.

After a brief period of people returning and exchanging stuff between Christmas and New Year, everything went very quiet indeed for most of January, leading to the onset of extreme boredom. It was time to look for something else. After an unsuccessful application to the UK office of German Railways, which at the time was based in nearby Surbiton, I subsequently managed to land a job as a railway station booking clerk, which I started in May 1994. I actually got quite a nice send-off from my colleagues, which was good considering my obnoxious God-bothering. They genuinely wished me well, apart from my boss, who seemed to consider me extremely disloyal. My departure made it necessary for him to recruit someone else, of course, something he hated doing, and which probably drove him to drink.

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