Friday, July 30, 2010

The furniture store

The family had furniture stores (used and new) as far back as I can remember. My grandfather Mitchell had a large store on Paisley Road West. I remember going there as a child quite often. It was next to a park (Kinning Park?), and not far from a cinema, called the Lorne. Apparently this was made into a Bingo Hall in 1976, and then demolished in 1986. This area is famous for being the home of the Rangers football team, until this day a place of strong anti-Catholic feeling. My grandmother’s house was a few blocks from the store, on Paisley Road West. Since this was further west (in the direction of Paisley) it was a nicer neighborhood, and flats were spacious. However it still was what was called a tenement. My grandparents always had a maid in these days to do the house keeping and the serving of meals. My Uncle David worked in the store, as did my Aunt Betty. This was good training for their futures, since both ended up later on opening their own business. The local school in the neighborhood was the scene of many clashes between Protestant kids and Catholics kids on Orange day, a day celebrating the Protestant victory over the Catholics in Ireland at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. The organization was called the Orange Lodge, after the Prince of Orange, who became William III of a united Britain. It was a Protestant organization, and reflected the anti-Catholicism of its day. This religious feeling was tied into the rivalry between the football teams the Rangers versus the Celtics, which played at nearby Ibrox Park. Being Jewish, I was not caught up in this rivalry, and stood aside; I suppose not knowing where I belonged in this “religious” struggle. I don’t think it truly was religious, but more a matter of native Scots (Protestants) versus Irish immigrants (the Catholics)

My father’s first store was in a run-down, very slummy part of the city, in Houston St. We lived close by. Unfortunately I do not remember the address. I know it was near Shields Road, since I attended school in Scotland St Primary school, now a museum. This was because the school was built by the famous architect Rennie Mackintosh. The area was very run down, full of drunks, and grey/black tenement houses. This was as much as we could afford, since my parents lost everything including their home during the depression of the 1930’s. This shop in Houston St was in existence until some time during the war, when my father was conscripted, and instead of serving in the army, worked in the shipyards (John Brown) as a riveter. This was one of the largest ship building yards in Clydebank. I think he was exempted from the army because he had three small children. It was during this time that he came under the influence of the communist party. All I remember was the name Fraser, which cropped up in conversation and I assume that this was Hamish Fraser who was the communist organizer on the docks at this time. This introduced me to the “ Daily Worker” the communist newspaper, which reinforced my own ideas of the world.
After being released from Service, which I assume was either at the end or towards the end of the war, my father opened a store in Maryhill Rd. Again this was a poor, working class neighborhood. The shop was in a good location not far from a central crossroad, St George’s Cross, and close to the subway station on the Great Western Road. Today it is difficult to recognize the area ,since there are expressways overhead, and St George’s cross has disappeared. I used to walk from school through the city center to reach the shop. After a few years a larger shop was opened in the same area, while eventually the older store was either sold or rented to my uncle David Mitchell.
The store always smelt musty and of furniture polish. Mrs. Stuart was the “ French polisher”, the person who stripped of the old paint and varnished and polished the old furniture until it looked new. French Polishing is a technique in which many layers of shellac and other finishing compounds, including linseed oil are applied to the furniture. It is a very labor-intensive job. Mrs. Stuart was a very hearty, jovial woman, very Scottish, and very upset when her daughter married an Englishman. The furniture was a mix of “ junk” and antiques, and old solid Victoriana. I took a dislike to all the smelly old stuff, and to the downtrodden customers. However it also was a treasure trove. I would find interesting books and lots of sheet music and albums, many of which I still retain until this day. There were probably lots of valuable antiques that were never recognized as such. These goods were superior to what I find in antique shops here in Indiana.
The customers were a cross section of the neighbourhood. There were those visiting from the Highlands, who seemed more polite and better dressed than the locals. Occasionally there were customers from Norway. In particular I remember one woman who came to the store quite often, a very attractive well dressed woman. She was buying items and shipping them to Norway. There were those who came in to hang out, as you might say, lonely people looking for conversation and those who were stoned and drunk on “ red biddy” which I believe was methylated alcohol mixed with red wine. In particular I remember one old woman who always looked bedraggled and smelt terribly of a mixture of dirt, sweat and booze. She would come into the store and hang around making it difficult for other customers to come in. She really was looking for a hand out. To buy more booze. I think a lot of people would sell their furniture in order to get booze money or “ fag” money. This was the days before hard drugs or pot. I hate to think what it must be like today !
In the back of the store there was a small kitchen, or space for making tea with a small stove, and a small dirty toilet. There always seemed to be people “hanging” around this area. In fact I think they were mostly plain clothes policemen, since there was a lot of petty crime in the area. They would come in to chat and have a cup of tea. They were big hefty men, and I suppose my father (and I ) must have looked pretty small next to them. They were decent guys doing a job.
When I was about 16 and began to be uninterested in school studies I often worked in the shop. I would open the store in the morning, wash the windows with a pole attachment, dust the furniture and wait on customers. I found the process quite boring, and would saunter off down Maryhill road looking at other stores, or go in and talk to the women who worked in the R.S.McColl sweet store a few doors down. During the war years I would spend my sweet rationing coupons in this store. I probably never ate so many sweets in my entire life as I did during this period. The result was in later life, rotting teeth. The women who ran the store “ spoiled” me and were always giving me Rowntree gums or Mackintosh Quality Street. A few years later when I returned to Glasgow for a stint at college I would still go in to the store and say hello and get my fill of sweets. A combination of sweets and British dentistry meant that to this day I have constant oral problems. Next door there was a butcher store, which always smelt of blood and meat. This was the days before refrigeration and the meat would hang as carcasses at the back of the store. The specialty of the store was “ black pudding”. A sausage made out of blood. To this day I have never tried to eat it, I must have been disgusted by it, possibly because I was also trying to keep Kosher. I suppose they must have had blocks of ice delivered to keep the meat cool.
The store remained in business until my father’s death. I think he wanted to hand it over to John Duncan, my brother in law. A second store was opened next door, a betting store (Bookie). Betting on Greyhound dogs and horse racing had become legal and was a thriving business.
For many years I have avoided going into a secondhand furniture store. It brought back too many bad memories. In retrospect selling second hand furniture is no worse than any other retail business, and with the large number of garage sales in the US, people are always looking for bargains. I think that the socialist education I received in the movement (Habonim) instilled in me a sort of disgust of business. It was associated with Diaspora Jewry (as opposed to the educated peasant of the youth movement) and bourgeois life, the antithesis of what we (or I) was going to become in Israel.

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