Oddbins likely descent into administration marks a dark day for UK wine retailing, not just because of the millions of pounds owed to suppliers, which is a bitter enough pill to swallow, but because they used be a shining beacon of verve, imagination and flair which has now disappeared from our high streets – seemingly for good.
Like many of my contemporaries I cut my teeth in the wine trade working for Oddbins and learned a great deal very rapidly. In the late 1980’s I’d graduated from University with an impressively large overdraft and through the testimony of a friend was taken on as a temporary van driver, at the George Street shop in Marylebone, as a stop gap until I could secure a ‘proper’ job. The problem was I just loved working there and didn’t really want a proper job. Fortunately, my lamentable driving skills soon saw me transferred to the shop floor and here I was in my element. I was carefully schooled by a bunch of wine-loving, academic drop outs in the rudiments of wine tasting, customer care, balancing the books on the dreaded ‘Weekly Trading Return’ and low-budget marketing. Who can forget those blackboards? ‘Last Stop for the Betty Ford clinic’ didn’t go down well with head office but they loved ‘Our Delicious Drinks Bring Immense Natural Satisfaction’.
True, the pay was pretty poor and the hours were long but there were many upsides. You could wear what the hell you wanted to work, you could play Clash albums (loudly) and spend the day chatting to hugely knowledgeable colleagues and customers and sample lots of interesting wines. I vividly recall sitting round in the shop after closing hours sampling my first, earth-moving taste of Krug with a take away pizza and thinking I’d found my calling. One day the manager sent me to do the banking and when I came back I told him we were £20 ‘over’ the sum we’d declared. ‘I know’ he replied with a knowing smile. You can’t teach stuff like that – it has to be learned in situ.
Having paid my dues I passed slowly through the ranks and ended up managing the Islington Green shop on Upper Street N1 in the early 1990’s. Those were happy days. We had a great team in the form of Helen the deputy manager, who could handle all the paperwork I couldn’t fathom, and Gilbert, the Australian senior sales assistant who had a fine line in deadpan humour. A busy executive once asked him if he could give him a quote for a Christmas party, to which he replied: “Sure – I hope this goes better than last year.” The point is we all enjoyed working there and the clientele appreciated that – there was a terrific rapport between the shop staff and the customers that was rare and special and I think we all knew that.
Eventually the long hours, modest remuneration and hideous 14 hour monthly stock counts took their toll and I decamped to try my luck harvesting grapes in Provence but to this day I owe Oddbins a great deal – they provided inspiration and proved selling wine could be great fun and I’ll always be grateful for that.