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Sex and Terror in the Robot Shop

January 8, 2011

If my previous post gave the impression that any fool with an unhealthy knowledge of vintage robots and space toys, brightly coloured tin, Mexican death symbolism, a penchant for loud, obscure, smoking rhythm and blues, religious kitsch and clockwork automata could become a retail czar, then I apologise. Robot shopkeeping is no sinecure.  I recall dark days when the only customers to cross the threshold were shoplifters, Belgians or the middle classes – more about them later. There were days when the rain fell relentlessly, the robots refused to walk, when my closing pitch to a shop full of robot fanatic oligarchs was nuked by a leery Red-Stripe- toting transient crashing into the pecking chicken display. Pay days were terminated by the dreaded collectors – loud bearded middle aged know-it-alls declaiming the value of their collection ‘vintage’ robots – ‘not like this cheap Chinese crap.’ In my darkest hour Tower Hamlets’ Trading Standards Thought Police threatened to close the shop down on the grounds that the robots were a potential danger to small children, despite labels declaring ‘for adult collectors only’ on each and every box: ‘doesn’t matter – they look bright and shiny. Kids might try and play with them’.

Balanced against this were strokes of retail genius such as the brief but spectacular run on luminous rosaries, sparked by a single purchase by an exotic beauty, later joined by her sinuous posse. The rosaries were used, allegedly, not to amass afterlife novena credits but as props for a naughty nun turn in the dark recessess of a steamy Shoreditch strip club (of which there are legion). The lapdancers returned to buy robots for unspecified purposes, always paying cash and often hanging around at closing time prior to the early shift. The fact that I was left with a gross of unsold re-orders and no further visits from religious pole dancers is heavenly retribution, I suppose. Anyway, enough already with the sex part.

Terror, leaving aside Belgians and the middle classes, took the form of a visit from a representative of the local Bhangla boys who swaggered into the shop and asked if the robots worked on petrol. I answered what I thought to be a reasonable technical enquiry by telling him that no, virtually all the robots were clockwork, apart from a few battery-powered Japanese examples. He looked nonplussed, flashed the Manson Lamps and muttered something about the possibility of petrol bombs. I told him with no hint of irony that we didn’t sell petrol bombs – for all I knew, he might have been another undercover Tower Hamlets trading standards gumshoe – but that I’d get back to him if our policies changed. Then the penny dropped and I advised him that however slim the pickings might be in the protection racket industry, shaking down the local robot shop was at best a tangential strategy and that he was on CCTV. He didn’t return: probably a nutter, almost certainly the most incompetent gangster ever to strut his stuff on Cheshire St.

Far more trying were middle class rubber-neckers, fresh from holidays in the souks of Marrakech or Istanbul, who thought it infra-dig to haggle over the price of a £2.50 jumping frog or a holographic bleeding heart of Jesus postcard which morphed into the Virgin Mary. Worse were the Belgians, who would not only attempt to barter but would justify their parsimony by asking ‘but what is the point of this object?’ Belgians, of all people, should recognise the logic of charging surreal prices for a pointless service.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past . . . selling religion to sinners and hopping frogs to Philistines, sidestepping petrol bombers, council jobsworths and Brussels on the street of dreams . . .

On the other hand, Jarvis Cocker has just bought a string of plastic skeletons and a tin heart pierced by an arrow for his bird for six quid. Life is sweet.