A Trip Back In Time

While looking around the web one evening I came across several posts about working at Maplin and it got me thinking about my time there. So strap yourself in as we take a trip back in time and party like it’s 1989!

Early Beginnings

150in1KitI’ve been into electronics ever since I got a “150 in 1” lab from our local Tandy store in Stretford as a Christmas present. Having an older brother who tinkered around with electrical things kind of rubs off on you when you’re growing up.

On leaving school I embarked on what was going to be my first step into a future career in electronics when I took the Radio Amateur’s course at North Trafford College.

Working at Maplin’s back then was a fun experience, when it was quiet upstairs we used to play volleyball with a ball made from bubble wrap just to keep us ticking over.

The following year I took a 2 year course at the same college where I obtained my OND (not the group!) in Electrical & Communications Engineering. I then went to Lanchester (Coventry) Polytechnic which was my first time standing on my own two feet, sadly this didn’t work out and after six months I called it a day and returned home.

Keen to study and still smarting from the painful lessons I had learned during my time away from home I took a 2 year part-time course at Openshaw College and in 1988 passed my HND in Electronics Engineering. At this point I was still signing on the dole with a “UB40” (remember those?) and with no job and a qualification I set about looking for work…

Electronics In Manchester

Maplin 1989At this point in time if you were an electronics hobbyist your choices for parts were your local electronics or ex army surplus shops. While the Radio Spares catalogue reigned supreme, they were “trade only” and you could only get things through a 3rd party which would add their own mark-up. In Manchester your choices were limited to Tandy (UK arm of Radio Shack) who sold vastly overpriced components, Crescent Electronics in Salford, New Cross Radio on Oldham Road (next door to the old “Crown & Kettle” pub) and Paramount Radio in Shudehill. Paramount Radio was run by a dusty old guy who had loads of dusty old post war surplus gear who would always try to sell you something when you walked in… “You buy a Marconi.?” was one instance I can remember. There was also Mazel Radio near Piccadilly approach but they rarely had anything of value there.

New Cross Radio was much more like my kind of place, it was a three storey building crammed with all kinds of electrical & electronic items a veritable Aladdin’s cave! Going there almost every other Saturday in my childhood I got to know the owner Ted and was eventually allowed to look into some of the other rooms in the shop, those were the days! Your only other alternative was mail order through Maplin Electronics who were the holy grail of the hobbyist.

Maplin in 1989

Maplin Oxford RoadMaplin had a store on Oxford Road, Manchester and in the last week of December 1989 I interviewed for a Sales Counter position. I met the Manager Gavin Wright who was quite short had long permed hair and sounded like he was from Yorkshire, I was shown a clipboard with around 20 components on it and asked what they were and what they were used for. Knowing the product line and having a solid understanding of electronics theory certainly helped as I partied like it was 1989 when I got the job in January of that same year. My starting salary was £6120 per annum!

My induction was short and sweet Gavin pointed at the till and said something along the lines of “you take the money off the customer and put it in the till and give them the change” and that was about it. I also learnt about the company’s “no refund” policy and that when challenged by a customer we were expected to refuse any request for a refund unless they asked to speak to the manager and threatened calling Trading Standards. I remember him getting involved with a lady customer who was demanding a refund and when she said “what kind of company policy was that” to which he replied “good company policy” with a smug grin.

With the shop being open 7 days a week it was easy to lose your bearings and not know what day of the week you were in. Weekends could also be quite funny.

Back then the team consisted of the following people: Gavin Wright **(Manager), Jonathan (can’t remember his surname) who I think was the assistant manager but wasn’t struck on working Sundays as he was a devout Christian, Dave Edgerton from Newton-Le-Willows (the same place as Rick Astley) whose facial expression roughly translated as “Meh”, Neurotic Tony from Stockport had a girlfriend who was bleeding him dry through getting him to take out various policies so she could earn a commission, Mike Richards who took over from Jonathan as assistant manager, Phil Kerfoot from Bolton who was always installing burglar alarms on the side and last but by no means least John Dixie.

John was the last remaining member of the original store team back in 1983. He was an avid Pink Floyd fan and had a great way of dealing with breakups… he’d buy another synthesiser. In fact he did buy a sampling synth (remember those?) and used to go to A1 music just under the arches with a portable DAT recorder to “try” out some of the new synths and samples! Gavin was into his guitars and I can remember when he brought in his guitar and a “Sansamp” effects unit one day after work. Jonathan played keyboards as well as guitar and I even have a recording of the band Atakarma which he was playing with at “The Gallery” in Manchester.

We were also joined by someone called Pete (I think) who used to wear glasses and for the life of me I can’t remember his last name.

In addition to the main team there was a guy called Mark Dove who occupied the upstairs office opposite the component counter, I guessed he was a recent graduate working his way into Sales, we were advised to keep a sharp lookout when Mark was around as he reported anything he saw out of place back to Keith who was the area manager back then. Keith was an ok guy you could have a laugh with as long as you were doing your job properly. The other thing we were made aware of was that we had our own equivalent of a mystery shopper. David Snoad (Sales Director) would frequently call in on the shops main number, if he didn’t like the response he got he would hang up and within 2 minutes be calling in on the manager’s phone asking who had just answered the last call. If you ever ran foul of this your time would be very short indeed.

Working at Maplin’s back then was a fun experience, when it was quiet upstairs we used to play volleyball with a ball made from bubble wrap just to keep us ticking over. I used to freak Tony out by calling him on the phone or standing behind him and doing a fairly convincing impression of Gavin’s signature “owdooo” which often made him jump.  There were some busy days too though. I can recall one day when the queue at the counter was five people deep and there was just two of us serving! Still there were many funny incidents,especially customers that paid by cheque and we had to clear them with Transax, you used to get some customers really kick off about having their credit worthiness doubted. The other thing that could cause some amusement and customer frustration was when someone would come in with an “official order” which they would leave with us to get together and when they came to collect we had to ring our credit control department in Wombwell who would often tell us that the customer was on credit stop for not paying their invoice from the previous month. Many a time have I sent a workman back to base muttering under his breath about having his time wasted.

Sometimes there were some frustrating moments for customers when they asked for a specific item and it wasn’t available. It was referred to as “A/Tray” (awaiting tray) in the catalogue, meaning that although the item was advertised in the catalogue there was no stock and we had no idea if there would ever be any.

When it came to comedic episodes Mike Richards was an absolute star, one day he was serving a customer with a guide dog and placed the item onto the counter and said “How does that look to you sir…” which caused much embarrassment as he was particularly prone to flushing bright red in these situations. My favourite moment was when he was serving a tall lady with short spiky bleached hair and said “is there anything else I can help with sir?” to which the customer replied “well its madam actually” I swear the look on Mike’s face was an absolute picture. He reminded me in some ways of Basil Fawlty when he got it wrong.

With the shop being open 7 days a week it was easy to lose your bearings and not know what day of the week you were in. Weekends could also be quite funny.

There was one Sunday when we were short staffed (sorry Gavin) and there were only three of us running the store, to make things worse Gavin game in on crutches with his foot in plaster! It was quite comical hearing Gavin slowly climb the stairs on crutches going “oww” & “ouch” all the way up there. That Sunday was the busiest day we had and we were knackered by the end of it!

Ch..Ch..Changes

After a few months the company had opened a new warehouse facility and Head Office in Wombwell West Yorkshire. Gavin decided that it was time to move on and took on a role assisting with sourcing parts, going through the pricing with Mark and getting the new catalogue ready. Just before he moved he had printed out the manager’s manual for his successor so they could get familiar with the day to day operations.

Our new manager was a guy called Brian Bladen who was much more of a “back room” manager then we were expecting. He was a big heavy set person who spent more time in the back room than on the counter in the shop. This didn’t help things out much as when he did attempt to serve a customer he had no idea where anything was. This didn’t stop us from having some fun with him though…

One day Mike Richards hatched a plan to put one over on Brian. He got Dave & Tony to tape him up inside a very large box and then got them to get “Big Brian” downstairs to give them a hand taking it upstairs so the could unpack it. Brian, being as big as he was huffed and puffed as he helped Dave & Tony carry the large box up the stairs, turning the box this way and that on the way to the first floor. Once they have reached their destination Brian took a Stanley knife and slashed the tape on the box, at which point Mike jumped out of the box and said something like “surprise!”. Brian’s only comment was muttering “b***ard!” and retreating back to the office behind the counter sweating profusely.

Maplin today is but a shadow of its former self. It’s like looking at your favourite hero all washed up and saying “remember when they used to be good…”

One of the other issues we had to deal with was that of the shoplifter. Now whoever designed the store’s layout needed to be kicked up the arse as they had us facing out onto Oxford Road downstairs with our backs to the shop. Absolute lunacy! Maplin had a policy on dealing with shoplifters in that we had to notify one of the staff that it was going on and be ready near the door to catch them as they stepped out onto Oxford Road as after all until the goods have left the shop there could not be classed as being stolen. Once we had them they were taking into the stock room in the back and kept there until the Police arrived.

The other issue we had to deal with were the drunken bums and weirdo’s that would come into the shop. I recall one guy staggering into the shop taking a piece of raw meat from inside his jacket and slapping it onto his head and then started going on about there were “spies from the University trying to get into his brain” weird stuff indeed.

We also had a few TV celebrities come into the store, I once met the “Rochdale Cowboy” Mike Harding and also BBC North West’s absolutely gorgeous Diana Mather who didn’t sound “Northern” at all in person. She told me that she had to adopt a regional accent for North West Tonight.

Sometime in August that very year I saw a vacancy for an Audio Visual Technician at Manchester Polytechnic which was just up the road and was paying nearly £3k more! After interviewing and getting the job I left Maplin in October 1989.

The Beginning of the End…

By the mid 1990’s the electronics hobby market was changing. With cheap mass produced electronics goods from the Far East there was no real need to build things anymore. It was around this time when the company’s ownership changed hands and the slow decline of Maplin, once the champion of electronics enthusiasts began. Moving on a decade later and in the cut-throat world of high street consumer electronics Maplin has changed owners yet again as well as their business model and turned 200+ stores into a Tandy for the modern day masses selling overpriced imported crapola. Maplin today is but a shadow of its former self. It’s like looking at your favourite hero all washed up and saying “remember when they used to be good…” These days stores are just places you go to look at things and then shop around elsewhere for the same thing but cheaper.

Electronics as a hobby is enjoying a resurgence of interest thanks to the internet and the idea of hacking electronic items to perform new functions has become popular e.g. The Ben Heck Show. Nowadays we’re more likely to be looking at using a Raspberry Pi or Arduino as a base for our projects. Still nothing beats the smell of molten solder and the knowledge that you made something with your own hands.

So where are they now?

John Dixie still works at the Oxford Road store to my knowledge.

Tony left Maplin in 1989 to train as a radiographer. I’ve no idea if he was successful or can go to bed without turning on a light 😛

Gavin Wright moved up to Scotland and after becoming a professional photographer for a time and opened a fair trade shop.

http://www.wrightimaging.co.uk/ & https://www.simplythebestontheweb.co.uk/

Pinterest – SimplyFairTrade

Facebook – SimplyTheBestFairTradeShop

*If anyone has a copy of the 1989 catalogue and can scan the Manchester store page with the staff photos in the back it would be much appreciated!

** I have been recently contacted by Gavin who called me a cheeky sod for saying he was from Yorkshire as he was from Lancashire! Still I have to question the morality of “Turning to the Dark Side” of Yorkshire :Smile with tongue out

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