Lonely Shopping

Shopping and socialising in Croydon in the '70s and '80s

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Vision StoreOf course, it was all different back then.

Audiovisual entertainment came in the form of three TV channels, a VHS video recorder (if you were lucky) or a Betamax (if you weren’t). Video games were the sole province of the seaside arcades or the bi-annual visits of The Mitcham Fair, or the occasional Galaxian machine lurking in a corner of HR Cloake’s record shop.

Otherwise it was a case of trying to emulate the thrills of the arcades on an LED screen embedded into a chunk of plastic the size of a telephone, or digging out the 1970s Binatone box from under the stairs to play a handful of variants on Pong.

That all changed in 1982. Sir Clive Sinclair, a doyen of the tinkerer market, made the leap into commercial success with the ZX Spectrum, the first colour computer to retail for under £200. Fooling approximately nobody with its educational credentials, it swiftly established itself as a game platform. And quickly too – by the end of 1982, there was a vast range of software available covering not only every extant arcade game, but several completely original gems.

Croydon’s High Street was not long in realising the massive commercial potential in these new toys. In the site of the former Salisbury Handbags shop in the North End, Vision Store gradually shifted their core business from TVs and Stereos to computers and computer games. They expanded to a second store shortly after – Hi Voltage, taking over the lease of a dying music shop on the corner of Mint Walk.

Everyone else, from WH Smiths to Lasky’s, swiftly got in on the act and gradually, a landscape emerged. If you wanted to check out the newer hardware such as Atari 600XL or the Memotech, you’d go to Lasky’s, where you could also have a go at programming without being disturbed. Mr Cad, the camera shop in the Whitgift, had a habit of investing in bonkers, unsalable devices like the TI99 4/a or the VTX5000 modem for the Spectrum. If you were saddled with a BBC or a Dragon 32, it was off to the top floor of Allders.

But it was Vision Store that always had the newest games before anyone else and it was there that you’d organise swaps and take your first tentative steps into the world of software piracy. You’d see the same faces there each week and after a while, you’d start making deals: you buy Scuba Dive and I’ll get Jet Set Willy and after half an hour’s work on the twin-tape deck, we’d both have a couple of games each.

Even the computer club that sprung up in the Children’s Library in the basement of St. Katherine’s Walk was little more than a hotbed of game copying and, as software houses realised how much money they were losing, cracking the increasingly clever protection schemes on the tapes.

Swapping boxes was also rife, in those trusting days when shops would leave the cassettes inside. Bigger shops like Woolworths were slow to to cotton onto someone exchanging the case on a £7.95 copy of Zombie Zombie for a £1.99 Mastertronic cheapie, but shops like  Roffey & Clarke – the little book & stationery shop above Grants – took their inventories seriously and would have no truck with young tykes attempting such rascality. The dedicated shops were far too savvy to even attempt fooling.

Even Croydon itself – well, Streatham – got in on the act when Buffer Micro on Streatham High Road released their own game: Buffer Micro Adventure. Which was rubbish, but no-one cared. It was a fun, halcyon time and it seemed too good to last, and it was.

In 1983, the entire industry started collapsing with the alacrity of a black hole. The consoles such as the Atari 2600 were the first to go, but the recession came so quickly and of such a magnitude that the home computers were dragged down into the vortex as well. By 1985 the flood of games had become a trickle, mostly of abysmal film tie-ins or arcade conversions too ambitious for the target hardware. Trying to copy the experience of a dedicated 32-bit arcade console on something with the processing power of a potato clock was never going to work.

The advent of new consoles ultimately rekindled the market, and associated rivalry – this time it was Sega vs. Nintendo. At the other end of the scale, Sir Clive unloaded both barrels in the vicinity of his feet with first a ‘business computer’, the powerful (but doomed) QL, and then his legendary electric car, the C5.

The last time anybody saw one of those was hanging from the ceiling of Beanos, shortly before its own demise, next to an elderly Dalek.

I’m sure there’s a message there, but I’m damned if I know what it is.

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An Office with a View

Like some kind of urban Argonath, Croydon has forever been guarded by two concrete monoliths. Taberner House to the South, and City House to the North. The latter was home to Philips Electronics, the pioneering Dutch engineering firm, where I worked for two years in the ‘80s in my first ‘proper’ job (I’m discounting Saturday stints at Wimpy and Presto).

The role in question was Stock Controller for the white goods team. This was as dull as it sounds and I won’t dwell on it; suffice to say that to this day I can still remember lists of product codes by heart, and have the occasional nightmare about having insufficient stock of AKG 617 hobs for Magnet’s spring campaign.

We were on the third floor and, this being the ‘80s, smoking was not only permitted in the office, but – in my section at least – actively encouraged. In these enlightened days it’s hard to visualise the sheer fug that was created by twenty chain-smokers in a sealed office with no air conditioning; you would hop over to The Cartoon pub if you wanted fresh air.

The top floor housed the canteen, serving food that was maybe two steps above school dinners. The views more than made up for this though – or rather, view in the singular as for some reason, there were only windows on the West side of the building. Still, you could gaze out at the towers of the old power station while picking at your rubber stroganoff and sipping your Coca-Cola (“From the bottle – fresher than the can”).

If you were very lucky, you might be invited into the private dining room and bar at the North end of the building. This was a posh little room, all subdued lighting and dark leather, with windows on both sides. I only set foot in there once for a Christmas do, and was roundly bollocked when I helped myself to a second measure of Jack Daniels.

The third option was the coach that left at 12:05 every day for the Whitgift Centre, returning at 12:55. This was a nice little perk, allowing staff to do a bit of shopping or grab a slice of Pizza from PDQ, Pizzaland’s experimental outlet in North End.

The rest of the floors were mostly just offices, and highly territorial ones at that. Excursions to vending machines were grudgingly permitted, since different items were available on different floors. But venturing any further into foreign territory would lead to a grilling by whichever middle manager happened to be around.

This was particularly true of the loos on the 4th and 6th floors, which were a lot nicer than the others. But it was rumoured that being caught going for an executive shit was a sackable offence.

The two floors that were out of bounds to everyone, however, were the first and second. These housed the IT team and had the sort of security you’d expect from NORAD rather than a manufacturer of dishwashers. The doors were fearsome, with the sort of electronic locks that were still the province of science fiction in 1987. Signs warned of halomethane gas for fire control (but heavily rumoured to be anti-personnel measures). You never saw the IT people in the canteen, and their names didn’t appear on the staff directories.

The level of technology was not high. For a company that introduced the video recorder, laserdisc and CD to the world, the in-office kit consisted mostly of green-screen dumb terminals connected to ISANET, Philips’ Eindhoven-based CICS network. Faxes and photocopiers dominated the floors, colour printing was a pipe dream and we even had a Telex sitting in a Perspex dome, clattering out share prices on a ribbon.

Somewhat higher tech was available in the staff shop at a decent discount, and occasional raffles could see you going home with a coffee machine or an ice-cream maker. The latter was rubbish – little more than a slow mixer with a special disk that had to be left in the freezer overnight.

Philips moved out of City House in the ‘90s and it is now converted into flats. I went to look at the show home, hoping to find some mementos of its former incarnation… but no, it’s been so utterly transformed that you would never guess at its former role.

They’ve even managed to get the nicotine stains out of the walls. Bet that took some doing.

Their Majestic Santas Request

When does the Christmas run-up officially begin? The shops generally start putting selection boxes on the shelves on Easter Monday, whereas I tend to do the bulk of my shopping at 9pm on December 24th. The usual indicators are Slade on the radio and quizzes in the papers – but in Croydon, the real milestone was the Taberner House lights.

This 1960s monolith was the hub of the council’s activities and every evening during Advent, the office lights would form a Christmas tree on one face, and a cross on the other. There was always a rumour that it wasn’t going to happen this because of pressure from Muslims, Wiccans or whichever religious group was being demonised that particular year; but happen it invariably did.

The other indicator was the grottos. Santa was Legion in Croydon, managing to appear simultaneously in Allders, Grants, Debenhams and occasionally more random concerns such as Woolworths. I swear I even saw a grotto once in Freeman Hardy Wills; nothing says Christmas quite like a pair of plimsolls.

The Allders grotto was the big daddy of them all. By the time December rolled around, Allders would sport a toy department that was the match of any in the West End, with the high-end Lego and Action Man accessories that you normally only glimpsed on the back page of 2000AD. A visit to Santa started with a lengthy queue, followed by a guided tour through an enchanted forest / winter wonderland inhabited by a mixture of static and prototype animatronic characters.

And then – wonder of wonders – a sleigh ride. This involved sitting for a couple of minutes on a mothballed coin-operated ride whilst a cyclorama whizzed past. Then, more tromping through the magic realm before meeting the man himself. Invariably, this was the sort of employee you get in any job, the ‘wacky’ one who ends up in the Mr Wimpy costume on a sweltering Saturday in July. He’d give you a couple of sweets, a badge, and a muttered curse before you were escorted to the not-very-magical exit.

The best thing about this was that it was free – so you would generally loop straight back to the start and do it again. You could manage upwards of four visits before the staff tumbled to your game.

Grants also had a free grotto but this was a simple affair housing Santa Archetype #5 (Fat, hungover, smelling of stale Metaxa Brandy with optional erection) but you got a princely gift – a cassette of fairy tales on the Warwick Label. These came in handy for storing your expanding collection of pirated ZX Spectrum Games.

And Debenhams? Alas, I never got to see it, for it required payment. But stories crept out; of an actual train ride, of foxy assistants in Santa mini-skirts, of astounding presents (feverously imagined as train sets and hoverboards whereas the reality was probably a set of injection-moulded pan pipes).

It was never the same after the Drummond Centre came into existence; just a bearded bloke, surrounded by plastic teddy bears, sitting nervously on top of what used to be the fountain and praying that they’d remembered to turn the lasers off.

The Mystery of Winn Dixie

Somewhere around 1979, a new shop opened its doors on London Road. It occupied the space recently vacated by Rockbottom (who moved a door down; you could still hear the sounds of bedroom guitarists mangling their way through Van Halen’s Eruption through the walls) and although it kept the trademark orange tiles of the block, it had a bold and shiny name and logo: Winn Dixie.

The reality didn’t quite live up to the promise. Any dreams of vast swathes of Americana were instantly dashed by the sight of tables groaning with pastel bath salts and china hearts stuffed with pot-pourri. Further in though, you would find shelves of Ronco products which, despite being “Only available on TV!” were there, large as life, available for purchase.

This, then, was Winn Dixie’s USP: the opportunity to buy products that were only normally available through magazine and television offers. That, and a healthy smattering of cheap tat. That’s not to say it was a waste of time, though. Who hadn’t wanted to see for themselves the Ronco glass froster or the device that scrambled eggs inside their shells (and if anyone can come up with a valid reason for why such a thing needed to exist, I would love to hear it).

And there were some real gems too. Nearer to Christmas a range of toys started to appear, the most memorable of  which was the Big Ear – a cross between a blue and red plastic rifle with a parabolic antenna on one end and a cheapo pair of Walkman headphones at the other. This miraculous device promised (at least on the adverts) the ability to eavesdrop on conversations a mile away with crystal clarity. I can’t vouch for whether or not it actually worked but even the mere existence of this toy has been hotly debated on the TV Cream website, amongst others.

Sadly, the combination of closeout goods, uneven floors and nicotine silhouettes of Gibson Les Pauls on the wall did not a sustainable business model make, and it closed down after about a year. And there the story would have ended.

Except…

Except that a few years ago, I had cause to visit Miami. One of the first things that I saw was a Winn Dixie, large as life, just sitting there in a retail park. It transpires that this is a huge chain, popular through the Southern USA, with its origins in Jacksonville many years ago. How had it got to Croydon? Actually, that’s not so unlikely – Croydon has always been a favourite testing ground for market researchers, partly because it allegedly represents a good cross-section of the tastes of the nation, but mostly because that’s where they all lived.

I recently emailed Winn Dixie’s PR department, asking if they had any records of their incursion into UK territory. The response was a form letter with a two-line history of the firm and an assertion that they had never opened a branch in the UK.

But… it was there. Could it have just been a one-off shop opened by an ex-pat Floridian? Or someone who just liked the name? This seems unlikely. I have since heard from people who worked there and from one gentleman who still owns a Winn Dixie-branded suit. This seems like an unlikely level of detail for a tribute act.

I am going to email them again and try and track down their archivist. This is one mystery that needs solving.