Back in 1999 I was working in a bookshop with a woman who really didn’t like me very much (sample conversational openers ran like this “I have a special power you know – people I don’t like DIE”. Last time I saw her she walked into a lamp post whilst trying to avoid me, clearly disappointed I was still breathing.) It wasn’t the best job I’ve ever had, but it was in that bookshop I picked up and read Jancis Robinson’s ‘Confessions of a Wine Lover’ which pretty much changed my life. I decided I was going to learn about wine and the obvious place to start was in Oddbins just around the corner.
Even by then Oddbins glory days were probably behind them but it was still to my mind the most exciting shop on the high street (with the possible exception of Dillons and Waterstone’s) and one happy day they asked if I wanted a job. I did and that was me until 2008. Oddbins turned out to be not just a job; it was a way of life, it was also known as a graduate graveyard - there’s clearly something about the combination of learning about booze and abundant opportunities to drink it that seduces and distracts the unwary... I didn’t always love working there and should have left long before I did (in fact I left twice – once to go somewhere that sounded better but wasn’t, and from which I returned for a brief few months before my branch was closed forever). The news that Oddbins is going into administration isn’t really surprising, the signs have been there for a while, but it’s still more than a little depressing to see the end of something that once felt so special.
I suppose anywhere you spend much of your twenties and thirties will be an education but I’m pretty sure this was something else; I learnt more about wine than I remember now, found a passion for whisky, confirmed my love of gin, met some great people, and some not so great people. I can’t for example imagine coming into work at my current job to find that the guy closing up the night before had stayed back to smoke heroin. Or for that matter my current line manager taking the news with exemplary sangfroid merely asking if I would like to dismiss the miscreant myself or prefer that she should do it.
(Me, “I need to have a chat to you about this.”
Him “Oh, that shouldn’t be there should it”.
Him “I suppose I’ll get sacked for this.”
Him “Oh well, I was going to hand my notice in today anyway, I’ve got another job.”
But then my current job doesn’t have the space to spend time really talking to the people that you spend up to 12 hours a day with, or anyone to really share a passion for all things winey with, it’s all very professional and slick (which is a good thing) but lacks the grubby though delightful personality of old school Oddbins. I’m not sorry that I’ll never have another boss that spends a day lying on the floor behind the counter groaning through a hangover, or one who constructs a working cross bow out of bamboo skewers and elastic bands before inadvertently spraying me with warm lager when he shot a can of Stella. I do however miss the huge amount of knowledge that used to be found in any given branch and the room for individuality (although I prefer it to manifest itself in quirky artwork rather than the ability to construct small arms out of office detritus).
When I started each shop was run like an independent under one umbrella brand. We had to stock a core range of lines but otherwise we were free to choose from a comprehensive list of eclectic goodies based mostly on what we fancied drinking ourselves, decoration was based on the artistic talent of the staff and old Ralph Steadman posters, and underlying all of it you had to know your stuff. It sort of worked in that the company apparently didn’t lose money and some branches turned a pretty convincing profit, but it’s not an approach that appeals to accountants or anyone who wants to be reasonably sure their staff won’t be arrested on drunk and disorderly charges, or for indecent exposure, or on a few near legendary occasions for quite serious fraud.
On the other hand basically employing your customers was an approach that gathered together staff who loved their jobs enough to work for peanuts and wine, and who were ridiculously loyal to the company. I can’t believe that there isn’t enough custom to make high street wine selling, or for that matter bookselling viable. It’s easy to blame the internet and supermarkets for the hard times but the relative success of independent wine shops shows that if you can get it right you can do well, or at least well enough. I work for a supermarket now and we’re good at what we do, but there are limits to our position that leave plenty of room for other operators and plenty of customers (including me) who are prepared to pay a little bit more for something that captures the imagination.
I hope, but doubt, that Oddbins as a brand has a future. The press fell out of love with them a long time ago and in my last few years there I saw the company lose its way and reputation bit by bit. The good news is that the wine trade is full people who experienced the best that Oddbins had to offer and who have taken that on to an entirely different level. When I go to work tomorrow I’ll see a range of wines as good as can be found anywhere and which I don’t believe would be available to us if it hadn’t been for the work Oddbins did. It’s poor consolation for the people who will lose their jobs, but it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.