Retail Therapy

Retail Therapy

Written by Russ Welton

I never trained as a psychologist. Instead, in my retail career I maintained an open mind, had probably more patience then than I do now, (but not that much less), and always listened to people. I figured that that in running a music instrument retail shop, I had subscribed to being in a given place of work for a certain number of hours each day and would be there to provide the best advice and insight I could offer about what instruments – specifically guitars, basses and also amplification – I could offer. As a result of this mixture of ingredients, with the passing of time I never became less surprised at how openly retail customers would relate all manner of personal issues to me – along with their general interest in perhaps buying a guitar, strings, accessories, or whatever.

There would be the struggling musicians, and the pro musicians, and those that would linger and ponder over minutiae, and those that would almost hit and run with their efficiency in obtaining what they needed as they would speed of to their next gig or responsibility. Then there were the people struggling with substance abuse, social issues, relationship issues, heck, even weather issues. Well, it is the UK after all, and the perennial subject of weather and climate change appears to be in as much of a state of flux as flux itself when heated up or cooled down.

Nonetheless, one experience I had in running a guitar shop will always stick with me, perhaps because of what we offered in the way of retail therapy. I guess this phrase means different things to different people, but in the main it seems to convey the idea that window-shopping, planning to buy something, or actually purchasing something in some way ameliorates what is known in the trade and on internet forums as Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS). It adds to the buzz of being alive when splashing out on some new shiny thing to play with, especially if it can produce transportive music and help you leave all your troubles behind, even if just briefly.

On one occasion, a rather downcast and dreary-looking lad came into the shop, and with a rather sullen expression asked me, “Do you sell any 335s?” (For the uninitiated, an ES-335 is a well-respected Gibson semi-hollow-body electric guitar.) I replied that we had a selection of different models in stock and different brands of semi-hollow guitars, including new and second-hand, all around the back of the shop. Subsequently the young lad disappeared behind the partition wall which divided the front and rear of the first floor and went off to inspect the guitars. As he receded, he pulled out his phone and started texting.

A few moments later, a similarly disheveled, young, and non-eye-contact-making individual sauntered into the shop, but he had a little bit more swagger about him. He milled around the front of the shop briefly and then went off to join Downcast Dude around the back. Both the lads looked pretty flat and depressed, and like they could do with something to cheer them up. But the second lad came back around to the front of the shop, this time with big smiles and plenty of banter, asking all about the different gear we sold, what our store hours were, what gigs I had been to recently, what some of the store’s equipment functions were, how to get a good stereo chorus sound, and on and on. You get the picture.

I then realized that the nature of the conversation was relatively undirected – other than to serve as a distraction. As I looked in the mirror which was set up between the front and rear of the shop on the side wall, I could see the first lad acting a bit suspiciously around one of the 335 copies we had on a floor stand. The more expensive Ibanez and Gibson models were on hooks higher up the wall, but the more affordable Epiphones were much more easily accessible. So, I went around the back to see if I could help, wondering to myself, “Just what was going on exactly?”

As I turned the corner and looked over at the now rather sheepish-looking young guy, I noticed him pocketing a string he had just been busily removing from the guitar on the floor. The G string was now missing from the guitar, and was being buried in the lad’s coat. My first thought was, It kinda figures he’d be lifting a G string, as they tend to break the most.” My next thought was, “now that I’m around the back of the store, what is the lad at the front of the shop doing?”


Believe me, this was not some idle paranoia or being overly protective of the shop’s wares, but borne from experience of needing to have eyes in the back of your head, even if you do have other staff and security cameras. Opportunists are opportunists after all.

Before I said anything, I remember laughing to myself as I recalled an older customer years prior, asking me, “Do you take strings in part-exchange?” I kid you not. The simple reality was that some people didn’t want to spend 80 pence on a single string, let alone £5 for a new set of strings.

I spoke to the young lad and then a whole apologetic conversation unfolded as he saw the error of his actions. It was like a casual recognition of, “Oh! I’ve been caught and I’d better just keep talking…” He was nervous, and at the same time overly friendly. I was a little annoyed. He could tell. I made little of it and was just glad that his accomplice hadn’t swiped anything more valuable and done a runner down the street.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier, though, about complete strangers opening up to me. Yes, he was making his excuses and relating his life situation and all the rest of it. I put his overly friendly disposition down to his trying to downplay the situation. He was like the metaphorical singing lark, perpetually chattering away when being hunted by a hawk, trying to dissuade the hawk’s efforts. “You can’t catch me! It’s not worth your effort! I’m going to outfly you anyway! You’re wasting your energy!” As it was, the lad seemed genuinely remorseful and appreciative that I had brushed it off as a schoolboy error rather than taking more serious action. He left the shop and I didn’t think much more about it.

As it turned out, he didn’t really have many true friends to talk to about his life, and so over the next few months he would pop into the shop, chat for a bit, play a few guitars, and occasionally buy the odd plectrum here or there, even some strings. He had told me he was going to join the Army, train to become a soldier, and see some of the wider world. He wanted to get fit, become disciplined and generally kick butt. Over the months he had been popping in, I could see he had become quite different, a more humbled character. Then he came in one day with his short haircut, ready for his military training, and told me he would be away for a while and would come in and see me again in the future.



A few years went by. Then one day, he came back into the shop and informed me that he had been discharged from the Army on medical grounds. During a training exercise he had bent his leg up behind his back, causing ongoing mobility issues. He didn’t require a walking stick, but couldn’t perform to the standards required by the Army, so he would be pensioned off. He could only have been about 20 or 21 years old.

But then, what surprised me most of all was that he asked me for a job reference! I couldn’t believe it. I was genuinely struck with a sense of incredulity. I said to him, “Well, I can write you a reference, but it’ll be an honest one. Can’t you get a reference from another actual employer you have been on the payroll with?” He looked down and shuffled his feet and nodded in agreement. I felt for him that he didn’t have anyone better suited to ask, and went through some alternative suggestions which might work for him. He appreciated my pragmatism. He continued to visit for a few more years on and off until we sold the shop, and had landed some part-time work in the interim.

Yes, it’s true to say that retail therapy comes in many guises and forms, and also, that you may not realize just how impactful an impression the smallest mercy you show can make on someone.


Header image courtesy of Catota.

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