24 November 2011

Wating, Waiting, Waiting

Well this has been a quiet week, with not much to report.  Our window display this week is a collection of lovely old storage jars and beautiful tins, and all the jars have something in them.  Doug suspects that I am the reason that the jar with the jelly lollies has been getting progressively emptier, but he can’t prove a thing.

Calypso has now settled in as if she’s always lived with us, with the rest of the Gang entirely accepting of her and her terrorist ambushes.  She’s getting her face washed a lot by the others, and they are so patient with her that they literally let her take food out of their mouths.  What a pushy little miss she is when she believes that food is rightfully hers, but everyone is getting on really well and we’re very glad we have her.

The response to her in the shop continues to be huge, and there hasn’t been a day yet when she hasn’t had her photo taken on multiple occasions.  When she deigns to wake up and pose she’s giving people some great shots.  What a little trooper she is.  One woman came in, though, and asked if I had specially painted her to make her look so exotic.  Yeah lady, I painted the cat.  Klaatu’s getting zebra stripes next week.

Meanwhile, the Customs Agent tells us that our shipment is on track for an early December delivery.  Hurrah!  If we can persuade Customs and Quarantine to get their act together and work promptly to get the consignment through then we should be unpacking well before Christmas.  We know Quarantine will have a hissy fit because there is so much old wood in this shipment, but hey, just fumigate it. 

We always try to give pre-authorisation for fumigation of our shipment because we’re always bringing something wooden out of France, but front-end-loading is apparently beyond Quarantine to deal with, and we always have to wait for them to inspect the shipment and see - OMG there is Foreign Wood in it – and then they decide to fumigate it.   And this, naturally, adds a few days to the clearance process.  And before they decide to fumigate, they often take to our things with knives, bodging them to see if there is active woodworm.  I’m all for killing woodworm if it’s in any of the pieces, but not by stabbing them to death!  When you have a piece of furniture several hundred years old, you don’t need to be seeing knife holes in it when you take delivery.

Anyway, there’s no choice but to chill when dealing with a slow-moving bureaucracy like Quarantine.  People ask why we don’t complain, but it’s because we don’t want an on-purpose go-slow that will lead to even further delays in our taking delivery of our stock.  And put your hand up now if you don’t think that would happen.  We have no choice but to accept incompetent and slow service, of a level that would never be tolerated if it was being done by a private business because it would send the business broke. 

Whatever happened to Key Performance Indicators – real, measurable KPIs – in Government?  When I worked in Government I was aware of a strong resistance by sometimes very senior management to measurable KPIs, on the grounds that if the performance fell short then there would be uncomfortable questions to be answered.  But how slack is that?  I never permitted any areas under my control to have KPIs that were anything other than realistic, achievable (even if we had to sometimes stretch to get there) and entirely measurable.  It’s not that hard to meet realistic KPIs if you have a professional, well-trained workforce.  And therein lays the problem, I suspect.

Of the things that have arrived ahead of the main shipment, it’s just as well there is so much jewellery because it’s got to have become our best selling stock.  Whatever else we sell, we always sell plenty of jewellery.  And that’s great because I love sourcing and buying it, but also problematic because good pieces are hardly thick on the ground and require a bit of ferreting out.  But still, hunting down noice, interesting, unusual things is a large part of the fun of this business.

And an unexpected part of the fun of the hunt has been learning how to buy jewellery in the Paris Markets.  I used to be very “Australian” in my approach – stand back, give people room, wait to be served.  And get nothing.  In fact, get ignored and get nothing.  So I watched the people around me to see what I was doing wrong, and indeed buying jewellery in the Paris Markets is very different to buying pretty well anything else in the Markets or elsewhere in France.  Parisian gels who are buying jewellery tend to be quite assertive, and at times downright pushy in getting you out of the way.  So I’ve learned to stand my ground firmly when I have a good spot and be quite loud when necessary to get the attention of the dealer. 

I know I’m more difficult to engage with than the local buyers, what with my pidgin French, so it’s easier for the dealers to just ignore me if there is someone else they can be serving.  But when it becomes clear that I’m interested in multiple purchases I tend to be forgiven my atrocious accent and limited vocabulary.  I keep saying that I really must have some French lessons.  And I say that for a few weeks after every trip, when the stress of trying to get by in a foreign country without a good grasp of the language is still fresh in my mind, but there aren’t any nearby classes and it always falls down the priority list when the new stock arrives and we launch into Headless Chook mode to get it all sorted and out into the shop.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

17 November 2011

Introducing Calypso

Introducing Calypso, our newest furry (trainee) Shop Manager.  Her picture has joined the gallery of Shop Managers, and you can see she’s a very beautiful little Bengal.  She is 11 weeks old and already weighs well over a kilo, so I think she’ll be at least as big as Klaatu when she grows up.  She’s already well ahead of him, weight-wise, at the same age and he’s now a great big five kilo boy at three years old. 

Looking through various internet sites, I see that in the UK you need a license under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act to own a Bengal.  What sooks the Brits are.  In Australia there is no problem if your animal is at least six generations from their wild ancestor (Asian Leopard Cat).  Calypso must be at least nine generations from her wild origin, so she’s a properly domesticated little miss.  Doug has visions of waking up one morning when she’s fully grown to find he’s being dragged downstairs by his neck, but he’s being a bit of a drama queen.  That will only happen if he doesn’t feed her on time.

I’ve always wanted a Bengal but couldn’t afford one.  Now I can, so bugger it I bought one.  I’ve promised Doug to stop at four cats, although I did have my fingers crossed at the time (because I do still fancy a nice little cinnamon Abyssinian one day).  But for now four is absolutely plenty.  I promise.  We picked her up on Sunday and she immediately caused mayhem among the Gang.  And yet by Wednesday Artemis was totally accepting of her and giving her thorough face washes, with Calypso getting all squirmy the way littl’uns get who don’t want their faces washed, but then Artemis just holds her down.  She is the cleanest kitten in town by the time Artemis finishes with her.  Mischka alternates between wanting to play and wanting to growl and grumble about not being the only princess on the block any more, but more and more she’s playing.  Klaatu is scared of her, and yet he is such a good natured little boy that already he is relaxing and last night there was a four-way mad game of chasey throughout the house, which ended up on the verandah with everyone laying around together, exhausted.

Yesterday was market day and Calypso’s first day as Trainee Shop Manager.  Heaps of people came to meet her, and even though the poor little chook was in a brand new environment she was relaxed and confident, and really sweet and engaging with everyone.  She even tried to engage with the weird people who entirely ignored her (a beautiful little kitten trying to be friendly towards them) - and who therefore have no place in my shop, so they could get out now.  She is a real credit to Kim from Catwalk Bengals, who was her breeder, and who clearly cares so much for all her charges and brings them up to be happy and well-adjusted moggies.  Everyone was enchanted with her and she was photographed many times.  She might even overtake Klaatu as Eumundi’s Most Photographed Cat if this keeps up.  

Calypso does have one downside at the moment – and it’s the same with all small kittens – boy oh boy can she stink after she’s had a bit of dinner!  Atomic Kitten we’re calling her.  As her gut settles down that will stop, but for the time-being she is one toxic moggy if you meet her at the wrong moment.  Mischka was the same when she was a baby – she cleared the shop one day after she’d let rip.  Feline elegance doesn’t feature largely when they’re babies.

But apart from being totally distracted by my lovely new gel, OMG could a day get more boring???  Apart from Calypso’s new fan club it was little but Old People in the shop reminiscing about their Old Things and getting all excited about the prices they can expect for their stuff at their next garage sale. Hey, why didn't I think of that? Why am I bothering with a shop when I could get exactly the same prices just by holding garage sales? Brilliant! I shall shut the shop immediately and sweep out the garage forthwith.  Or I could start charging for patting the moggies.  I’d surely make my fortune if I charged 50 cents per pat, and a dollar per photo. 

In other news, we still have no idea where our latest consignment of stock is.  So in other news, there is no news.  Hopefully it’s somewhere around Singapore right now, which would put it on track for an early December arrival.  But when it gets here it has to clear Customs and Quarantine, and Quarantine in particular often dithers, in the way that only bureaucrats who couldn’t care less about business imperatives can do – and I’ve been a bureaucrat myself in another life, so I’m fully entitled to criticize.  Except I like to congratulate myself for never having been a ditherer.  But many are, and we were told last year how lucky we were that they released our stock “in time for Christmas” – that being we took delivery on 22 December!  So yeah, technically in time for Christmas. 

Fortunately for us, there are always plenty of people who don’t start their Christmas shopping until very late in the piece.  Every year we save the bacon of mostly men who have left their buying until the last possible moment.  We had a guy one year run into the shop three minutes before we closed on Christmas Eve, and he said what have you got that’s red?  So I gave him a tour of the shop, looking at a range of things from glass to jewellery to pictures that had a lot of red in them.  In the end he selected a very old Chinese lantern with its original red paper, and his wife had no idea what a good last minute save he’d made. 

And even though it was last minute, at least he made an effort to find his wife something lovely that she might like.  People can always tell when you’ve thought about them and what they like and that you’ve made an effort with their gift.  The opposite of the Last Minute Men are the Romantic Men.  Yes, such men do exist and every year we enter into Christmas Conspiracies with men who have actually listened to their wives and come into the shop to buy something she’s mentioned that she likes, and then we are sworn to secrecy about the purchase.  Often times we agree to hide the items in our layby cabinet until they can be picked up just before Christmas, so there can be no chance of them being discovered. 

Last year a guy came in and said my wife was looking at a vase in here – which one was it?  I didn’t know him or his wife, so it was a challenge to figure out which one it was, but in the end we did and he came back after Christmas to tell us of the major brownie points he had scored as a result of his efforts.  Then another guy came in to tell me that his gift had been very well received.  Did you score lots of brownie points as well? I asked.  Nah, he said, but I did score lots of sex.  Which is just as good, really.

10 November 2011

Generalized Rabbiting On

Hey I now have a second-most favourite bit of television dialogue.  I’m afraid nothing can beat Get a jog on, you sour-faced slag, ‘fore I slap you silly, as my most favourite piece of television dialogue ever, and I await with anxious anticipation my chance to use this line in the shop.  But everyone for ages has been very nice, so I shall have to bide my time.

However, my new second-most favourite piece of television dialogue is Butt-clenchingly awesome! Now that’s awesome.  I heard it on an advertisement for some fishing show, and not being a fisherperson myself I can’t say I get their excitement, but I did like the line a lot and shall now endeavour to have a butt-clenchingly awesome experience myself.  The only thing I can think of right now is to fling myself off a bridge in Queenstown (NZ).  Doug says he refuses to bungy jump with me, citing some nonsense about an oedema in the back of his eyeball.  So I have to find a suitable experience that he is prepared to do.  I shall ponder this for a bit.

Meanwhile, although life appears to be a bit on hold while we wait impatiently for the next consignment of stock to arrive – and hopefully it’s somewhere around Singapore as I type – in fact the shop has been quite busy since we’ve been back from our buying trip.  Last week was our best week in three months, and things have been going really well since we’ve been back even with rapidly diminishing stock, so that bodes well for a spike in sales when the new stuff arrives.  We finally got around to framing the first of the French prints and they started selling immediately, so that was good news, although it means a bit more framing coming up in the next few days. 

The jewellery has been going like hot cakes, but fortunately I buy a lot, lot, lot of jewellery.  We usually start to run out of jewellery just before a buying trip is due, but I was hoping this time I had bought sufficient that there would be plenty even while we’re off buying more next March.  It doesn’t normally work out that we have much left over so close to the next buying trip, and jewellery is selling so fast at the moment I’m already having concerns about how long the current stockpile will last, but we’ll see.  I’d be crazy to complain about making a lot of sales, but it’s difficult when I can’t replace items until the next buying trip.

Doug is already coming up with good suggestions for Play Days for the next trip, and if I can factor them in early in the piece then I can also organise a bit of buying in the vicinity of wherever it is we’ve decided to play.  That way we can combine business and pleasure and it’s all good.  We’ve got a real hankering to head right down south in France next trip – we haven’t been to the Cote d’Azur for quite a while because it’s a very long drive from Paris and you’ve got to commit to quite a while in France.  But what the heck, why not?  The last time we drove along the main boulevard on the Monaco seafront we were in a daggy old red former postal van, which we used to transport all the antiques we bought, so it was an essential vehicle for us but we did kind of stand out massively among all the Ferraris and Maseratis and the crowds of Beautiful People. 

But not to be daunted, we took our daggy old red former postal van to St Tropez beach, where we discovered that, Dahling, the only way to arrive there is by helicopter.  Of course.  Anything else is so passé.  I’ll see your Ferarri and raise you a Guimbal G-2 Cabri.

To our eyes St Tropez was an unimpressive pebble beach, with the only distinguishing features being the many, many late middle-aged men with giant bellies, but nut brown rather than the bright red which is the hallmark of so many English potbellies in summer.  And at least the French lotharios didn’t wear knotted hankies on their heads, as their British brethren are want to do.  There were also an unnaturally large number of very pretty bikini girls, and there appears to be no choice in the St Tropez swimming costume shops but to buy g-strings, so what is a girl to do but give in to fashion?  And at least every single one of these gels had the perkiest buttocks you can imagine.  Butt-clenchingly awesome buttocks, you could say.

Anyway, even though we would make our long-awaited return to the south of France in yet another van, albeit a Europcar van rather than a daggy old red former postal van, we are inclined to revisit past haunts and see if the buying has improved at all.  The south of France prices for everything tend to be aimed at Excessively Rich People and American tourists.  In more recent times free-spending American tourists might be few and far between, which leaves only the Excessively Rich people to buy the expensive stuff, so maybe the expensive stuff has started to revert to more-reasonably-priced stuff.  Only one way to find out.

Mind you, even in its hey-day of being a mecca for Excessively Rich People and American tourists, we did some pretty good buying at Isle de la Sorgue.  We once bought two lovely tapestries that had hung in a local museum for a couple of hundred years and had faded to sepia and other earthy shades over that time.  The dealer we bought them from had acquired them from the museum only the day before, and in my broken French I tried to chat with him and tell him how in Australia museums don’t tend to leave fabrics in direct sun for a few hundred years, thus destroying their original colours.  Ah, he said, it’s no problem – there’s plenty more where these came from.  And in Europe I guess that is exactly right, there is no shortage of beautiful old things, although as a general rule I think things as fragile as textiles are better cared for.  Still, the museum’s loss was our gain and now I’m reminded of these tapestries I must dig them out of our container and present them for sale.  Getting into the bowels of our container will be a major archaeological dig in itself, but I know they’re there somewhere.

Mischka is Shop Manager today, and she is in disgrace for chasing an insect in the front window and in doing so pulling a small stained glass window on herself and breaking it.  Miss Boof Head is perfectly fine, but the window is cactus.  And then this afternoon we have had an on-going battle because she spotted the gecko that lives in the shop and runs along the wall near the ceiling, and she’s gone nuts trying to climb the walls to get it.  Attempting to climb walls full of antique French prints is something I frown upon.  A bit further along the wall is a series of large old French copper saucepans which are hung off butcher’s hooks, which she could impale herself on, so really climbing any part of the wall is frowned upon.  Finally, only some sharp words and a smacked bum convinced her to listen to me and behave herself.  Now she’s pretending to snooze on the desk next to me, but has cunningly positioned herself so she can keep a weather eye on the bit of wall where the gecko was last spotted.  But I’m awake to moggy tactics of pretending to be good when in fact the exact opposite is planned, so we shall see who wins.

This week I really need to get stuck into the task of preparing descriptor and price tags for a lot of the stock arriving in December.  It’s a real problem, though, when you buy over 1000 things and see each of those items for a very brief period before moving on to the next purchase.  Looking through my catalogue, I can see a whole lot of things that sound pretty good in theory, but I have no memory of what I’m talking about.  So I’ll be able to prepare a proportion of the descriptor and price tags in advance, but the rest will have to wait until the unpacking begins and I can again see what I bought.  Unpacking and reinspecting what you bought is always a bit of fun.

03 November 2011

Doing your own thing

Visitors are always nice, but how good is it to have your place to yourself, when you can blob about without having to be mindful of the delicate sensibilities of others?  And after a month in various hotel beds, some excellent some downright dodgy, and then having visitors for a few weeks camped on our couch, now we can relax and let it all hang out.  Yeah I know I’m putting a picture in your brain that you might not have wanted there, but deal with it.  I’m afraid that’s how it is at our house when no-one is there to observe, so you are all well advised to not drop in on us unexpectedly.  Fair warning.

Fortunately, the moggies don’t care one bit what we are wearing or not wearing, or at least can’t complain about it, and we are feeling good about being home.  We always look forward to the buying trips and always have a good time, but it’s always good to get back to the mountain stronghold as well.

And for anyone who says things are tough in Australia right now, you need to go overseas for a while and really see how tough things can be.  I know we’ve had an economic downturn here, although touch wood our shop hasn’t been particularly affected by it, but life can be really grim in other parts of the world.  And I’m not talking about Africa, I’m talking about Europe.  While we were in the UK I read that in Glasgow there are now third generation unemployed in about a third of all households.  And this is exactly what so many people in Spain and Greece and Italy (et al) are now facing – never having a job, never enjoying a comfortable life let alone a few little luxuries every now and then, never having financial security.  We always come home so very glad that we live in Australia. 

We can’t wait for the new stock to arrive, although in the meantime the current stock (by which I mean stock that I bought during the April trip) continues to sell well.  It’s always such a relief when your stock is well received.  Every single trip I have an irrational fear that I won’t find anything decent to buy – we’ve gone all that way, spending money on fares and accommodation, and then find nothing worth buying.  But after the first purchase I feel fine and always end up buying 1000+ items.  Then when we get back I have an irrational fear that no-one will like our stuff – that we’ve gone all that way, spending money on fares and accommodation, and then nothing we bring back sells.  But in fact the stock always sells really well – high quality and unusual items at the very best price as we can put on them is a good approach that works well for us.  We don’t make as much profit as we might if we put closer to a true price on the items, but we make it faster and we have happy customers who come back, allowing us to go to Europe twice a year.  Works for everyone.

You can’t please everyone, though, and there is always a collector of something obscure who wants you to look for something for them that you will take a lifetime to find.  A surprising number of people come into the shop looking for absinthe spoons.  They are usually surprised that I know what they’re talking about (and I accuse them all of being decadent little minxes) but they are not surprised that no, I don’t have one.  Absinthe was a spirit with an extremely high alcohol content, supposedly highly addictive and consumed by the well-to-do Bohemian Set in Europe in the late 1800s.  The spoons were perforated and were balanced on the rim of glasses with a sugar cube, and iced water was then dripped onto the sugar until it dissolved into the drink.  So taking absinthe was a bit of a ritual. 

Absinthe was declared an illegal substance in the early 1900s, although this might have been on the basis of flawed research into its dramatic effects on chronic alcoholics who drank it neat, and didn’t even use a proper absinthe spoon.  ‘Normal’ drinkers of absinthe would never dream of drinking it neat, and wouldn’t be caught dead without a proper spoon.  In any event, absinthe has now enjoyed a modern revival and so antique absinthe spoons are very sought after by many collectors.  But good luck with that, people!  If you’re not prepared to buy reproduction – and who would do that?  Perish the thought!  - then they are really rare, and really really expensive.  Anyone who ended up with an absinthe spoon collection would have taken decades to acquire it, and spent a great deal of money.  I’m afraid I don’t have enough Collector blood in me to be bothered with 1) something so eclectic that I would spend my entire life to buy maybe 10 spoons, and 2) something so dang expensive.  Think how many trips I could have to Paris for the same price as a small collection of absinthe spoons.  No contest.

But hey, at least absinthe spoons are something you could use if you wanted to, and are generally beautiful so you can admire them.  I think the strangest thing I’ve heard of someone collecting is fossilized poo.  Scats, they’re called, if you want to be technically correct, but really we’re talking about someone who collects poo.  It’s very old poo, I grant you, maybe even dinosaur poo for the oldest bits, but even the antiques dealer in me can’t get excited about that.  Erk. 

And now I have mastered (after a fashion) the technique of downloading photos onto my blog, below are some pictures of one of our favourite little towns in France, Honfleur.  We stayed there the night before we left France on this trip, and it’s the place I mentioned in an earlier blog where there are lots of very expensive yachts lining the small harbour, with lots of rich, rich, rich people sitting on them so they can be seen to be sitting on their yacht and you will know they are rich, rich, rich.