My Father’s Shop

My father had a unique approach to business. He wasn’t a salesman, at least not in the traditional sense of the word; he certainly made a lot of money in his time. Not that he was even particularly interested in being rich– he was just interested in people, even if he didn’t especially like them as a species, and above all, he wanted to prove how smart he was.

He and I had that in common.

I should probably elaborate– when my father’s father died, he left him a dismal little shop and nothing else. Whatever money he’d had went to my aunt, and they hadn’t owned the house to begin with. But the shop was theirs from the old days.

At first, my father was just going to sell the place, and I thought that would be the end of it. He had a job in the town; I don’t remember what. I didn’t really care about him at that time. But then one day, he came back with a splitting grin on his face. He’d quit his job, he said, and was going to take over the shop. I told him I didn’t care and went upstairs. My mother came in from the kitchen and started shouting at him, but it didn’t get rid of his smile.

Over the next few days, he tried a hundred times to explain his new business model to me, and I, as the men in my family are wont to do, refused to listen. Eventually, my mother, with whom I had a much better relationship as she occasionally gave me a lift into town, explained it to me: Father was not going to run just any ordinary shop. It wasn’t going to have a name, as most shops do, because Father didn’t believe in corporate identities. His father’s shop had just been known locally by the family name and so would this new venture. He was also going to paint the shop red, as he believed blue was for governesses. Also, and this was the most interesting new development, there would be no prices on anything. Nothing in my father’s shop would have a set value.

Instead, he would decide what to charge the customers based on how much he liked their face.

For the pretty or the striking or the handsome or even the, as my father would often put it, “honest-faced” [1], the prices would be fair– more than fair for the particularly aesthetically blessed– but for the asymmetrical or the pocked or the puckered or the downright ugly, there would be a much higher cost than mere disgust. Had I possessed a sense of humour back then, I would have laughed.

My father was no slave to beauty, you must understand. And he certainly was no oil painting himself. But, as I said, he fancied himself a philosopher– a student of the human condition– and he thought that this new business would prove a theory he had long held to be true, that people would line up to be told that they were worthless for the possibility they might be told that they weren’t. Of course, he considered himself immune to this congenital human flaw, if only because he’d spotted it in others.

Naturally, my mother tried to shout him into getting his old job back and the various acquaintances [2] to whom he explained his idea laughed in his face.

But, they all turned up on the opening day, forming a neat little line down the street [3] and all expecting to receive a kind word and a reduced bill for the simple advantage of knowing my father.

They were mistaken.

I don’t think my father gave out a single reduction that day. I imagine he had planned it that way. I would be lying if I said that he did not lose a lot of goodwill in the town that day. But goodwill has no value, he would often tell me, and respect is worth its weight in gold. It is a strange quirk, but, I believe, an observable fact, that people will respect you for insulting them. They may protest not to, they may call you rude or even try and punch you, but deep down they will want to impress you. This may even be the purpose of the punch.

I would also be lying if I said that everyone came back. But many did. They returned with their faces slathered in make-up and concealing creams– father would later add these to his stock and make a killing from the holes he punched in people’s self-esteem– they dyed their hair and wore fancy suits. This was where my father was extra-clever. He would occasionally seem to be swayed by these clumsy attempts and thus offer a discount to his battled patrons. Of course, they would brag of this to their friends, and immediately everyone would wish to be validated by the commercial whims of my father and they would keep coming back. I don’t know if he actually had a system by which he judged people’s physical appearances to be acceptable or not. Certainly, I never noticed any particular traits of which he was fond. I wish now that I had asked him.

He was also not sexist in this enterprise, as one might have expected– men were given reductions just as often as women, which is to say not very often at all. Of course, this lead to some gossip in the town, but my father either didn’t know about this or didn’t care. I suspect the latter.

And, of course, word spread about the shop where you could have your looks judged and then quantified in the most palpable way possible, through commerce. People passing through the town would make a special point of stopping by his shop and getting a knock to their ego. More often than not, these people would lie about how much they’d been charged and so the wheel of infamy would turn.

As for the ugly, I cannot decide if I feel my father was rude or not. Those who had deformities were not treated any differently from the general populace, but those whose faces were less appealing than they might have been were marked up. But then my father had always hated laziness and would say that they could make an effort to improve their appearance if they only took the time.

One time, a customer came in wearing a balaclava, claiming to have chicken pox and just wanting to buy a tin of soup and pay the price they always did [4]. My father asked them to remove it and when they refused, gave them the soup for free, saying he had no way to judge its value. The next time someone came in concealing their face, though, he threw them out of the shop.

My father refused to let us partake of his stock for our own purposes and my mother declined to shop there. I think she knew my father’s feelings toward her. Certainly better than I ever did.

I went in once. It was a boiling hot day and I had been sitting in the centre of the city all day, doing nothing, I imagine. I was thirsty and was not allowed back into several of the nearby businesses, having been caught shoplifting [5]. I was hot and bothered and frustrated and young and stupid. I only had one pound in my pocket, but I figured that this should be enough for a drink. At least, if my father liked my face.

I walked into his shop and I remember the bell above the door ringing. My father looked up but I don’t think he made any show of recognising me. I walked up to the fridge next to the counter, pulled out a bottle of something and put it on the counter. My father looked from it to me and back again. I held his gaze. I could do things like that when I was younger.

Then he rang up the drink. It was a lot more than a pound. It was a lot more than anyone has ever been charged for such a drink, I imagine. I left without another word.

That night, when my father returned, we didn’t speak about the incident. A few years later, I left home and we still hadn’t spoken about it although I certainly had not forgotten. A few years after that, my father died and I couldn’t come to his funeral for some stupid, ephemeral reason. My mother cried, partly for him, partly for me, partly for the terrible relationship between us.

I didn’t inherit the shop. I don’t remember who did. I didn’t want it anyway. Like my father, I am no salesman. But unlike him, I don’t have the gall to insult people to their faces. I wish I did. It not only made him rich, it also made him very happy. And that’s something I’ve never managed.

[1] He was a big believer in the discredited science of phrenology, especially in the idea of “criminal skull shape.”

[2] Father did NOT have friends.

[3] It was, admittedly, a small street and an even smaller shop.

[4] I have no idea why they didn’t go to another shop. I generally found that my father’s base of customers was held in some kind of magnetic trance by him, or else were prisoners of their own need for approval.

[5] I cannot recall if my father ever found out about this. Certainly I don’t remember him ever examining the contours of my skull.

Rory Kelly

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