My Father as a Dealer

A Londoner who cherishes every vestige of the cockney, WOLF MANKOWITZgraduated from Cambridge University and in a six-year period has established himself as one of the leading dealers in Wedgwood. Now in his late twenties, he writes as he pleases, dividing his time between authoritative studies of the Portland vase, plays for the London theatre, and fiction. His two latest novels, Make Me an Offer and A Kid for Two Farthings, were chosen by the Atlantic Monthly Book Club and are now in process of being filmed, the second under the direction of Sir Carol Reed. This is the first of a series of contributions from Mr. Mankowitz.



ON THURSDAYS, my father always went to an auction in Lillie Road, Fulham. The auction room led into a yard stacked with furniture no one ever bought. It stood there in the rain and the sleet, and now in the cold spring sunshine, quietly rotting. At the other end of t he yard, steep wooden steps led down to a basement. Down there, round a stove, the auction porters ate their dinners off thick white plates brought over by a cross-eyed tea boy from a cafe down the road.

One Thursday, there was nothing in the auction cheap enough for my father to buy. He crossed the yard to the basement and sent the cross-eyed boy out for a cheese roll and a mug of tea. Then, as he slowly chewed the hard crust of the roll and listened to an old porter named Bert tell how they protected theirselves against mustard gas poisoning at Ypres, he suddenly stopped worrying; which was anyway something he could usually do at the drop of an auctioneer’s hammer.

With a cavalier gesture, he threw the remains of the cheese roll into the furnace, congratulated Bert on his anti-gas precautions, and went over to a pyramid of tea chests which all this time had tortured his curiosity. They contained a large quantity of lace edging — “cabbage,” Bert told him, which the porters had “found.”

When the foreman porter came back, he said, “I have seen in my time (and who hasn’t) some dead lousy sales, but this sale is so dead lousy even the lice dropped dead waiting for something to happen.” Then, on behalf of himself and his colleagues, he sold my father the lace for ten shillings a case, plus five bob for a pint all round. He even unpadlocked his tool chest and threw in a quantity of valuable brown paper and siring. My father was expert in making parcels. The two enormous ones he made out of the lace were so heavy that getting them onto the Underground train would have ruptured a horse. But man, said my father, has his unconquerable soul, and so he doesn’t rupture so easily.

At that time, my father worked a lockup stall in East Ham Shopping Hall, a kind of semi-enclosed market, where the green shutters of the shops come down onto trestles to make stalls. Thursday was early-closing day, and when he rattled the gates of the market to call the boilerman to open up, there was no one around except a mangy dog, which, like the other stall-holders, somehow made a living.

“What you got there, Guv?” the boilerman asked.

My father, rubbing the weals the string had cut in his hands, said, “With luck, meat and potatoes for five for one month. Give us a hand, Charlie.”

That Friday he passed happily sorting the lace. My mother held lengths of it round her sleeves, her neck, and the hem of her dress, because at one time she had worked as a trimmer in a clothing factory. In lace trimming she was, she kept pointing out (though she shouldn’t say it herself), something of a connoisseur.

“Look at this, Solly,” she said, putting a length of fine black lace round her hair. “Lace like this when 1 was a girl you couldn’t buy for a pound a yard.”

“And in those days,” my father remembered, “a pound was real money. Not that it mattered, because who had it?”

Saturday was a big day in the market. This Saturday, my father’s stall was eight inches deep in lace trimming, all at fourpence a yard.

The next few weeks, there wasn’t a petticoat within live mill’s my father hadn’t put lace trimming on. He reckoned he had saved a lot of marriages and helped more than a few engagements.

“Come on, girls!” he shouted. “Three yards of black lace for a bob makes you a new woman!”

For a few weeks the tin biscuit box we threw the money into was half-full of sixpences and shillings and pennies. About half past ten in the evening, when business slacked off, I went to the Ocean Fish Bar with everybody’s orders for chips with plenty of salt and vinegar. I ran back, my hands warm and damp from the vinegar soaking through the newspaper, the acrid smell of oiled newsprint making my mouth water. While we ate the chips we counted the money in the biscuit box, and 1 knew my father was at last rich because there were so many small piles of coins along the back edge of the stall.

As he tipped the coins into two bags — a gray one for silver and a blue one for copper - I said to him, “When I have my own stall I’ll sell things like you do for pennies and sixpences, because that way you can see how rich you are.” Then my father told me of the meaning of objects like lace and money and chips with plenty of vinegar.

Supposing you arc starving, my father asked, what is the value of two pennyworth of chips? It sav es your life. But is your life worth no more than t uppence?

“Take three yards of this lace,”he said, holding it out at arm’s length. “A woman is miserable because there are too many children, the house has to be cleaned every day only to get dirty, the fire has to be made only to burn out. She feels old, older and older, every day the beat of a hammer nailing up the coffin of her life, daily. What’s a piece of lace to such a woman? I’ll tell you. On such a thing she can build a new life. It is frivolous as she has not been frivolous for years extravagant as she thought she had forgotten how to be. From these things (and to be honest, there is no new life to be built) at least some sort of hope — for a short time, some touch of something. If you ask what difference will it. make in the end, the answer is simple. No difference at all. But for the lime being, it helps. How much is that help worth?”

Quick as a needle, I pointed out that three yards of lace at the present market price was one shilling. My father agreed, “The lace is worth a shilling, or more, or less. But what is the unthought-of moment in the time of such a woman’s life worth?”

Then he concluded the lesson. “In all accounts, you must keep a margin for error. In life, there is a margin, a narrow margin, for vain errors like lace, and they have no value. They are consequently beyond value, valueless, priceless. As for these—” (and with quick movements he scooped the piles of coins into their proper bags) “as for these — these three are for the man who lent me the money to buy the lace; and these two pay the rent so that the lace may be sold. And this one is for your mother to buy food; and these two are for me, so that I may buy some other error next week to sell again so that it will all go on and on.”


FOR my father, no story ever had an end. When the lace was finished, he discovered wallpaper; and when the wallpaper had been pasted to a thousand walls, he bought fancy buttons, six on a card for ihree ha’pence. And when East Ham had enough fancy buttons on its coat, it was something else, and so (as he said) on, and on.

Because of this feeling he had for objects, that they were valuable for what they meant to people and for no other reason, my father found himself buying at the Lillie Road auction one Thursday morning several mixed lots of china and glass, and a basket containing a quantity of Egyptian antiquities. So easily can a. dealer become an antique dealer, if he has this sense of value, not objective value.

RULE ONE: TO be an antique dealer, you must know about subjective values—that is to say, what objects mean to people at the level of feeling. To be able to appraise an object at its current market value is not enough. You must be able to communicate to your clients the meaning of the object to you. If the operation is successful, your meaning communicates with his meaning; he suddenly wants to possess the object and a deal can be negotiated. Of course, at this point you must remember current market values.

My father’s method of appraisal for a mixed lot was to look through it, decide how much someone might pay for the most exciting thing in it, and try to buy the lot for about that price. Sometimes no one came along who agreed with him about that particular object and he, as he put it, “fell in.” The stall was always cluttered with strange junk which excited my father but no one else. But this, he said, is the way in which an antique dealer builds his stock. It look about a year, but in the end we had enough stock to reckon ourselves qualified junk dealers.

The junk is raw material, but if you can buy fresh merchandise every week, it will freshen up the junk, and perhaps sell it. More often the junk is a dead-weight background; it remains after the interesting things are sold. But when business or credit is not good enough, and he can’t freshen up his stock, it is purely raw material for the dealer’s free and enterprising imagination.

In East Ham Shopping Hall marble-topped washstands were always good basic merchandise, because although no one wanted them for washstands, they could be sold as washable kitchen tables, the marble might be taken off and sold for crazy-paving, and the frames converted into usable dressing tables. Rut, for my father, marble-topped washstands were not a difficult enough test. They were a tedious concession to necessity, dull against the useless, fast-inaling lace trimming of life. To sell a lacquered image of the Chinese god of plenty to a customer who combined an exotic taste with an eye for a bargain was more uncertain and artistic. “Otherwise,” my father said, 1 might as well sell tinned onion soup. One week, as a matter of fact, he did sell ihree cases of tinned onion soup which had been in a fire. But it was with relief he returned to the Chinese god.

RULE TWO: An antique dealer is a dealer like any other, except that he is not merely interested in exchanging goods against money. If he were, he would handle all merchandise with the same disinterest. It is because he has a characteristic prejudice in favor of Chinese gods that a dealer becomes an antique dealer rather than a chronic purveyor of canned onion soup.

My father, like all natural-born dealers, suffered from buying compulsion associated with deflated credit — an occupational disease of the dealing classes. When I was not at school I went to the auctions with him. lie always stood near ihe auctioneer’s rostrum, his mouth turned down, his face expressionless, bidding with short jabs of his catalogue. When he stopped bidding and the auctioneer looked at him inquiringly, he shook his head and said quietly, “No more, thank you, sir. Sometimes he impulsively decided to continue bidding. Then he would say in a gentle voice, “Make it guineas, sir,”and the price would go up to two pounds, two shillings.

Occasionally, carried away by the credit which regular buying at a particular auction room creates for a dealer, my father would discover that he had spent more than he had. Then, whistling the aria “Softly Awakes My Heart” from Samson and Delilah tunelessly through his teeth, he went back to the market to speak to one of three friends he had there who operated more regular businesses than he did.

One of these was a grocer, a short, round-faced man in a white coal who, on a Saturday night, auctioned off cut-price groceries with an explosive stutter. Another was a butcher, greatly respected as the most solvent man in the market, lie wore a straw hat all the year round, changing the colored band on it to indicate which season was which. The third was an uncle of mine who had a fruit and vegetable stall where he did a fair business, lieing a gambler on dog races, he was easy enough to borrow from if he happened to hav e won recently.

My father borrowed a check for the amount he needed, giving in return his own postdated check for the end of the next week. The system had its complex variations; but then, as my father pointed out to my mother (who worried about money): “Finance is always the problem of an expanding economy; credit was invented by men who believe they will still be alive and working next week. Roth of which l fully intend. Furthermore, how can 1 sell goods if I don’t buy them first?”

RULE THREE: YOU can sell goods best if yon buy them first. If you have capital, things are much mare straightforward; but a real dealer will deal even without capital. To be an antique dealer you must have an absolute conviction that what you buy today you will be here next week to sell at a profit. If hat my father did not at this time realize was that in dealing at the highest levels goods are frequently sold first and paid for afterwards. Hut this is just a more sophisticated version of the same basic credit system.

My father had his own system. If he bought, something at one pound and sold it at ten, he considered that he was working on a mere 10 per cent, meaning that 10 per cent of the total sum realized was the money that he worked with. On the other hand, if he bought something for five pounds and it kicked around for months until he finally sold it for two, he considered he had done very well. He would point out that keeping the item any longer could send him bankrupt paying rent to house it.

Another aspect of my father’s system was his refusal to sell in bulk to other dealers, because he resented their assumption that they could sell his goods. He liked to believe that his goods were so eccentric that only he Could ever sell them. If even he failed, he pul them on one side. The market, he said, was not yet fit to accommodate these goods. Soon they would come into their own. Meanwhile the shelves at the back of the shop were choked with goods packed tight into boxes which my father labeled in chalk. The chalk rubbed off, and he forgot what was in the boxes. Rut by now he was too busy negotiating the future to be bolhered with the debris of the past.

His system caused my father’s business to expand until he had four shops in the same market, all choked with goods. One Sunday he and I were in the market unpacking a quantity of Bohemian colored glass vases we had unearthed recently in one of the remoter shops. I noticed that his expression was distracted; he was whistling “Softly Awakes My Heart,” a certain sign of pending developments. Then he suddenly announced his intention of becoming a wholesaler. “All the time,” he said, “I have been a wholesaler, and I only just realized it; but so impossible is it to go against one’s own nature that here” (and he indicated the stuffed shelves in the background) ”1 have accumulated a wholesalers stock without knowing it.”

It was a magnificent theory, delivered with superb confidence in the hidden forces of a dealer’s life. There was only one thing wrong with it. No one wan loci 1o buy the rubber soles and heels, the pepperpot lids, the tea cosies, and the leather bootlaces which the forgotten boxes contained.

RULE FOUR: There is a difference in genus between retailing dealers and wholesalers. The general dealer (like my father) who pits his imagination against the intractability of unlikely merchandise is essentially a retailer. He operates best with a variety of different objects, about each of which he can build a different story. Your wholesaler is a man capable of calculating in a moment the difference between J2} 2 Ver cer,t less carriage, and 10 per cent plus carriage.

Alas, you can’t wholesale against your nature. Lseful goods in quantity are sold in a highly competitive market; once you have supplied your retail public with useful goods at cut prices, you may as well throw the balance of your stock away. “Or,” my father said, unbowed, “why not take it to another market?”

He at once bought a small lorry for twelve pounds. Loaded with the excess, it visited the markets in such provincial places as Romford, Cat ford, and Lewisham. At one time or another I went to all of them, but I remember Romford best because when we had eggs on chips there, they were goose eggs. Maybe geese did well in Romford. My father didn’t. The van drank oil with an alcoholic’s unconcern for wear and tear on the financial system. On a good stretch of road it made about fifteen miles to the gallon, complaining constantly. The radiator leaked, steaming like a boiled pudding; something called the big end knocked; the gear change ground. It was a secondhand van special for secondhand dealers. It broke down, always in the middle of traffic. When we arrived at the market, the best pitches were gone.

Travel didn’t broaden my father’s turnover, but it brought him into touch with people who had junk to sell. He kept himself busy during the trade recessions calling at private houses in the locality—on “the knocker,” as we called it. Traveling markets and buying junk led inevitably to a pitch on the stones in the Caledonian Market, a vast bazaar of bric-a-brac which bombs and the shortage of goods destroyed soon after my father started to use it. If he had started five years earlier, he might have become a successful antique dealer. As it was, he remained an unsuccessful antique dealer. In the first few months of the war, the four pounds a week a professional air raid warden was paid began to look like a good living to him. The market was empty — trade was a post-war credit, and the war had barely started. But it had already been there long enough to show that prices for tilings which you couldn’t cat, or drink, or hide in were fictitious. Consequently antique dealers of all sizes found themselves in difficulties. The great trade secret was out.

RULE FIVE: The great secret of the antique trade is simply that all values other than aesthetic are approximate. That is to say, they are approximated as nearly as a dealer can guess to what the buyer with an aesthetic inclination towards a particular nonuseful object can pay for it.

My father had always poetically comprehended the facts of dealing life, and 1 started as an antique dealer aware of them in the same vague way — as in a relay race, the baton is snatched by a fresh man from one who has already covered the toughest section of the course; but it’s the same baton. The war, however, stopped play for the time being. When we got back to the game a few years later, it was faster, but the rules hadn’t changed.