I was 17, studying for my A-levels in Great Yarmouth. Looking to defy my parents’ instruction to get a part-time job, I hit upon a cunning plan: why not apply to the shop least likely to require the services of a mopey teenage boy? That shop was Claire’s Accessories.
Little did I know at the time that Claire’s — home of plasticky tiaras and tinsel wigs — was a retail empire at the height of its power. Five decades after it had arrived in America, Claire’s commanded some 3,000 outlets across the world and was present in more than 95 per cent of American malls.
Its success had been built on one thing: ear-piercing. Having come of age during America’s ear-piercing craze (when earring manufacturers hired retired nurses to run piercing booths in suburban malls), Claire’s was the first retailer to bring the service into its fold. Today, Claire’s claims to have pierced 100 million ears worldwide. I chalked up 50 or so myself. It wasn’t easy — I still feel pangs of guilt remembering the time I botched a piercing, missing my target by a crucial few millimetres. What did I do? I quickly rubbed out the inky dot on the customer’s other ear and pretended it had gone to plan after all.
In some ways, it was my first experience of meaningful work. Until then, work was dishwashing and shelf-stacking: monotonous tasks that would be undone within hours. But piercing was permanent — and you had to be responsible. For years after, it was my stock answer when asked about handling ‘stressful situations’ in job interviews.
The other staff would tell me excitedly that I was the first boy to work there, although my gender only ever had one advantage: it meant that shoppers were less likely to ask me for help (either assuming I didn’t work there or that I was unlikely to know much about glue-on eyelashes).
There were opportunities for mischief. Every week, HQ sent a disc of chart hits deemed suitably family-friendly to be played in store. We inserted the CD into a giant black hard-drive under the till which added the songs to its jukebox library. One day I decided to give it an album by the sex-obsessed cyber-goths Nine Inch Nails to see what would happen.
The disc whirred before ejecting. I figured it hadn’t worked. It was only weeks later when I returned from lunch to find my colleague apologising to a horrified grandmother for ‘the inappropriate language’ (look up the lyrics to ‘Closer’ and you’ll see what I mean) that I realised what I’d done.
Claire’s fortunes have flagged slightly since I worked there. After a much-celebrated $3 billion takeover, the chain was loaded with debts by its private equity owners. In 2018, its US operations filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile its elderly founder — who began as a shop clerk during the Great Depression — was targeted in a bizarre blackmail plot.
Back in Great Yarmouth, though, Claire’s still stands in its original spot, one of the only retail chains to survive the crunch. Has it changed? Not beyond the fact it now offers nose-piercing. The high staff turnover means there’s no one there I know, but when I do walk past I always keep my ears open for Nine Inch Nails: I like to think that I left my mark.