Eleanor Doughty

Summertime blues

Part-time work in a sheet-music shop offered its own kind of education

Summertime blues
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Every year, like clockwork it comes, the traditional concern that the younger generation don’t do summer jobs like they used to. As the school holidays approach a politician is wheeled out to write a nostalgia piece about part-time jobs, and the ‘essential skills’ these offer. Holiday and Saturday jobs, you see, are the foundations of a successful career, with their promise of resilience-building and priority-juggling. Some statistics will be cited about businesses being desperate for applicants with ‘soft skills’, and on cue, media-friendly CEOs are trotted out to support whichever wayward minister has been handed the keys to the Workshy Teenagers wagon.

And so it was that in late July, Esther McVey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, wrote a comment piece for the Telegraph about the ‘cultural shift’ that has taken place — ‘young people’ are eschewing part-time jobs in favour of studying.

As far as I can remember, it is possible to do both. I gave up my own summer job seven years ago this month and lately, it’s been on my mind.

For three years I worked in a classical sheet-music shop in Lincoln, down a cobbled street near the theatre, about halfway up the high street. Our neighbour was a photographer called John, and he ran a small portrait studio. We took in each other’s post. It was an unusual business, belonging to a passionate woman, apparently retired, and run, I maintain, for the hell of it — not because it was a commercial success. Counterpoint was its name, and it was my safe haven. Nothing bad could happen inside that shop, though it was freezing, all year round, even in the summer. Especially in the summer: it seemed mad to put the storage heater on in July.

I mostly worked there on Saturdays, through my GCSEs and A-levels, through a badly broken heart, 13 months of agonising driving lessons and my first proper hangover. With all the drama of one looking back on age 16 to 18 with rose-tinted specs, you might say I grew up there. Almost.

Business, even at the weekend, was slow. Sometimes no one would come in at all. When people did come in, they were either accompanied by an excitable child brandishing a squeaky recorder, or they were a true believer. Those in the latter camp would spend hours sifting through the racks. Counterpoint was famous, it was the place to go for your music. Lincolnshire is a musical county, with a cathedral school, thriving county music service, and an award-winning jazz band, of which I was part. As such, every other person through the door was either someone I knew, or someone who had been recommended Counterpoint by someone I knew. And while, very often, the till didn’t get much use, sheet-music isn’t cheap. When they spent, they really spent.

My friends too had a variety of summer jobs — on farms, at sailing clubs, racing stables. One worked in a pub where the manager groped her bum. Another did her father’s tax return (and still does). Working for cash in a sheet-music shop didn’t change my life — nor, really, did it offer me any skills that were immediately obvious, save the peculiar enjoyment of counting up change. I was hardly much more employable, save for my newly acquired A-level grades, when I went to university than I was at 16. It turns out that working in a provincial music shop is not a turn-on for Topshop Oxford Circus’s human resources department. A busy retail environment it was not.

But Counterpoint gave me something of my own. My money, earned by myself, and a place that I had to get to at the same time, looking half-decent, on a regular basis. When a customer did come in, I had to look lively — and close down Twitter, which was still in its jolly days — to do some occasional work. It was an exercise in being able to talk to anyone, even the oddest of balls, knowledgeably and interestedly, about topics I knew little about, or would have scant time to quickly Google. Forget the bluffing that is supposedly syringed in at independent schools and during university tutorials, I learnt a good deal about grasping a previously unknown topic in minutes from behind the desk at Counterpoint, a skill that is now professionally essential. I had keys to the shop, too, which I frequently left at home, the punishment being that I had to go all the way back to get them, meaning Counterpoint opened late. By the time I’d get back, the voicemail would be full — it was the kind of shop where people phoned at 9.01 on a Saturday to enquire about stock, as if they were trying to get a doctor’s appointment. It gave me my first boss, too, Eileen, a formidable woman, against whom I have measured all subsequent managers. She was someone to impress.

Counterpoint closed a couple of years ago. Every time I am in Lincoln, I walk past its little alley and feel a pang of sadness. An acupuncturist now operates from the building, which is fitting. It was a calm place. It’s not just that Lincoln has lost one of its most charming small businesses, but that now, there’s one shop fewer at which a bookish 16-year-old Tchaikovsky enthusiast can apply for a job, a gap in someone else’s experience.

It is easy to romanticise our teenage years. The bar we snuck out of school for? It’s not as nice as I remember it being. The boys I had crushes on were far from all that. But Counterpoint was everything I remember and more. It was a little bit of something that only I had. If it helped me later in life, even better. That is the summer holiday job’s legacy, not the soft skill-building exercise promoted by the Minister for Workshy Teenagers.