In her new memoir Hazards of the Trade (Crossfield Publishing), author Phyllis L Humby takes us on a journey through her years as the owner and operator of an Ontario lingerie boutique through its heyday of the 1980s and 90s. From high-end clothing expos at prestigious hotels, to dealing with stalkers and rabid squirrels, Humby tracks the industry's pinnacle and decline with bittersweet recollections that will have fashion enthusiasts both laughing and fondly reminiscing.
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Excerpt from 'Hazards of the Trade' by Phyllis L Humby:
Unforgettable days usually begin in a mundane manner. And so it was on that brisk fall morning in my first retail location in an old building. While checking the previous day’s sales something distracted me. A movement. A sound. I held my breath. There it was again. A scratching sound in the ductwork next to me. It was too dark inside the floor grate to see anything. Then the darkness shifted.
I jumped, pitching my wicker stool back against the wall. The ornate metal floor grate began to lift. My heart pounding, I reached for the nearest rack. Belts swung in a riot of colour as I slid the heavy display over the grate. Whatever dark furry thing I’d seen inside the vent would stay inside the vent. I rushed around the shop placing baskets and displays over all the other floor grates.
The only time I’d gone down to the basement in that old building was when I was deciding whether to lease the space. With its cobwebs and dank dark corners I wouldn’t even consider using it for storage. Horrible smells sometimes emanated from beneath my charming boutique. It helped that I sold aromatic products. I’d often burn scented candles on the long low sales counter. But this was a whole new dilemma. No amount of potpourri or fragrant drawer liners could eliminate rodents.
The chimes above the door tinkled. I whirled toward the front of the store.
“Morning.” I cleared my throat. “Mrs. Lorman, how are you?
Mrs. Lorman followed me to the rectangular chrome rack, the corner of which was holding a grate to the floor.
Distracted, I intended to confirm Mrs. Lorman’s size but instead asked, “How old are you?”
She snorted, “What did you say?”
“I mean… how tall are you?” I swallowed hard as a furry back pressed up against the grate.
“Here,” I spoke too loudly, “let’s move to the counter and I’ll ring these up for you.”
“But I want more than one pair.”
“I’ll get them.”
“But I need to pick a different shade.” She sounded annoyed.
“No problem. Why don’t you relax on the divan. I’ll bring the sample swatches over.”
My mouth twitched as I tried to smile. Mrs. Lorman, her look lingering and suspicious, took a seat on the divan in the centre of the store.
The sale was finished in record time. If not for the wild intruder trapped in my ductwork, I would have shown my customer the new arrivals. And asked if she needed hosiery detergent. Or whether she’d be interested in purchasing a lace organizer for pantyhose — I could barely keep them in stock. But I was anxious to get her out of the store before she saw whatever it was that was trying to escape from under the grate. If she’d noticed what was happening, word would have spread all over town and women would be too afraid to shop in my store.
My mind raced. What could I do? Whom could I contact? After Mrs. Lorman left I stood at the front window watching the morning traffic whiz past in both directions.
A service van pulled up across the street. My breath quickened. A plumber I’d once hired jumped from the driver’s seat and entered a restaurant. I hoped it was a quick coffee break, not a leisurely breakfast. I kept lookout.
Two heart-thumping minutes later, I saw him. A takeout cup in hand, he pulled on the door handle of his truck as his gaze swept the north side of the street.
The moment he glanced towards my shop, I waved. Not a simple hi there wave, but a furious swinging of my arm. He hesitated, but then stepped up into his truck. I continued waving, shifting my body between the lingerie displays so he could see me. He raised his hand briefly and remained curbside watching me, a puzzled look on his face.
Afraid of losing him, I hurried to the door and leaned out, motioning him to cross the street. His curious expression intensified. He got out of his vehicle and waited for the traffic to pass before sauntering over to my building. I wanted to shout hurry but instead I just gave a couple more frantic hand motions.
“Plumbing troubles?” he asked as he walked through the doorway. His demeanour was casual. Laid back. Bored.
I reached for his arm and pulled him further inside. “No.” I was breathing heavy and fighting back tears. “I have bigger problems than plumbing.”
We’d met only that one time before and throughout most of that occasion his head was inside the bathroom cupboard. Afraid that he’d bolt, I kept my hand around his forearm.
Looking out the window, I continued. “If a customer comes in don’t let on what we’re talking about.”
“I don’t know what we’re talking about.” He looked wary. Did I feel him try to pull away from my grasp?
“There’s something in my basement trying to get out. The grates are moving.” Though I was trying to sound calm, the pitch of my voice was decidedly higher. “I think it’s a rat.”
He chuckled. That’s the worst thing he could have done. He’d gone from aloof to amused. I could feel my eyes bulging. “I’ll pay you. Please, what can we do?”
Sensing my panic, he twisted his face into a look of concern. In hindsight he was probably trying hard not to laugh. He asked for directions to the basement entrance and followed me to the storage room. Before opening the door, he scratched the top of his head, as if in thought. “You think it’s a rat?” he said.
“It’s black and furry. It lifted the grate off the floor.” My breathing was erratic.
He walked back to the front sales area but there was no sign of the rodent in any of the grates. Of course there wasn’t.
“Do you have a net?”
I shook my head, still very much in panic mode. “The sports shop will have one.”
Hurrying back from the cash register, I thrust money at him and said, “Could you buy one?” Seeing him hesitate, I added, “Or do you want to stay here and I’ll run up the street?”
The plumber looked around at the skimpy lingerie and bikinis on display. He gave a resigned sigh and snatched the money from my outstretched hand.
After purchasing the net, he stopped at his truck and extracted a long spade. I gave a relieved sigh as he trudged back to the store. Without a word, he dropped my change and receipt on the counter and headed for the basement.
Just then, the door chimes tinkled. Oh no, not customers. I spun around.
Trying to keep the tension from my voice, I addressed the shoppers, “May I help you?”
“We’re browsing, thanks.”
Oh great. I could do without this right now. Behind the counter, I stood, arms folded, listening for telltale sounds of a battle in the basement.
The women stood chatting about a movie they’d seen the previous night. I wanted to shout, if you’re browsing, then browse, otherwise go for coffee and talk all you want.
I fought the hysteria and began a slow stroll around the shop, peering discreetly into each floor grate.
The scraping of the basement door against the floor in the back room drew my attention. As the service man appeared in the doorway, I rushed to his side, motioning with my hands to alert him that there were customers in the store.
“Did you see it?” I kept my voice to a whisper.
He nodded and began to speak. I shushed him and he continued in a lower tone. “It’s down there. And it’s plenty scared. I don’t think I can catch it with the net.”
Flustered, I began to stammer. He couldn’t leave me in this predicament. I had no one else to help me and I was terrified. Using the same hand motions as I had used, he cautioned me about the rising volume of my voice.
“I can get rid of it for you….”
Why didn’t he just say so. I pressed my fingers against my aching head.
He glanced over my head at the two women in the store. Quietly, he added, “I’ll have to kill it.”
I nodded quickly… more quickly than the plumber had expected, judging from his expression. “Okay, kill it. Don’t bring it up here until I give you the all clear.” I motioned towards the gabby shoppers.
With a determined nod, he walked back through the storage room toward the basement.
I approached the browsers. “Well, ladies, I’m sorry you don’t see anything you like today.”
Their conversation interrupted, the women looked surprised.
“There’ll be more arrivals next week. I’m sure we’ll have something then that you won’t be able to resist.”
Recognizing a dismissal, the women exchanged disbelieving looks and left the store without another word.
I raced into the back room just as a hard thump sounded against the basement door. I screamed. Frightened, I held it closed with both hands. As if whatever it was could possibly open the door… a ridiculous thought. I glanced down just as a pointy snout pressed out from under the door! Aaaagghhhh!!! I grabbed a defective robe from the returns rack and jammed it along the gap with the toe of my shoe.
“I have the door sealed,” I shouted, wishing I could remember the man’s name.
“Okay.” His voice was calm and unhurried.
I looked towards the front of the store. Should I lock the door and stick a note on the window? My heart pounded.
There was no sound from the basement.
“Is everything all right?” I called out.
I hurried back to the sales area and twirled around the perimeter checking the floor grates. Nothing. Just then, the plumber walked from the back room with the net in one hand and his spade in the other. A black furry thing was curled in the bottom of the net.
To my questioning look, he responded, “Squirrel. Pretty scared. Especially when I cornered him. I didn’t have much choice.” His expression suggested regret at taking out the squirrel.
I exhaled my pent-up breath. “How much do I owe you?”
The man looked at his catch. “I could use an extra fishing net.”
“It’s yours. Are you sure you don’t want something else for your trouble?”
“Nah, this is okay.”
Having noticed his wedding ring, I plucked a small bouquet of dried roses from a display, wrapped them in tissue, and thrust them at the man. “Take these to your wife.”
He grinned, shuffled his feet, and thanked me.
I walked him and the dead squirrel to the front door. He hesitated. I could tell he wanted to say something. He looked at me for a moment. “There’s a nest of baby bats down there. You might want to call someone to look after that.”
Phyllis L Humby is an author of memoir and fiction. Her publisher is Crossfield Publishing. She lives in Lambton Shores near London Ontario Canada.