Passmore’s

Charlie Passmore was a war hero and an Auckland city councillor who had begun his business career in the early fifties with a coffee bar in Victoria Street called Coffee Time or so I heard. He moved from there to the liquor business, setting up a wholesale liquor store towards the lower end of Newton Road. Somewhere along the way he married a woman with the family name of Dewar, who just happened to be heiress to a whisky empire. I guess that helped.

In those days there were three main ways you could buy alcohol in New Zealand – over the bar in a pub, in a bottle store or through a wholesaler. Wholesale meant a minimum of two gallons or a dozen 750ml bottles. The drink of choice was beer. My guess is that beer made up more than 90% of Passmore’s sales and that up to two thirds of that 90% would have been one particular brand – Draft Dominion Bitter or DDB, made by Dominion Breweries. In summer, between four and six on a Friday evening, Passmore’s could sell a 1,000 cartons of DDB, something over 8,000 litres. This wasn’t a measure of how drunk people got in the old days but a reflection of the fact that there weren’t many wholesale liquor outlets. Charlie was onto a good thing.

The system at Passmore’s was primitive but efficient. The customer first took his empties, in cartons or crates, to the empty bottle dock. The storeman there counted them up and gave him a credit docket, which he took round to the office. Here he gave his order to one of the salesmen, paid the difference between his order and his credit and headed back to the store. Meanwhile, the salesman had shoved the order – hand-written in a duplicate book of perforated, yellow paper and then torn out – through a slide in the door between office and the store. By the time the customer got round to the store, the storeman had picked up the order and had the carton of DDB, or whatever it was, on the counter waiting.

I worked at Passmore’s, part-time, for four years through high school and early university and then for another brief period towards the end of 1972 before Anne and I went overseas. At first I was a packer, then storeman and, finally, I did a stint in the office. In the early days I worked Saturdays and school holidays, with a break after New Year, when things went quiet. I earned time and a half for eight hours on a Saturday at around 7/6 an hour, which, after tax, gave me something over £4 for the day. This was a huge sum. In my previous job, working for the local greengrocer, I had got 5/- or so for pedalling a push-bike with a big basket full of deliveries round the streets of Mt Wellington for a couple of hours on Friday night and more on Saturday morning.

The packing now seems like an oddly trivial job. It was based on the fact that a carton of beer, which held a dozen bottles, could be sold for more than half the price of a crate, which held two dozen. Packing exploited this gap in value. At the empty bottle dock, cartons were emptied and their contents put into crates. The good quality cartons were then reused – filled with full bottles taken out of crates, which then went to be filled with empties. And so on.

It was boring work. Hardly surprising that fourteen-year-old boys spent a lot of time fooling around. We talked and we joshed each of other and we sang the hits of the day: Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, Wake Up Little Suzie, Purple People Eater. From time to time one of the storemen, John or Mac, maybe, would come along and remind us we were supposed to be doing a job and we would get serious and pack beer for an hour or so. Now and again, a couple of us would get into a competition to see how much we could really pack in a day if we tried. I think we got up to 300 or 350 cartons apiece. Days like that were rare, though, and I am sure that a lot of the time we didn’t do enough to earn our pay. It is only now, looking back, that I understand why we got away with it. Before the company began hiring the likes of us, the storemen had to do all the packing. This was not an arrangement they wanted to go back to, so no doubt everyone told everyone else what a good job we were doing.    

One of the odd things about Passmore’s was that Charlie allowed his staff to drink on the job. This practice seemed to have arisen in the days when he worked there himself, which he no longer did by the time I arrived. His attitude seems to have been that if he didn’t give the blokes a few beers during work hours, they’d steal it from him anyway and he’d have no control over it. In consequence, during slack periods, the storemen would spend a lot of time standing round, smoking and yarning and drinking beer. In busy times they worked their butts off.

In addition to serving the customers, making up orders and dealing with the empties, the storeman’s job consisted mostly of moving beer around inside the store. It got delivered on trucks which backed into the loading dock on Newton Road. A ramp allowed you to wheel your handcart right onto the tray of the truck, pick up the cartons or crates four at a time and wheel them back down. At Christmas time, when space was short, the beer got stacked six high, if it were in crates, and eight or even twelve for cartons.

Getting the little tray of the handcart under four crates of beer wasn’t easy. You had to tip the handles forward and twist the cart so it was at a slight angle to the crates. Then you drove the corner of the tray under the bottom crate by pressing on the back of the handcart axle with your foot. Another twist and more foot pressure straightened the cart and got the tray right in. Lastly, you had to brace the cart with your foot against the axle while you simultaneously hauled the handles of the cart back with one hand and the crates, with your grip on the top one, with the other. If you were good, you could do the whole manouvre in one smooth movement lasting no more than three or four seconds. If weren’t, things could go drastically wrong. The pile of crates might fold, with the bottom three going forward and the top one back. Or all four might topple to the side. It wasn’t easy to right them if they started moving the wrong way. There is something impressive about 96 bottles of beer and their attendant crates falling off the side of a flat bed truck into a concrete loading dock.  

In the end, I took a lot of pride in my ability with the handcart and in the precision with which I could toss a carton of beer two metres or more into the air and land it on top of a stack in a gap barely wider than the carton itself. These skills were useless in my later life but there was something about doing a physical job and doing it well that mattered at the time and still matters now, looking back. Perhaps the biggest thing that Passmore’s taught me was respect: for myself and, more importantly, for other people, ordinary working people.

As for Charlie, some time around 1960 somebody died over in Scotland and his wife came into her inheritance. Charlie went off to become Laird of the Manor, or whatever it was, and was never seen again.

Foxgloves are almost done but the lilies are in full flight.

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