Thirty Thousand Streets

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Walworth Road Army Surplus

I love army surplus shops and have consequently whittled away many hours of my life thumbing through piles of threadbare tat in pursuit of some elusive rare camo that doen't exist. At my behest a couple of friends also recently trawled some shops in Sweden in a fruitless attempt to locate some rare Swedish splinter camo. No luck (it all gets burnt after service, apparently).

Unfortunately surplus stores, like charity shops, are mostly rubbish these days. Instead of some weird one-of-a-kind zebra-print camo suit worn by an African dictator's imperial guard you're probably just going to find racks of brand new Alpha M65 USMC jackets priced at 70 quid each. Yawn.

At first glance the surplus store half way down the Walworth road looks like a veritable elixir to any camo-hound's jaded palette. "Levi's (sic), Wranglers, Dr Martens" announces the signage proudly, with rows of khaki wares dangling from the rafters in the entrance like a unit from some long forgotten army. Pavlovian response well and truly excited, I bounded over, saliva already pooling on the lapels of my button-down shirt.

Unfortunately, like so many things in life, up close it's a different story, and this shop rewards scrutiny in much the same way a web-exported jpeg doesn't. Upon approaching the windows one suddenly becomes aware that all the articles in the window are not only shrouded in dust-bunnies, but have been long bleached and faded by the sun's daily intrusion as it steals across the sky. Suddenly the articles suspended from the ceiling attain a faintly gibbet-like air, swaying uncertainly in the impartial winds that gust down the Walworth road.

"What.. happened here?"

You wonder to yourself.

Nonetheless, fortune favours the brave, so the more courageous amongst you might venture within, where it all just gets weirder. Upon stepping foot inside, one is immediately greeted with a loud, slightly accusative

"Can I help you sir?"

Uttered by the shop's proprietor, who emerges, stoop-backed from the gloom like a shop bound troll. And this nasal catchphrase is essentially where where pleasantries begin and end: any response in the negative – even a "Sorry thanks, I'm just browsing" is not advisable, as it will usually be met with an unflinchingly brusque: "Come on you must want something" or even better yet "Well get out then and stop wasting my time, I've got a business to run here".

Even in this day and age, let's not pretend anyone really gives that much of a shit about customer service, otherwise customer enquiries wouldn't be routinely directed to a call centre in Mumbai to be dealt with by someone reading the same ten answers of a prompt card. Nonetheless, everyone likes to pretend they're the customers best friend, so it's actually quite refreshing to encounter someone prepared to dispense with all formal niceties, because this man is plain rude. The last time I went (and I do, strangely, return) a West Indian family were exiting, having just been driven from within.

"Not gonna buy anything in there anyway" huffed the mother, irritably "Man's got no manners innit".

"Ah" I thought. "You've met him"

Basically the Walworth Surplus store is like a sketch from a comedy that never made it past the cutting room floor, and entering into any kind of dialogue with its bizarre owner will have you craning to see the hidden cameras, so utterly surreal is the setup.

His is the pinnacle of some Olde Worlde Institutionally bad service, where the customer is not only 'not right' but 'always wrong', and a necessary evil that must occasionally be tolerated (much like foreigners and women). This is the only store I have ever seen with a sign at the door that reads 'Only one customer in the shop at any one time'.

It's all a bit of a shame really, as the shop actually looks like the Alladins cave it should be, piled high with all manner of esoteric merchandise. But, browsing is simply not tolerated, and if you don't know exactly what you want, when you walk in, then get the hell out. I think the guy must own the place outright, as driving your customers away is hardly what I'd call a robust business model, and the only way that this guy could possibly be more offensive is if he implemented small arms fire as part of one of his customary exchanges.

To be fair, I think he is actually more mad than bad, and only slightly more surly than some of the bores who work in comic shops. He's something like a character you might encounter in Monkey Island 2 who resets every time you meet him, the limits of his slightly wonky AI being demonstrated by his stock of five or so witheringly curt phrases which he wheels out like siege engines. This guy doen't mince words, he just lobs them across the counter like grenades.

And in spite of all this, I have actually spent money there (a pair of gym-style pumps I wear round the flat and to go to the shops in). I'm just frustrated that he might have all this amazing stuff sequestered away, which is unobtainable soley because I don't know to ask for it. Much like a text-based game on my Spectrum 48k, visual clues are in short supply, and progress usually relies upon inputting exactly the right phrase ("What is "FUCK OFF" etc.) and maybe, just maybe, if I uttered the magic words "ripstop pants in experimental T-pattern camo, 32" waist" such an item might be plucked unceremoniously from a high shelf.

In my heart I doubt it though, and you have been warned "Abandon all hope ye who enter here".

Next time: Somewhere with good service.


gridrunner said...

Nice Monkey Island reference. I preferred the first game, incidentally. Do you remember Stan the boat salesman?

OMG there's a Wikipedia page dedicated entirely to him (found here).

I wonder if the guy in the army surplus store can be engaged in insult swordfighting.

Roana said...

I'm so glad you've written about this man. Over the past 15 years, I have periodically revisited the Store and have left agog every time with the proprietor’s
(a) lack of politeness
(b) inability to age

I last visited the shop this Spring and have vowed never to step foot inside again. I went on to try on a black patent mac thinking that, with some careful accessorising, I might be able to pull it off in a chic Hepburn stylee. I tried on the medium (he didn’t have the small) and it looked like I had lost a fight with a bin bag. Anyway, as I put down the coat I came in with and was assessing the pvc disaster in the mirror by the front door, I noticed in the reflection that he was actually holding a large pole by feet, ready to trip me over should I decide to run out still wearing it!

Even though I’ve got so many experiences like this, the dusty shop front and the promise of camo treats still lure me in. But enough’s enough – I ain’t ever going back. A part of me pities him and wants to help a local business but then he must be doing something right as other shops have come and gone…

The Eyechild said...


Now you mention it it might be one I was referring to, two just sounded better. The thing I mostly remember it for was the insult swordfighting bit.


He is quite breathtakingly rude, and I applaud your embargo. The episode with the pole sounds all too believable and I don't think I'll be frequenting his establishment too much more..

But the question remains.. how the hell does he survive when far more friendly enterprises such as Wordsworth Books have crashed and burnt?

Maybe he lives off a store of army issue rations he keeps out the back, or perhaps he periodically catches and eats his customers. Either seem marginally more likely than him cutting a healthy profit.

Anonymous said...

The pole thing - unbelievable!

Roana said...

I'm sad to say that it's all true...

Scattergun said...

Oh, easily the rudest proprietor I have ever met (hasn't stopped me going back though!)

I always try my most winning smile and humble attitude to alter his perception that I'm going to rob him and haven't just popped in for a mattress pump and a waterproof jacket. It's never worked. Git.

And the smell....jeez...

The Eyechild said...


Yes, and I do to return, for more punishment, strangely.

Maybe suffering insaneIy bad service with a stiff upper lip is a British institution. I remember people uttering phrases such as "They'd never stand for it in Europe" with regard to trains, in the dark, bloated days of Railtrack's lonely twilight.

And yeah it stinks, but hey, like the mothballs aroma of charity shops, gotta brave the dragon's breath if you're going to get the gold.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha! genius post mate... you do have a way with words.. would love to see you draw a picture of him...

The Mumper said...

I was in there today, and Les, for that is the name of the owner, was telling me and my mate he had run the shop for 60 years.We tried a couple of coats on, but nothing really fitted. Once he realised we weren't buying he lost interest, and moved sharply onto the next customer who just walked in. "I bought these here last week" the man said, pointing at a pair of Camo trousers "and you said they were 36 waist, but they are nearer 28, need to change them pal".

Time to leave we thought, as Les stumbled about trying to sort through his stock.
We'll miss him when he's gone I reckon.

The Mumper

Anonymous said...

One of my colleagues who is a trading standards officer was doing a radio interview just inside where all the clothes are hanging.
He came out and ushered my colleague and the journalist out!!!

RUINIST said...

When that shop goes, it's the end for all us locals. It'll be frappacinos and ciabattas through and through. Long Live the Walworth Army Surplus!!

The Eyechild said...

@ Anonymous

Was he actually doing a piece about the shop? if so, fair game, perhaps. He's probably eaten people for less.

@ Ruinist

Ah gentrification's creep. I hear much talk of it, though it's yet to reach Camberwell properly, praise be.

crewy said...

oh, i do so love les and his army surpus shop !

Yes I do wonder how the old git survives, but hey ho....if it works, so be it !

He's actually been a little helpful to me, probably because I knew what I wanted, he had my size, and the boots are amazingly cheap.
I've been back in a few times, and as much as i want to rummage, or even call over the nearest window cleaner and give the whole place a god scub, i just can't give up on him.

He's offered to find what I wanted, taken my phone number, and has been pleasant. I must be the odd one out !

Not a place to rummage for fear of the BIG STICK, or getting sworn at. But I love the fact he's managed to stay in business somehow, dirty windows, sun bleached displays et al !

Long live Les and the Walworth Road Army Surplus store !

Army Surplus said...

It's really big Army surplus store.

Army Surplus

Anonymous said...

This is amazing it was my first experience there today. He used a door on its side to stop me leaning across to look at that hats whilst telling me I must before trying an item on!...Fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I bought a pair of boots purporting to be standard British armed forces boots at lunchtime one day and found the soles had almost completely fallen off when walking into work the next morning. Based on this information, I would strongly advise anyone reading this to think twice about doing business with the proprietor of this store, as I feel that honesty is a non-negotiable part of being a shopkeeper.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha, my brother worked for this guy some years ago.... There is another shop further up Walworth Road (towards Elephant & Castle) which is owned by this guys brother - I believe they fell out some years ago!

Rothcomilitary said...

An impressive post.It feels so nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. Really thankful to you for starting this. Thanks........

Anonymous said...

I'm going there this afternoon to pick up a jacket he forced me to put a £2 deposit on! No sticks, just verbal dexterity forced me

Anonymous said...

In the '70s i used to buy my doc martens there for school,expensive but very good quality,lots of pleasure wearing them in school . YES i'm 50 now ,i was 12 or 13 then size 9 foot , maroon DM the best 18 holes/lace ups.Size 9 until couple years ago now size 10.
Oddly enough that shopkeeper then in the '70s was mannerless,and as you described him (stooping troll like).Bought a few pairs of boots from there until i was 17 when i got proper military boots,DMS,with the TA 's 10 Para in Sloane Square.
Funny the place is timeless like Monty Python sketches.

Anonymous said...

Omg this has had me laughing like a fool , I know Leslie very well , intact I saw him today he is a customer if mine , and the man is a royal pain in my ar*e , he is very rude and is the strangest bloke I have ever met , I don't know how he gets away with his attitude but he does , I visited the shop once omg what a tip but that was no surprise he's hardly as tidy fellow.
I can tell you he's the sort of bloke you love to hate, I have had a good few arguments with him and some times I feel like telling him to sling his hook , but he always seems to laugh his way back to my better side , I guess he's a real character and you could meet a billion old gits but none will come close to Leslie Cohen for originality , we will all miss him when he sells up and disappears ..

Tausif Hossain said...

"Unfortunately surplus stores, like charity shops, are mostly rubbish these days" yes I am agree with you. It's really disappointing me now-a-days . Recently I went a
Army Surplus and nothing to say looks like a charity place . All are right what you say so far in this article.

Anonymous said...

Unreal...I wonder if it is the same old man who did the same in the same shop in the late 80s?

Or maybe his son, who learned customer services from a professional?