By Jenni Frazer
July 16, 2012
Jack Yaffe died last week, aged a staggering 103. He made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for being Britain's oldest shopkeeper, the owner of the eponymous Yaffe's hardware store in Prestwich, north Manchester.
Given that he was 103 it's hardly surprising that I say I can't remember a time without Jack Yaffe - or Mr Yaffe as I was trained to call him. The shop, facing the Holy Law Synagogue on Bury Old Road, was a stock-taker's version of hell and a small child's idea of very heaven. Yaffe's was, and, I daresay remains, a kind of anti-shop. It had just masses and masses of STUFF, much of it almost nothing to do with hardware as we have come to know it.
Every day, Mr Yaffe, summer and winter wearing a neatly buttoned up dark cardigan, would put out on the pavement outside the shop the latest gloriously gaudy offers, frequently with eclectic cardboard signs. The shop was plainly bursting, from floor to ceiling, from front to back. Hula hoops spilled out onto the pavement. Children's high chairs with wipe-clean folding tables. Highly coloured rugs. A net of beachballs. The mood was a market stall with an identity crisis.
On either side of the perilously narrow doorway (there are actually two doors, but only one was ever used for entry and exit), customers could view the equally cheerful window displays, which usually consisted of whatever Mr Yaffe had been unable to put outside on the pavement. Racks of unmatched china cups marched in serried disorder on the top shelves, while on the other side coils of electric cable squatted like giant snakes in the middle of the other window. I have no idea whether these window displays were ever changed.
Once you managed to insinuate yourself inside the shop, it was hard to know where to look. Near the ceiling, usually, were some dark open cardboard boxes containing unknown delights. To your left were perilously stacked piles of THINGS, some with some logic to them (ie size, small, medium and large) and to your right entire wedding lists' worth of crockery and cutlery. Pretty much everywhere was a hazard to stand in. If there were three customers in the shop plus a baby buggy, things began to teeter dangerously.
Running right through to the back of the shop was Mr Yaffe's private area, from where he ruled the roost. Without doubt the absolute best thing about going into Yaffe's was trying to second-guess the stock. The shop, seemingly, sold everything, including the things you didn't even know the names for. And Mr Yaffe knew to a millimetre where every item was, from the three-amp fuses to the giant Shabbat kettles, from the plastic measuring jugs to the cutprice washing-up liquid. And what Mr Yaffe couldn't put his hand on immediately was swiftly (well, I say swiftly, but it's a word open to interpretation) provided by his indefatigable assistant, Vera.
Vera was one on her own. Not Jewish but so steeped in the Jewish community that she might as well have been, Vera was perhaps the oldest shop assistant in the world, rake-thin and absolutely au fait with the comings and goings of every Jewish family in the neighbourhood. If you were really lucky, when you were a kid, Vera would let you off paying for something because she knew she could always get the money off your mother or your grandmother or your aunts. All of this was conducted in a raucous smoker's cackle, with the advice: "Don't let Mr Yaffe know."
Mr Yaffe, in my opinion, knew all too well what Vera was doing but chose to let it evolve in an organic fashion. In his own quiet way, Jack Yaffe was a glorious anarchist and Yaffe's was a testament to a cheerfully muddled lifestyle. Please let us drink to his memory (preferably out of a plastic schnapps glass, six for £1.99).