No-one is enjoying this. Not the harried underpaid Clarks assistants who have seen their tidy workplace transformed within an hour of opening time into a harshly-lit, shoe-strewn dystopia soundtracked by a cacophony of tetchy parents, crying babies and their bored, ungrateful siblings for whom this entire journey has been made. The ticketing system, devised to ameliorate high emotions and create some sort of order out of chaos, is universally hated. Because its mere existence tells you’ll be spending the foreseeable future here (in a shoe shop just before the beginning of the school year, the foreseeable future = anything over 25 minutes). Of course, you could go any of the nearby shops in that time, but then what if some weird rush happens? What if the next five parents have to attend calls of nature/get bored of waiting/fail to hear their number/change their minds and SUDDENLY YOU’RE NEXT? No. You must keep vigil.
Of course, you could have been more organised. You could have bought your child’s new school shoes in July. But then, children’s feet have an annoying way of growing all the time. And you need to maximise your chances of only having to go through this once for every school year (“What’s that? She’s a size three? Can we get away with buying a size four then?”) Which is why you’re here at the end of August watching a digital display creep towards the number written on your scrap of paper – during which time you will have told your child to take a look at the available school shoes and express a preference. Of course, it’s a testament to your fathomless faith in the system that you’re even doing this. Because you know exactly what will happen when your number comes up. Half an hour is more than enough time for your child to develop an intense emotional bond_with the shoe they will gaze down at during the next 200-odd school assemblies. Half an hour is more than enough time for them to feel like _no other shoe on the planet is acceptable to them when they’re told that their first choice is out of stock.
Until two years ago, I thought there was no other way of doing this. But that was before we made an impromptu stop in the Welsh market town of Aberaeron three days before the beginning of the new term. Faced with the prospect of Brent Cross shopping centre on the final weekend of the summer holidays, I noticed the Start-Rite and Clarks logos on the shop window of Aberaeron’s sole shoe seller J R Evans. “Wouldn’t it be amazing,” I suggested to my wife, “if we sorted the shoe thing out right now?” Sure. Maybe I was a tragic crazy dreamer feted by my own shoetopian idealism to meet a sticky end. But what were the alternatives? So we walked in. It was fairly busy, but one of the two women running the place – about 60 years experience between them, I would say – looked up from one boy’s feet – and quickly asked us what sizes we were after. As that child walked up and down the shop trying out his new shoes, she powered over to the shelf where they kept all the available shoes in our daughters’ sizes and then returned to complete the transaction on her current customer.
In J R Evans, there were no displays. No relationships were formed with prominently exhibited shoes which would later turn out to be unavailable. My kids were given about six pairs of different school shoes in their size. They both tried on their favourites. Assistant 1 squeezed our oldest daughter’s heel and toes. Decades of experience funnelled into a two-second procedure. As our daughters walked from one end of the shop to the other, Assistant 1 seemed to issue some sort of mysterious dolphin signal to Assistant 2, who looked up from the child she was fitting and quickly assessed our girls’ walk. Assistant 2 nodded knowledgeably to Assistant 1. Everyone was relieved. Any general school shoe preferences our girls might have had seemed to be sated by the choice available. And why shouldn’t they be? There isn’t that much difference when it comes to black school shoes, is there?
Walking past Clarks in Brent Cross yesterday, I noticed that little seems to have changed in the interim. Clarks still has a wall of school shoes that encourages your children to make choices on which it can’t deliver. And, as if that isn’t challenging enough, some of them still contain Daisy toys. Thanks Clarks, that’s just what every parent needs – a range of small toys concealed in the sole of_some_ shoes, which means that I’m also faced with the task of trying to discern whether my child prefers that shoe because of the toy or because the actual shoe is comfortable. Mercifully though, my situation has changed. The girls now go to a school which doesn’t have a strict footwear policy. Should that change, I’m going to keep driving past Brent Cross and head for West Wales.