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My first paying job

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Like so many others, my first job was a summer job.

As I was heavily interested in photography, I would go to Simon’s Cameras, Montreal’s oldest and best camera store, then celebrating in 1969 its fortieth year.

Located on what used to be called Craig Street next to Old Montreal, it was directly across from the La Presse newspaper, the largest circulation French paper outside of France.

It was a small store with products stacked to the ceiling, some dating back to the forties at that time. Wood was everywhere, counters, walls, floors all with decades of wear and tear. The place smelled of darkroom chemicals, new and old cameras, and styrofoam packing materials. If it had to do with photography, film photography back then of course, Simon’s had it.

The backroom was the same, with a monstrous black walk-in safe for the Leica, Rolleiflex, Nikon, and Hasselblad cameras and lenses.

The staff and the owner were quite familiar with me, since I shopped there frequently to feed my camera habit and spent my grandmother’s and father’s money in what to me was a candy store.

So one day at the beginning of summer, at 16, 5’11” and wearing my best shirt, I went to the store and simply asked if they had a job opening. Any job opening. Hymie Mendelsohn, the owner, came out of his elevated office at the back of the store, peered over his half-glasses, examined me from head to toe, and flatly said, “Sure, you can start Monday packing orders” turned around, and took the stairs back up to his office.

The pay was $50 a week, decent in 1970, especially for a pre-shaver string bean with long black hair, to wrap packages and remove the homeless people sleeping in our entrance every morning. The Mission Brewery was located right behind us.

Not that it mattered to me. When I left Simon’s that day, my feet weren’t even touching the ground. I’d just been admitted into paradise.

Being perfectly bilingual, knowledgeable about photography, and quite passionate as a true enthusiast can be, it didn’t take long before I was at the front counter as a sales clerk.

Mendelsohn’s guiding principle was that no one should leave the store without buying something.

If the front doorbell rang and he saw someone leaving without a package, he’d summon Mel Mann, a tall, lanky, and somewhat snobbish fellow, who was the head salesperson and enquire as to what went wrong. Every time.

At that time, the SLR camera was just starting to hit its massive popularity.

I remember selling nine units of one of the hottest SLR of the day, the Pentax SP 500 - I wasn’t allowed to sell pro equipment like Nikon, Leica, or Hasselblad yet - and setting a new record, earning myself a vigorous pat on the back from the owner.

Now an unusual twist at Simon’s was the discounting system codes. Since it was a rather small store, to avoid blurting out a specific percentage discount to close a sale, right there at the counter, we used the letters in the words "Hotel Paris".

It worked this way. Each letter represented a number. H-1, O-2, T-3, E-4, L-5, P-6, A-7, R-8, I-9, and S-10.

For example, if I needed to offer a discount to close on an item, I’d bark out to one of the senior salespeople, “what can I do for this gentleman?” and one of the senior salesmen would reply H-L. That meant 15% off.

By the way, being a bit innocent at the time, it took me a few days to realize, after he’d pinched my bum a few dozen times while sliding past me behind the narrow main sales counter, that one of them named Guy was as gay as the Mississippi is long. Talk about being clueless.

Anyway, I worked there for two summers, and it was great but quit once I learned that the older salespeople made a commission on their sales, which no one had ever bothered telling or paying me.

Yet somehow, I ended up with a Hasselblad camera from the vault in compensation. Wink, wink.

Excerpt from my upcoming e-book... Recollections from my time on earth - snackable short stories.


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