Benjamin was born in London in 1930 and went to Tooting Bec Grammar
School. Following a variety of other jobs he managed a menswear shop in
Penge before starting his own business during 1958 and eventually creating
'The Carnaby Cavern'. These are
some of his memories . . .
I acquired my first shop, 'Michael Martin' (the names of my two sons), in 1958. I was 27, motivated and ambitious, but lacking the necessary capital. It had previously been a work wear shop and the asking price was £3,000 (which is about £45,000 at today's prices) and the existing shop stock was included in the price but was both bland and boring. At that time I was earning £12 per week (£180) and was living with my in-laws, having sold my home in Hove. £3,000 seemed an impossible dream!
The shop was opposite the main post office and I was sure it could be a winner - but how? I called my bank and they actually agreed to lend me £2,000 - if … I could raise the other £1,000! My parents came to the rescue and re-mortgaged their home in Hove for, I believe, £2,000 (some £30,000 today).
I paid it back in instalments of £28 (£420) a month over the next seven years and then continued the payments for an extra ten years, in thanks to them. By bringing in bright, young, stylish clothing and selling off the drab work wear I soon doubled the turnover, but suffered financially as I was too optimistic by far and bought excessively.
In 1959 I opened a little glassware shop, but it failed in its first year. 'Stick to what you are good' at I thought and, in 1961, I opened another 'Michael Martin' shop in Colindale, NW9. Everyone agreed that it was probably the smartest shop in London, but its takings were a disaster and finally, after suffering a complete clear-out burglary, I decided I'd had enough and closed it down.
One day in 1963 a tall, slim man came into the shop. He didn't want to buy anything, but just called in for a chat. He was an amazing-looking man, with the brightest ginger hair, who looked like a character from a Victorian story book. His name was Colin Wild and he told me he was a window dresser for a large local store. I was still struggling to pay off the debts from my Colindale disaster, but I realised that Colin could well be the partner I so needed . . . . .
A great salesman, a complete extrovert, and always the centre of attention, everyone loved him. Years later he became such a sensation while dancing on 'Top Of The Pops' that jealous DJs tried, and finally succeeded, in getting rid of him - but more about that later. I couldn't afford to employ him, but neither could I just let him go.
The winter of 1963 saw me working at Watford Market.
To my shame, my heavily pregnant wife worked in the shop with Colin. We
needed the money. During the week I worked hard on what I enjoyed most -
my mail order. I feel I should explain that, in those days, to make a 30%
profit was good. Today, shops take over 200%. We had to work much harder.
I sold any item that I could as cheaply as possible, anything from playing
cards to paint brushes. Our clothing mail order needed a 'W1' address and,
with this in mind, we visited Camaby Street to look for a small office but
ended up falling in love with a little dress shop in Ganton Street. The
landlords wanted £3,000 (£40,000 today) but we could only scrape together
I went to the landlords and, by showing them my mail order catalogue, I won them over but we had just one year to repay the balance. So there we were, in an empty dress shop that needed shop-fitting. It was already Tuesday, and somehow we had to open by the Saturday.
The shop's name, we agreed, would continue to be 'Michael Martin'. One suggestion from Colin was to crumble silver paper and staple it to the walls and ceiling, literally everywhere. He had created a Father Christmas grotto the previous year and it had looked great. It was a crazy suggestion but it sounded different. We had to do something, so we ran with the idea and I went out and bought 100 rolls of kitchen foil, two staple guns and 50,000 staples.
We worked solidly for some 36 hours until our hands were red sore and badly blistered. To finish it all off, we hung a huge ceiling fitting - a glass ball, rotating slowly, with bright spot lights in red, yellow, and green, flashing alternate colours to the beat of the music. We stood back, surveyed the results of our labours, and decided that there could be only one name for the place: 'The Carnaby Cavern'.
The shop became very famous in the 60's, lasting through until the late 70's. We made stage-wear for all the following groups and celebrities: Bob Hoskins, Benny Hill, Shirley Bassey, Alexei Sayle, Mud, The Bay City Rollers, Long John Baldry, Edwin Starr, The Four Tops, Desmond Dekker, Hot Chocolate, The Equals, Love Affair, AIvin Stardust, Jeremy Irons, The Harlem Globetrotters, Wayne Sleep, The Sweet, Alan Price, Barry Gibb, Marc Bolan, The Kinks, The Foundations, Status Quo, Miss World .......... Do you remember the TV show 'Hi-de-Hi ? We had to make the jackets 'badly' … so I got the tailors drunk! The time we fell foul of the New York mafia … The union jack jackets for The Jam ... It all happened at the 'Cavern'…….
We opened, the shop looked great, just one little
problem - rather a lack of customers! Who were we kidding? Our location,
to put it nicely, was 'off Carnaby Street'. We had plenty of time between
sales to think it through… We realised that we were just another shop selling
the same lines as twenty others. The other shops were well-established,
solid and well organised, with strict rules of trading laid down by experts.
If an item didn't fit, it was unfortunate, but there were alteration tailors
galore that they could send their customers to. Either that, or else they
would charge to make the alteration in-house, which I felt was wrong. Even
at my shop in Uxbridge alterations were free.
We were given the name and address of an out-of-work tailor called Michael, but we were warned that he was a bit of a drunkard. So, along to the address I went… In those days (possibly still!) tailors couldn't afford an entire room, so they hired a work area - a space six feet long with a workbench, in a large room, with sometimes up to seven people sharing.
At first we could not see 'Michael', but on closer inspection of the shelf beneath the bench (which was for fabrics and work in hand) we found him - asleep in a drunken stupor! About five feet tall, age possibly around sixty, he looked a bit like an Irish leprechaun… I still recall in horror the dirty plates covered with mildew. I pulled him to his feet, and then noticed that he limped.
So now we had an alteration service, by installing Michael in a windowless basement room, buying him the machinery he needed and putting up some lights. I have never seen a man look so very proud. To him it was his wildest dream come true. He was, true to his word, a good tailor and, for the next four years, was a great asset to us.
During those years I never remember him drunk - although occasionally 'happy'! As for personal hygiene - well, one out of two ain't bad!! Our alteration service was an immediate success for, in just months, we had five tailors, all working with Michael.
Soon we opened up the three floors above with another
five tailors to cope with the theatrical business coming our way. Our greatest
tailor was Otis - a genius who could make
anything. Remember those fabulous leather cat suits he made for Alvin Stardust?
And his suits were absolutely wonderful! He made them for The Four Tops,
Hot Chocolate, Buddy Greco and even Shirley Bassey ... He also made outfits
for Olivia Newton John, JasonCrest, The Kinks, Bandwagon, The Move, The
Equals, The Love Affair, The Harlem Globetrotters, Simon Dupree, Long John
Baldry, Gulliver's People, Time Box, The Marmalade, Barry Gibb and even
for my special mate, Edwin Starr. He also created that rather fabulous evening
suit for Wayne Sleep.
Many mornings would start with Bob Hoskins bringing in a cup of 'Cranks' coffee. Desmond Dekker was another one who always arrived with coffee.
I could just go on and on as, for me, it was all one long, long, magical moment.
I recall taking out Richard Johnson and Francoise Pascal (the star of 'Mind your Language') and trips aboard our luxury motor cruiser.
By now my family numbered four and we had a lovely home. All was well. Colin, too, had all the trappings of wealth, from his Rolls-Royce to a string of five horses. Life was joie de vie! One problem, but a nice one, concerned our alteration service which required customers to return for their goods in, say, one hour. But, to a man, they refused to leave the shop - and the reason? Our grubby stairwell to the basement had become the 'in' place to meet !!!
The tailors were so alarmed at the number of folk just hanging around that they broke open the top half of the door, like a stable, to keep the customers out of the workroom. Many times we counted twenty or more on the stairs. The groups started sticking up their photos on the walls! I remember the Small Faces had a photo with just their faces peering around the fattest man you ever saw and a poster of Carl Douglas, the 'Kung Fu Fighter'. There was even one of Cassius Clay, but I don't remember his visit.
The noise from the stairs sometimes became unbearable but it was all great fun, for everyone was happy and enjoying themselves. So, when the laughter became excessive, we just turned up the sound system! For some ten years the 'Camaby Cavern' was, without a doubt, the busiest, happiest boutique ever.
only argument I can remember was when a lovely lady complained about her
friend's shirt. She gave me a really hard time - you probably know her as
'Blondie'. On Thursdays it was the meeting place for those wanting to attend
that week's 'Top of the Pops'. Colin was really in his element, and enjoyed
every moment of his fame. He now sported a monocle, carried a cane and wore
the brightest of brocade waistcoats. His suits had tails to his knees -
what a terrific showman!
When trade was quiet we would send him on 'walkabouts' and he would return in just ten minutes, like the original 'Pied Piper', with a mob of excited youngsters following in his wake! Sadly, Colin died in 1988, but I still see him on regular re-runs of the 'Top of the Pops' shows and the often-repeated coverage of Marc Bolan's funeral - they were good friends.