Posted by: J M | March 22, 2010

N is for ninety-nine

NThe first encounter I remember with the number 99 was when I first saw it on the side of an ice cream van.

The proud cornet filled with soft, fluffy ice cream and crowned with a phallic, although later inspection would prove it to be rather short, piece of Cadbury’s Flake.

I didn’t really like the wafer that cornets were made of but nice cream and chocolate — TOGETHER — were a fascinating concept and I craved one. I was never allowed one. They were too expensive.

Expensive, yes, but not 99p, as I had mistakenly thought as a youngster. 99p in those days would have been rather overpriced, but 99p now is the ultimate bargain. There’s hardly anything you can’t get for 99p. No, seriously. If you have to pay more than 99p for anything, you’re being robbed.

I recently moved to a new area. Whereas my old neighbourhood was all ‘fine dining’ this and ’boutique hotel’ that, my new ‘ends’ (this is what young people say) have shops that are actually useful. No more bespoke dog collar shops or stores selling £400 vases; now every shop I see has the word ‘BARGAIN’ as part of its name. And king of the bargain stores is the imaginatively-titled ’99p stores’.

I remember pound shops from when I was a student. They were your first stop for oil burners that would crack in two within days, rag rugs, dreadful ‘sun and moon’ wall hangings and fish-shaped ashtrays. Their interiors were decorated with colours so unlovely that their creators must have been on the brink of suicide. That everything was £1 seemed too good to be true. It usually was. Most of it was junk that even a bag lady wouldn’t take off your hands.

In these days of recession, however, crap bargain shops have upped their game. Plundering former Woolworths’ sites and filling them with all manner of toiletries, long-forgotten confectionery and cereal brands, non-stick cookware, short-lived household innovations and, best of all, special mesh baking trays for cooking chips, the concept of a pound shop has been turned on its head, and had a penny slashed off its dress size into the bargain.

Since moving here, I have become obsessed with the two 99p shops near my new home. On my first visit, my mouth was actually agape at the treats on store. Even though I don’t buy that much, seeing brands that were given a lethal injection in the UK but survive in a Balkan state or two is quite a heartwarming experience. Remember Frisps? And Toffifee? They live again, like Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower in Dallas.

Fancy getting your hands on some Polish Cillit Bang? What about a flavour of Mentos you never even knew existed? They’re all here waiting. And all it takes to get instant retail gratification is a pound coin.

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