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Discussion Starter · #1 ·

Opinion is divided over Richmond Branston. Some say he is a despicable exploitative self-serving egotistical capitalist, but to the folk of West Hamley he is simply a hero. When Harry Hobbs retired unexpectedly to Spain back in the 70's, the town was for the first time with out a model shop. The 'For Sale' board hung outside, balefully announcing the estate agent's phone number, while the empty front window filled with dust, dead flies and spiders. People passed mournfully by, their pocket money welling up in their purses and wallets, but with nothing to spend it on. Some of the larkier kids broke in at the back and cleared the place of any overlooked stock- some power-sledge cars, a few tyres and braids got hoovered up. No-one minded. It kept the slot club ticking over for a while longer.
For Richmond, one man's disaster was always the other man's opportunity, and it was his ambition in life to always be that other man.
Harry Hobbs' erstwhile Hobby Heaven was West Hamley's potential disaster at that point. When Richmond passed the empty shop one day in his Bentley and hauled to a stop at the closed railway crossing gates he had the opportunity to study the place carefully. He wondered why such a crowd of people was gathered round an empty shop. Why they all stood around with hands in pockets, looking distracted. He took in the 'for sale' sign, and immediately and instinctively punched in the number on his dash-mounted phone. The estate agent's voice crackled through the large grill mounted to the left of the cigar lighter. Branston did the deal there and then. In his Bentley Continental, the engine idling while the 12:04 Lower Pendle to Gillham commuter train rumbled past on the crossing. By the time the train had gone and the gates swung open, Richmond Branston was the owner of a model shop. He'd never had one before. He needed a coffee.
He drove on, his mind stimulated as ever by the acquisition of property. Gazing left and right for signs of a tea shop or a hotel, he drove slowly on. Branston functioned on caffein, and now he needed some badly. But there seemed to be none to be had in this town. He kept driving, past the old vacuum cleaner warehouse on the outskirts, past the big hand-painted sign that proclaimed it to be the 'Home of West Hamley Slot Car Club'. His fertile mind was subconsciously absorbing all this information, his business sense working on automatic. He still needed a coffee. Twenty minutes later, he had used his carphone to summon his P.A. to meet him at a lay-by outside East Sheldon on the A132 with a flask of hot Colombian, and his plan was in place, fully-formed.
Starslots was an immediate success. The worldwide franchise now familiar to all of us started at the erstwhile Harry Hobbs' Hobby Heaven in West Hamley. An empty shop in a town whose main entertainment was its famous slot car club. A town where up until that time, you simply couldn't get a good cup of coffee. And premises right next to a railway crossing that stopped the traffic every ten minutes, and created a queue of bored pedestrians right outside the door.
The key was good quality coffee. The shop door opened into an attractive coffee bar. Irresistable aromas wafted out every time the door opened, and Branston gave orders that the staff should fan the door every time the railway gates closed, just to make sure. Fake fur trimmed barstools, stylish chrome and wicker chairs and low glass tables allowed customers to enjoy their mocha in comfort. But Branston's master-stroke was the reading matter provided at each table. Model Cars, Miniature Auto, Model Engineer, imported magazines like Car Model, Model Car Science and Model Car & Track; every available publication devoted to slot car racing was provided. And there was more. The main turnover for the business came from the well-stocked shop in the back corner. All the latest ready-to-runs, kits, parts, track, raw materials, and tools under the care of a well-informed manager, Bruno Beetlemans, recruited from the local club. And there was more again. The thing that made the whole concept new and exciting. Upstairs were the workstations. You could enter the coffee bar downstairs, browse the magazines and catalogues, buy your kits or materials, and then take everything (including the coffee and jammie dodgems) upstairs to a vacant workspace. All the tools you might need were hung from a rack on the left wall. Rows of benches ranged under the bright north facing windows. Miniature lathes, grinders and pillar drills were supervised by more trained staff. And the third floor, where Harry Hobbs had once-upon-a-time kept his guinea pigs, housed a small test track surrounded by comfy sofas. On a rainy Tuesday in West Hamley, you could now wander in and drink a reasonably priced cup of coffee while you waited for a bench upstairs to become available. You could either bring your own car with you, or choose something from the shop or a new project from the plans and magazines available. And once upstairs and seated comfortably at your workstation, the beauty of it was that you were never short of a vital part, a vital tool, a vital plan, or a vital piece of advice. Everything in the slot shop downstairs was available via a small dumb-waiter that ran up and down between the three floors. And of course the greatest thing was that the ladies enjoyed it too. Coffee and cakes, a convivial atmosphere for gossip, and the safe knowledge that husbands and partners had their hands occupied in harmless activities elsewhere under the same roof. Many of the townswomen also took to landscape building, and painting and dressing spectator figures for the big club track at the old vacuum cleaner warehouse, drawn in by their exposure to the general excitement and fellowship of slot car racing- and a cup of frothy latte with a walnut slice.
But you know all this. The very first Starslots was so successful that exact replicas were quickly established in every major town in the country. Then it went global. The plan has never changed. It was never broke, so no-one has had to fix it. As we speak, the first branch has opened in Afghanistan, and the Tierra-del-Fuego business turned it's first profitable accounts last week. Slot racing in general has received a huge boost since the opening of the Amsterdam branch, where smoking is permitted and special hash brownies can be purchased with coffee. This has led to some extraordinarily imaginative car designs and chassis developments, not all of which are entirely practical, but has certainly stirred up a healthy debate. Then of course, the realisation that the special 'Starslots Irish coffee supreme flavour syrup' was exactly the same formula as the tyre goop available at the model shop counter, and that the 'lo-fat no-cal non-dairy coffee whitener' served downstairs was also used on the top floor for grinding gears gave the business some much-needed publicity in the tabloid papers when profit margins began to flatten out.
Richmond Branston was awarded the Freedom of West Hamley a few years ago, which technically gives him the right to herd his goats across the forecourt of Sid's Second Hand Toyotas, but most of the time he spends his time and millions on his deeply flawed plans to be the first man to reach Neptune in a hot-air balloon. Starslots, like slot racing itself, is the global phenomenon of the twenty-first century.
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