If you want to buy a rusty old fire engine or a bedspread that leaks dye, I know just the man …
Anyone who read this column on Tuesday will remember I was planning on doing my Christmas shopping at posh London department store Liberty after seeing all the lovely things they've got there on that new fly-on-the-mock-Tudor-wall series. I was especially taken with a big bear (£1,995), just right for my little boy. A quick balance inquiry put an end to that little dream, though. And having also seen the BBC3 documentary about 27,000% APR payday loans, I decided not to go down that path. So now I'm looking at the website of a company called Virrgo, based outside Grimsby.
They've certainly got an interesting and eclectic range of stuff for sale – arts and crafts packs, goose fat, medical supplies, frozen trout chunks, adult incontinence nappies, ball bags (!), "highly fashionable women's shoes", agricultural equipment, and much, much more. I honestly think I could get something appropriate for everyone I need to get something for. Trouble is, most of it is only available in bulk, by the pallet, and I just don't need that kind of scale. Hang on though, this classic fire engine – an actual fire engine – seems to be a single item. Wollaston Junior would love it. I've made an inquiry by email; I'll let you know what comes back.
Virrgo is the company of wheeler dealer Steve Elwis, subject of Getting Rich in the Recession: The Man Who Buys Anything (Channel 4). He sees himself as a kind of emergency service, a man to call for help in a difficult situation. He also compares himself to a doctor. Others might see him as more of a vulture in a BMW, circling dying businesses, ready to come in for a feed, profiting from the misfortune and misery of others. People like Nikki, whose Ripon outdoor clothing store can no longer compete with the internet. Or Zahoor, who's lost not just his arts and craft business, but also his house. AND his wife, though he admits there were other factors in that.
Basically, Steve buys stock from businesses that have gone bust, at around 10% of retail value or less, "and then we bosh it to earn a profit". Bosh it seems to mean sell it on. An Apprentice task in other words, for ever.
He doesn't always get it right: £800 for a bunch of dated wedding dresses, with armpit stains, doesn't look so clever. Then his 2,000 bedspreads aren't fast-dyed (go to bed, you end up red). Plus the warehouse is full to bursting. He gets names wrong too. "Mr Kwong," he says on the hands-free, to a man he's about to relieve of half a ton of live crabs. "Oh sorry, I do apologise, Mr Chong. Chang! Sorry Mr Chang."
But, driven by a morbid terror of being broke himself (he was once), Steve does continue to make money. He also makes great television. Programmes like this don't just need stories (this one's underlying story is a sad one about bankruptcy and Britain in recession), they need big characters. And Steve's fills an hour of television like his boxes fill his warehouse, to the rafters.
He's brilliant and appalling. He dances with his dog. He introduces his staff like they're his band: "We have Maddy on keyboard" (she is, and on mouse). He raps at the wheel (In recession do you care/A lot of people think it's fair/I'm not sure/If I agree/I like a pound/that's just for me). To be honest, I don't think 50 Cent has much to worry about, apart from maybe being beaten down on price. Actually, you can imagine it. "I think, Faddy, Fuddy, Fiddy! Sorry Mr Fiddy," says hypothetical Steve. "I'd make an offer – I've got to be straightforward, hip-hop's hard to shift at the moment – my opening bid would be around about Three Cent …"
He – Steve, not Fidddy, who's now in tears and bankrupt – also breaks the law, on camera. Look, he's given up with the (admittedly useless) hands-free in the BMW, and he's using his phone, while driving – one of my bugbears as it happens, it drives me mad. Officers of Humberside police, I know you read this column, even if you pretend you don't, get him, will you? If you missed the show you'll find all the evidence on 4oD. And anyone else who missed it should catch up too, it was dead good.
An email arrives, from Virrgo, from the man himself! "Hi Sam. We would accept £1,700 for the fire engine. Regards, Steve Elwis." Seventeen hundred, for that old rusty piece of crap! That's not much less than the Liberty bear. The search for Christmas presents continues.
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