Thursday, 20 August 2009

Reg Almond, Bardwells, Sheffield

Reg has sold electronic components at Bardwell’s for 40 years. He works with his wife Jenny [right], who, along with her brother Rod, inherited the business from their father, who set up the business in 1944. Rod's son Chris also works at the shop. Despite saying he hates electronics and customers refusing to believe he doesn’t know how to build or fix something, Reg is an engineer by trade, knows his components and will try his best to satisfy hopeful, or technically adept customers.

A first-time customer looking for a replacement 60 milliamp fuse from his stereo’s tuner, had heard of Bardwell’s reputation for stocking all things electronic. He’d been told by a high street electronics retailer that if anyone's going to have that fuse, it's Bardwell's. Reg tested the fuse, confirmed it was “deceased”, and said anything under a 100 is not made anymore. So rare in fact, the shop's 60mA drawer was empty. They had some 80s, but Reg advised it wouldn’t be safe enough and suggested a 50 would do the job. Because the 50s are rare too, why not buy two? Total price 50p.

Reg says the shop could be busy with one customer after another, but in an hour they might only take a tenner, as some items cost as low as 25p. It’s tough to earn a living from the shop nowadays – they've not had a pay rise in ten years - because people don’t buy electronic components like they used to. Reg offers up two cultural shifts as root causes. Electronics isn't taught in schools like it used to be and cheap Chinese imports are flooding UK shops. They used to get loads of school kids coming in, buying stuff for projects they would build, but now it’s cheaper to buy new rather than fix things.

Bardwell's has survived because they’ve diversified their stock to include TV and Computer accessories. They also sell online (Bardwells are ebay Power Sellers) and they also take orders through their website (

J & B Hats'n'Things, Pitsmoor, Sheffield

Hanging out at Philip Biki's shop, you can feel the warmth. Whoever walks into his shop will be sure of a kind welcome and an open mind. Whether it's searching through the floor-to-ceiling shelving to find just the right hat or bag, or talking through life's ups and downs and putting the world to rights, Phil's shop is the place.

Phil used to have a stall on The Moor and loved it, all ages passing by and lots of chat. Moving to his shop on Ellesmere Road in 2001, he has seen 10 year-olds grow into adults and bring their own kids in. One such man came in with his two young sons looking for a hat - something "sharp and surprising" - and picked a black pinstripe trilby out of the extensive, eclectic stock.

If Phil doesn't have what a customer needs, he'll note the request in his diary, then when he’s got it in, will phone the customer to come and collect. Phil’s an experienced international wholesaler and takes regular buying trips to London, New York (where he buys from a big 6,000-outlet wholesale centre) or perhaps Hong Kong, Shenzen, or Guangzhou.

J B Hats’n’Things is all about a unique look. Friend and regular customer Val, told us that she (and many others) give Phil a budget to buy things for her, on his international trips. He knows her likes and dislikes and will always come back with items just for her. And they’re hers, there’s no way Phil would sell them, or anything similar, to anyone else. In fact, the shop usually stocks just one of each bag, coat, hat or pair of shoes anyway. Regulars know that if they buy from Phil, they won't see anyone else walking down the street in the same thing. Customers can also have their hats personalised by Phil’s wife, with beading or feathers, particularly popular for weddings.

Customers will go to quite some lengths to buy from Phil. One time we were in the shop, Phil received a phone call from a customer who now lives in Zambia and whose husband was about to visit her. This customer wanted Phil’s wife to pick out a hat for her husband to collect and bring to Zambia. Incidentally, Phil’s wife, having given so much advice and support in the shop over the years, is now studying psychology.

You can't really call a majority of the people in the shop, customers. Of course, they do buy from time to time, especially when the weather changes, but most drop in far more often, sometimes daily, because of friendship, the need to talk or perhaps for some local advice. Val says it's all about respecting people for who they are and being open. Another friend, who stops by on his way to University, said if the shop were to close, it would leave a huge gap in the neighbourhood.

Saleh’s Mini-Market, Spital Hill, Burngreave, Sheffield

Saleh Hussein Abdullah started his business in 1996 and is now the longest-standing shopkeeper around The Green at the top of Spital Hill, Burngreave.
Serving the Yemeni/Somali/Asian communities, he’s seen the area transform. Apparently, the neighbourhood used to have higher crime, but as more Moslem families moved in, the area has gained stability. Saleh says “It’s got a bit more problematic in the last three or four years, but it’s much better than it was in the 1990s.”

When he first arrived, the area used to be relatively uninhabited. There were lots of empty properties and the council would give prospective tenants a few sets of keys and let them choose which they wanted. But towards the end of the nineties, the housing stock filled up. Now, people can wait up to a year to be housed.

Saleh owns the building his shop occupies and business was very good up until a year or so ago. Recently however, his takings have halved. Saleh thinks this is partly to do with the recession and people being more careful, but also, there used to be 4 mini-markets around The Green and now there are 13, so there’s a lot less custom to go round.

Most of Saleh's trade is done on credit. Customers can accumulate up to £200 or £300 each and pay it off at the end of the month. He has a credit book in which he writes things down, but some of his customers just help themselves to what they need, (there’s a golf club in the shop, which is used to hook down boxes of cereal or rice from the upper shelves), then keep a note of what they owe themselves.

Occasionally, someone will ask for cigarettes or some Khat to chew and say they’ll come back with the money. He knows they probably won’t, but as it’s only a couple of quid, he’ll still give it to them to save a fuss. Most customers are local, but some come from afar. Occasionally they’ll even get Saudi Arabian students from Manchester driving over to Sheffield to eat in neighbouring restaurants, before stocking up on familiar flavours
at Saleh's. The language of the shop is primarily Arabic.

If customers want something that he doesn’t stock, they will go elsewhere, but otherwise they are very loyal. When we asked why customers choose his shop rather than one of other 12, he replied: “I respect them and they respect me”. His friend agreed. “He’s been here the longest and he is trusted”.

NB: As was the case with almost every shop we visited in Istanbul, Saleh hospitably offered us a drink during our conversation, and gave us a bottle of mineral water each.

Accelerate, Attercliffe, Sheffield

Debbie, Stuart and Edie are part of the Sheffield fell-running ‘tribe’, passionate about running up hills, down dales, along canals and up mountains.

Over the course of the afternoon we spent at the shop, Stuart takes us through a range of subjects from store layout, business development, how they are bucking the economic downturn, marketing, ergonomics, shoe design, the scope of the running community, and the importance of the cup of tea. He also explained why he needs cover the city’s football divide, stocking shoes in red (for Blades fans) and blue (for Owls).

The shop has been open a few months, sited in Attercliffe, an area close to the city centre, associated more with manufacturing and lap-dancing clubs than state-of-the-art sports shops. However, their building G9 is one of several ‘G for Gateway’ buildings owned by a local millionaire, who is investing in the area he grew up and hoping to kickstart an upward spiral. And as Stuart says, “the locals have been really welcoming and friendly”.

Of course, Accelerate offers what any good running shop offers – an excellent range of kit and shoes, with the equipment, experience and knowledge required to analyse gait and get a good fit. However, this shop goes a few steps further.

As customers enter, they are greeted with “hello, kettle’s on. Tea? Coffee?” Rather surprised customers wonder where the catch is but there’s no catch, just a warm sense of community formed by a shared love of running up hills in the pouring rain! They also let customers wear the shoes they’ve bought outside in the streets and will still change them if they’re not right.

Stuart and Debbie lead regular ‘Breakfast’ runs for their customers, an hour or so out in the area followed by coffee and pastries. The shop sponsors two local pro fell- and road-runners.

Beanies, Walkley, Sheffield

L-R: Chris, Jan, Matt and Cath

Beanies is a co-op selling fresh fruit, veg and wholefoods from its current location on Crooks Valley Road.

The Co-op - Since 1986, they’ve built up a business that now supports 19 full- and part-time co-op members. Matt is the longest-running member, who joined in 1992, Jan joined a few months later. There’s a flat management structure where all the current 13 directors have an equal say.

Customers - From local households buying groceries for a week, to students buying two mushrooms, a carrot and an onion every day. Loyal customers travel from as far as Chesterfield, wanting to follow the ethics of natural wholefoods. They trust Beanies to have explored the food’s provenance, so they can buy what they want, without having to read every label.

Deliveries - They operate a box scheme, delivering organic fruit and veg across Sheffield. They’ll meet the most exacting of requests, such as including a pack of ground cumin (if a shopping list requests half a teaspoon of ground cumin!)

Suppliers - The co-op has built up strong roots with local growers, such as the kitchen gardens at Worley Hall. It’s even been known for Matt, who is a good gardener, to visit a grower and advise on how and what to grow and when to pick it. Beanies know what they can sell and advise what they would buy from a grower. They are soon to start selling bread made in their own bakery.

Economics - They are not sure yet about the affects of the economic crisis, because it’s always slower in summer, students aren’t around and families are on holiday. But they probably won’t be voting themselves a wage raise until they know what is going to happen. The post office, two doors up, recently closed and this has impacted how many people pop in.

Any fresh produce that’s past its best is sold off at a cheaper price. If still unsold, it becomes staff food. Then it might be given to people who come in to ask for food for their guinea pigs, iguanas, rabbits etc, then finally it goes onto a compost heap at a local farm.

Local community - Some locals have greater needs than others and those working at the shop do what they can. People might ask to use the phone because their electricity has been cut off, or for 20p for something, or sometimes borrow money from members of staff. It’s even been known for the shop to provide safe haven for someone at risk, or offer their van if transport is needed. These kindnesses can work both ways. For example, if a local saw a break-in at the shop, they might be more likely to call the police.

Beanies will try and help the community’s more vulnerable people where they can. They take shopping to people’s cars or carry it home for them if they can’t manage. One elderly woman would walk to Beanies but didn’t like the walk back to her empty house, for fear she wouldn't make it. So, each time, a member of the co-op would escort her home. Another woman couldn’t get to the shop any more, so Jan would pop in with a delivery each day during her lunch break. Tea and biscuits developed into a long-term friendship.

Politics - Recently, a Green Party Councillor came into the shop and Jan complained ‘our vigil in the peace garden was broken up and we were moved on’. The councillor was supportive and said ‘email me and I’ll do something’. Jan says the shop represents the tip of the environmental iceberg and that she often notices the ‘green’ community connections taking place in the queue.

Howcrofts, Stannington, Sheffield

Howcrofts is an unassuming Off Licence come Grocers with a big claim to fame. The shop has opened daily for the past 63 years! Sundays, Bank Holidays, Christmas or New Year, every day for at least for a few hours.

Maureen Vickers, her son Noel [pictured here], and husband Robert, have served behind this counter for much of their lives, fetching what the customer wants from the shelves that stock that little bit of everything people might need. It’s not self-service. You ask for a tin of tuna and they get it for you. They don’t make a fuss or draw attention to themselves. Just open daily, stay open late and stock what local people need to buy.

“There's always a bottle of champagne in the fridge”, as Maureen says, “we never know when someone’s going to need it nice and cold for a celebration”.

They continue the work started by her father, Wilfred Howcroft, who began running the shop in 1947 and moved his family into the adjoining house, when Maureen was five. Back then, the shop was owned by John Smiths Brewery (and later by Courage) and sold beer, sherry and port on tap. Locals would bring their own jugs to be filled and take home. They also sold powdered eggs, sugar and flour from huge tubs as well as butter, lard and cheese, sold by weight from slabs. With no refrigerator, dried meats hung from hooks, which remain in the ceiling.

Noel showed us this well-thumbed photo from the 1950s, of his grandfather standing outside the shop. You can just make out the cigarette vending machine on the wall and the free-standing sweet machine. "There’s no way you could have those outside now." says Noel. Some other things have changed too.

Now the family own the building and the business. They removed the draught pumps about 20 years ago, but have kept them in the garage, along with the old John Smiths magnet sign. All stock used to be delivered, but now they buy everything from Sheffield’s Cash’n’Carrys. The shop’s now decorated with Maureen’s eclectic collection of witch paraphernalia – some dolls cackle when you clap your hands – and there's even a fairy-light spider’s web on the outside of the building, which they switch on at night. There used to be other shops nearby – a butcher and so on – but they’ve closed down and become residential.

No doubt that private ownership has helped them stay in business, but Maureen and Noel think their longevity is down to staying open till 11pm and knowing what people want. They’ll stock a particular brand of fags or a certain type of martini, especially for customers who ask. Living near the shop means their customers are neighbours and friends. And it doesn’t take too long to get to know more recent arrivals. Customers seem to respect what they do, so they don't get any trouble. They’ve seen generations grow up and some of the kids that used to buy sweets are now grandparents, alongside Maureen herself. Now you’ll find her grandchildren picking items off the shelves and playing shop. The family have every intention of improving on their 63-year run.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Jeff Fearn, J B Tools, Castle Market, Sheffield

Castle Market has played a big part in Jeff’s life. For the last 20 years, he’s run a hardware business from a couple of units on the lower ground floor of Sheffield’s lively indoor market, which has been under threat of relocation for the past decade.

In the late 1980s, Jeff bought the business from Joyce Brammer, the 'JB' of JB Tools. Business was so good for the first few years that Cyril, Joyce’s husband, stayed on in the shop to help out. Jeff also employed Sheila (for 16 years, until her retirement), his son Carl and a part-timer. Jeff says "Back then the market was really buzzing. I was constantly bringing in new stock and out sourcing new merchandise".

Business was not his only success at the market. He fell in love with the owner of the haberdashery stall next door. Now she also runs another wool stall across the way, and a card-making / crafts stall on the other side of Jeff. They married 15 years ago and have a son – adding to the three from Jeff's first marriage. One of these, Tony, has just opened a hardware stall on the floor above. He cuts keys and stocks paint and other stuff his dad doesn’t, and is apparently doing quite well. If Jeff doesn't have something he'll send a customer up to his son and vice versa. In the long run, if Castle Market does relocate to The Moor, they hope to consolidate into one larger shop with Jeff slowly withdrawing from the business as he nears retirement.

The business has slowly declined over 15 years, to the extent that Jeff only employs one part-timer. He cites two main reasons for this. First, it’s the opening of new supermarkets close to the city centre. Each that has opened has taken a percentage of custom away. Before them, customers would come to the market for their fruit, veg, meat, fish, etc., then buy what hardware they needed from him. Secondly, ten years ago, the Council made public their plan to relocate the market to the other side of the city centre. Delays and indecision have led to years of uncertainty for traders, which has accelerated the decline in the market's fortunes. Because the market might not be there in a few years, new businesses are reluctant to sign up for tenancies. Existing tenants whose contracts are up for renewal are deciding not to renew their lease for the same reason. The Co-op supermarket, which attracts a lot shoppers to the locale, recently decided they won’t commit to 10 more years and will close their store, which will have a negative impact on all the other traders. So as local shops/stalls fall empty there’s no one willing to take them on, except the odd, short-term, transient trader. Also, while the market's future hangs in the balance, the Council has not invested as much as it could have in maintenance and repairs. The building is slowly disintegrating and would now need millions spent to bring it up to scratch.

The state of disrepair means it’s unlikely Jeff’s preference for renovation would be a considered option, as the Council’s plans for the move are reportedly a step closer. He isn't sure relocation is a good idea, saying that Castle Market is working class, and that customers mostly arrive by bus from the lower income suburbs on Sheffield’s north-side. The proposed relocation to The Moor, on the south side of the city centre, is closer to the more affluent suburbs, where people are more likely to have a car and shop at supermarkets.