Friday, 8 November 2013

Shrewsbury Antiques Market

It turns out it's not the Shrewsbury Antiques Market after all. All these years that's what I've been calling it, but if you look on the door it's the Shrewsbury Antiques Centre. Even so, I'll always think of it as one of three hidden markets in Shrewsbury.  If you don't know what you're looking for you could easily miss it. Its entrance is tucked round the back of Princess House, almost opposite to Candle Lane Books, virtually out of sight behind the Jobs Centre.  A veritable treasure house lies underground, but all that hints to it is a pair of glazed doors and steps leading down. Go down those steps, however, and you'll find yourself in a vast underground cavern with antiques and bric-a-brac stretching away in every direction – a cornucopia of collectibles, with always more to rummage through and something new to find. 

I know what I’m talking about here. I’ve been mooching about in the Shrewsbury Antiques Centre for the past thirty years, which makes me almost a lifelong customer because next year SAC will be celebrating its 30th anniversaryThe Antique Centre was set up in 1984 by John Lanford, assisted by Matt Smith who, after John died, took up the reins. For those who knew it was there, it proved to be a magnet. Over the years that number has grown too, and now, especially with the current interest in all things nostalgic, the Antiques Centre is a significant part of the town’s tourist trail.  

You’ll find everything down there from fine Coalport cups to costume jewellery, Victoriana - including household items and old toys - to military memorabilia, vintage clothing to furniture. Paintings. Prints. Old cutlery. Old rugs. China. Glass. Kitchen ware. Fishing gear. I could go on.

Some people reckon the basement was originally used as holding cells by the police – that it’s a massive underground dungeon where rumours of ghosts abound.  I was talking about this the other day to John Allen, and he said in all his time down there, both as stall-holder and helping to run the place, he’d seen no ghosts. He had heard, though, that the basement was once conceived as a nightclub, and could well believe that this was true. Structurally, however, the place was much the same today it had been thirty years ago when John Lanford first opened up.   

Currently there are one hundred stall-holders occupying twenty stalls and a variety of cabinets.  For many years those stall-holders remained unchanged. You’d always know what you’d find when you went into the Antique Centre – here vintage clothes, there  furniture, there coins and silverware, here tin biscuit boxes, prints, etc.  Now, however, a wind of change is blowing through the place, with older stall-holders stepping down - some moving on to opening their own shops - and new stall-holders trying their hand. 

The key to becoming a successful collector, according to John Allen, is to always buy quality. And the key to becoming a successful seller is to find things that people didn't have but would like to, given the chance.  ‘If it’s quirky, different and priced well, it will sell,’ John said. 

John Allen knows what he’s talking about. On the one hand he’s a collector with an interest in fine art, especially that of northern artists. On the other hand he’s a stall-holder who has come to selling for 'a bit of fun' after a life in business. It takes a while to get the hang of running a stall, he said. You need to give yourself time once you've set up. Time to find our what sells, and at what price.  You need to understand your market.  You can’t just sell at Miller catalogue prices. It doesn’t work like that. And you have to expect people to try their hand at haggling too.  The deferential ‘Antiques Roadshow’ attitude to pricing is over.  'It’s all 'Bargain Hunt’ nowadays,' said John.  'It’s all what’s the best price you can do? and I’ll give your £2.50 for that. People will haggle over pennies.'

I wanted to know if theft was a problem in SAC. If it was a Birmingham antiques centre, John said, there would be a security guard on the door. But a far larger problem in Shrewsbury came from people picking things up on one stall and discarding them on another when they changed their mind.  ‘Mostly when things go missing, that’s the reason why,’ John said.

Currently the Shrewbury Antiques Centre sees about five hundred customers a day – not bad for an outlet without a shop front. I was interested to know what difference eBay had made to customer figures.  John reckoned its effect was minimal. ‘Ebay provides our customers with an instant price list,’ he said. ‘There’s that. But it can’t compete in terms of seeing items and actually handling them. That’s something the internet can never match.  There are some things you’ll get online that we don’t sell much of – gold, for example – but, when it comes to customer service, a real antiques market rather than a virtual one is hard to beat.’

If there’s something that you want, the Shrewsbury Antiques Centre will put it into their ‘wanted’ book and look out for it on your behalf. They'd found some fascinating items over the years. People’s choices were often inexplicable, John said. There was the young collector of vinyl, he remembered, who couldn’t begin to explain why he wanted a record by the West Midlands Police Choir, and a student looking for a costume for a party who’d no idea what the letters SS stood for.

There have been some amusing moments over the years, and some famous faces browsing quietly amongst the stalls. One night, shortly after Matt had switched off the lights and set the alarm for the evening, a shriek was heard from the bowels of the building and it became apparent that Matt was about to lock in no less than the musical icon that is Jules Holland. Plainly this is a business where you never know what - or who - will happen next.

And it's a good business to get into. John said that with interest rates low, along with the current price of antiques, now was a good time for young people to start in the business of buying and selling. The Antiques Centre charges £28 per week per stall and £9.50 per week for a cabinet, which is nothing compared to the risk of taking on a shop. ‘Just a shelf in a cabinet is a good first move,’ John said.  ‘There’s a quiet evolution taking place in the Shrewsbury Antiques Centre at the moment, with room for fresh faces and fresh ideas.’

The Shrewsbury Antiques Centre is big enough to lose yourself in, to know you won’t be jumped on or ‘talked’ into a purchase, yet intimate enough to know the help is there if you want it.  Donna’s great in that respect. Then there’s Sandra or John, Matt or Damon. The faces behind the desk remain more or less unchanged.  Raisa the dog has gone, sadly, but Mavis has come in her place.  Raisa's paws have been hard to fill, but Mavis is doggedly giving it all she's got. She's the Antique Centre's much loved - if not notorious - mascot, who has her own fan club and receives mail from as far afield as the US. 

Mavis is currently awaiting puppies, due on Armistice Day.  Perhaps a post on that grand occasion wouldn't go amiss - especially as My Tonight From Shrewsbury's 'Great Dogs of Shrewsbury' series is looking woefully thin.

Next year, as part of their 30th anniversary celebration, Shrewsbury Antiques Centre will be fund-raising for a cause of value to us all here in Shropshire - the Air Ambulance Service.  This December, for the first time, it’ll be open on Wednesday evenings for late-night Christmas shopping. If you’ve never taken a trip in time through its doors and down its steps, this could be your chance. 

PS. If you want to know about the other hidden markets I mentioned above, one is the indoor market upstairs in the 1960's market hall, which I’ve already written about on this blog, and will again, I’m sure, because Christmas in that market is a wonder to behold. The other is the Old Market Hall in the Square, which is as unlikely a setting for a cinema as you could hope to find, and I'll be writing  about that too,  later this month.

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