Potters of Buxton - behind the scenes at the department store which dates back to 1860
PUBLISHED: 17:05 16 September 2015 | UPDATED: 20:48 23 October 2015
A family business with an interesting past and a promising future
Initially I contacted Potters of Buxton in a moment of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ reflection, to try and find some trace of the grandmother I never knew as she had died long before I was born. I had discovered that for a few years prior to 1910 Maud Mary Margerrison had been a seamstress there in her teenage years. Juxtaposed with this was the possibility of a feature about a long established Derbyshire business with a fascinating story to tell and so I travelled to Buxton for what turned out to be an incredible voyage of discovery.
It was back in 1860 that John William Potter opened a department store in the town, firstly at Burlington House before moving to London House on Terrace Road in 1870 where the shop trades to this day. With views over The Slopes, this impressive four-storey 19th century building has seen little change other than observing fashions come and go plus a couple of changes in ownership. From the moment I walked over the ‘J W Potter’ mosaic doorstep through the ornate Victorian frosted glass door I felt as if I was following in my granny’s footsteps of a century ago.
As so many town centres and high streets have become soulless and uniform with their cloned chain stores and charity shops, it was refreshing to find a unique, individual and characterful shop that still trades on the principles of fine quality and excellent service. Old-fashioned in its ways, but not stuck in the past, Potters is moving with the times.
I entered a time warp of old-world gentility packed with an eclectic mix of original mahogany and oak shop fittings of shelves, drawers and glazed cabinets, well-stocked and stacked with a plethora of items that range from classical styles to contemporary chic. John William Potter set up the business to sell clothing, hosiery and home textiles of fine quality with an emphasis on providing a personal service, and that ethos still applies today.
In 1971 the J W Potter and Co. business was bought by Roy and Joan Nuttall from Kirkby-in-Ashfield who re-named it Potters of Buxton. Their son John and wife Denise took over some years later. Although John is still in charge, third generation brother and sister duo Matthew (19) and Lucy (25) are now involved in the business with exciting plans for the future whilst still holding firmly to the Nuttall code of conduct.
‘When Grandad bought the business the previous owners were retiring and wanted a quick sale,’ said Matthew. ‘Grandad had been working in a menswear shop so he had some experience of sales but not running a business. Nanny Joan had worked on the perfume counter in Boots but suddenly found herself as ladies clothing manager in a department store. Our Dad, John Nuttall, came into the business after a year or two and straight from leaving school with Mum joining him later to take over as Ladies Manager. Dad is the leading force of the business and well known to our regulars who trust his honest advice. We were brought up with an interest in fashion and went with our parents on days out to shows, exhibitions and on buying trips and Lucy and I both had Saturday jobs in the shop. I remember once asking Dad how he knew what to buy – “Buy what you like and hope other people like it too” was his advice.’
Having chosen to study business studies and economics at school, it was an easy decision for Matthew to join the business full-time at eighteen, although for several years he had worked with his mother Denise to develop the www.pottersofbuxton.co.uk website and online side of the business. Lucy opted for college and then worked as a dental nurse for a time before joining the rest of the family at Potters, which she now finds far more fulfilling.
John is a master of the men’s department. He loves a good sale but lives by the belief that it’s not only about profit but also the pleasure of seeing a customer leave the shop happy with their purchase. For example, when selling a jacket he will advise on which shirt goes with it, trousers that match and socks to complement, so a good sale might well be the result of selling a complete outfit.
As I walked toward the central staircase of intricately carved wood and ornate metalwork I passed jackets and waistcoats neatly lined up opposite a wall of shirts – dotted, spotted, striped and plain in an assortment of colours from neck size 14½ to 23” – beside caps stacked high and a carousel of belts in every length possible. From casual to formal, every day to wedding day, the menswear department also stocks hundreds of socks and ties and ‘hard to find items’ such as bow ties, cummerbunds, sock braces and armbands.
Far from being ‘fuddy duddy’ fashion, the menswear department can do trendy, too. A young plumber came to do some work in the shop a while back and bought a shirt on his way out, remarking as he went, ‘I didn’t know you sold stuff like this!’
Tucked away in the far corner of the ground floor is the enclosed Dickensian style office with glass windows for observing the comings and goings of customers. It still contains sloping wooden writing surfaces with masses of shelving and racks for paperwork, ledgers and files – it would have been to this office that my Granny Maud went for her wages each week. At the start of the 1900s this was probably no more than a few shillings and she would signed a ledger in receipt.
Potters are proud still to be issuing hand-written receipts for everything they sell. Tills around the shop are old pull-type wooden ones which sit neatly beside a computer screen and keyboard for stock control.
There are 14 members of staff at Potters, some of whom have worked there for years. Sue, in sales and curtains, started in 1980 whilst Kindah and Michelle are relative newcomers. Ann has worked at Potters since 1965, most of that time in accounts. Before she retires at the end of this year she will work with Matthew and Lucy to introduce a computerised Sage system of bookkeeping and accounts.
The ladies clothing department is another mix of classic and trendy products suitable for ages 18–80+. There are quality British brands such as Seasalt from Cornwall and Pretty Polly from Belper, and in the autumn a new range of Crew clothing is being introduced. As well as the customary dresses, skirts, blouses and trousers etc, Potters stock a vast array of lingerie, nightwear and accessories. Neatly named wooden drawers still contain items such as suspender belts but the corset display is dwindling due to a shrinking market in suppliers.
Ladies wear starts at size 8, but Potters are not generally known for being petite. In menswear the sizes stretch from 28”–54” waist and Small to 4XL in some styles!
As well as advice and assistance for all manner of clothing purchases, a bra fitting service is provided. This can be essential, as Lucy explained: ‘I remember a woman coming in one day to buy a new bra. She was in obvious pain and discomfort from wearing the wrong size as the 32E she had on almost cut into her flesh. This was happily thrown in the bin when she left wearing a 36B and a smile on her face!’
Residents of Buxton and the surrounding areas may well be familiar with Potters but regular shoppers also visit it from around the country, many taking the opportunity to call in when they visit Buxton Festival or while holidaying in the Peak District.
E-commerce has also arrived with the third generation, as Matthew and Lucy have set up an on-line side to the business which is currently being expanded. This now accounts for 35 per cent of their turnover with orders shipped around the world. ‘We’ve sold shorts to Bermuda and underpants to India. A guy in Australia bought 27 shirts in one go! We sell on E-Bay and Amazon and offer a Click & Collect service for customers who want to pick up their purchases from the shop. With mail order we pull out all the stops to get deliveries out and offer same-day dispatch for all orders received before 2pm.’
Selling online might not include face-to-face conversation but this has been replaced by email messages, photographs and write-ups, a silent service of advice and efficiency!
The first floor houses more ladies fashions and the Home Textile department with bedding, blinds and curtains from quality suppliers such as Fogarty, Fine Bedding, Belledorm, Mirabel, Kirsty Allsopp and Ashley Wilde. Potters also offer measuring, curtain making and fitting services and still sell net curtains cut-to-measure in various styles, as well as poles, rails and curtain fitments.
Although there are promotions at Potters throughout the year, their sales after Christmas and in summer are genuine, with honest and generous reductions on goods previously in stock.
‘Do you want to see upstairs before you go,’ asked Matthew. ‘It’s not generally accessible to the public because of the steep stairs, but we use the old workroom on the third floor for storage sometimes and another room as a studio for taking photographs of stock for our website.’
It was an eerie experience to climb to the former sewing room with its huge arched windows. An old wooden work table where Granny Maud could have laid out materials was now stacked with pillows protected in polythene wrappers. Huge cast-iron radiators warmed the room, while redundant Victorian gas pipes and an old sink had been left to sit in splendour. An ancient ‘Fairy Prince’ gas iron sat on the windowsill gathering dust, probably used to press and put creases into fashions created long ago by a bevy of seamstresses, chatting and gossiping as they stitched. An old Singer treadle sewing machine stood in a corner of the room still threaded with a bit of cotton. This was as close as I could get to Granny Maud and I felt that at long last I could feel an affinity with her. Far from resembling a museum, it felt as if the last shift had just walked out, locking the door as they left.
Potters of Buxton is in safe hands. While John, Matthew and Lucy are fully aware of this building’s unique qualities and want to preserve its history, they are also keen to move the business forward. They have an appreciation of the 19th century, an understanding of their family involvement in the 20th century, and are charged with excitement and enthusiasm for Potters’ future in the 21st century!