“When I bought the auction room, it was full of cobwebs and just dingy,” he says. “I basically had to gut everything and start from scratch. I even added the exposed brickwork myself, using reclaimed bricks.”
It’s all about the presentation: the deep grey and navy paintwork is Farrow & Ball, and that brickwork creates a fitting backdrop to the more industrial products on sale, such as lamps recovered from factories, huge mirrors and large pieces of furniture. Unlike many antique shops, Joe has created a sense of space, so every item stands out in its own right, although he isn’t afraid to juxtapose different periods and styles to shake things up. A hefty Georgian wardrobe with mahogany veneer hosts a rail of mid-20th century vintage jackets, and a neatly inscribed ration book sits close to beautifully upholstered leather chairs. This is where his years of retail experience come into play: he understands the need to let each piece speak for itself. A stand-out Aquascutum jacket and a bright red cashmere waistcoat hanging on one wall testify this. He can’t resist showing me an unusual set of coat hooks made from wild boars’ hooves; not run-of-the-mill visual merchandising.
Joe inherited his knowledge of antiques from his mother and grandfather, although he didn’t initially think of this as a business opportunity, and was simply sourcing antiques for himself or for friends in his spare time. It wasn’t until he began to recognise antique pieces used in Paul Smith stores and fashionable London bars that he saw the benefits of being ahead of the curve. In fact, he estimates 40-50 per cent of his current trade is through business clients, typically barbershops and bars who want to make an impact. He can source those all-important talking point pieces, such as an elegant French till, antelope horns or a statement mirror. Everywhere I look I see another potential showstopper: an intricate Balinese chair, a haberdashery cabinet, a lifebelt from Saltdean Lido.
One of Joe’s priorities is to source items that are fresh to the market. Though he browses at nearby flea markets and trade fairs, he frequently buys pieces outside the area, or from private sellers, so you won’t find items you’ve seen before. Not being tied to meeting the overheads of a high street store means he isn’t forced to churn out a stream of goods. Instead, he takes his time to find the kind of pieces that his customers would like, or that he’d ideally buy for himself. Sourcing items in person means he can quiz the seller about any interesting back stories and really know what he’s getting: essential knowledge that’s passed on to customers.
“Everyone wants to know the history of the piece they’re buying,” he says. “I encourage people to see it in person, so I can explain the heritage. My website is a portal, but in the shop they have the social aspect and they can see an item in context.”
This includes home visits whenever possible. Several customers are young couples taking on the project of renovating their first home. Joe can bring a range of items to their house to let them see everything in situ. “They’re looking for that one statement piece, possibly something industrial, cinema chairs, or some antlers,” he explains. “I’m proud to have something in their home that I’ve found for them.”
As for the fashion side of things, Joe’s collection of vintage clothing consists of traditional British brands like Burberry, Crombie and Harris Tweed. While these garments were often made to fit their original owner, customers do have leeway when it comes to sizing: “You can adjust tailor-made pieces easily, as the tailor leaves an inch or two of excess fabric. We actually offer our customers a tailoring service.”
Tailoring is just one of the ways Joe involves the local community in his business. He works with an upholsterer “just up the road” to restore and recover furniture, plus a retired carpenter, electrician and watchmaker are all on hand. Typical tasks include basic repair work, rewiring lamps and servicing a Rolex or Omega watch, so that every antique is sold in perfect working order, with local flair. These craftspeople appreciate the clothing on sale, too; Joe recalls walking into the Murrell Arms to find a group of them at the bar, wearing flat caps and tweed jackets from the Manshop.
With summer not far away, the shop looks set to be an even bigger part of local life. A set of double doors will open straight out onto the pub garden, allowing potential customers to wander in and shelter from the summer sun (or, more likely, the rain). Joe’s offer of free local delivery means an impromptu shopping trip doesn’t involve the stress of transporting that ornate Balinese chair in the back of your car.
The very personal approach, the unusual location and the attention to visual merchandising seem to be a winning formula. Next time you’re in Barnham, don’t just pop in for a pint: pick up a much-coveted piece of design as well.