Thanks to The Woodbridge Society, we have access to some of the articles from their newsletter archive. These dive down into the very fabric of the town, looking at some of the personalities and businesses that have made and continue to make Woodbridge the town that it is today. We hope to be able to share with you a steady stream of similar articles and profiles over the coming months. This week we’re taking a closer look at John Ives shoe shop.
Ives, the only specialist shoe shop left in Woodbridge, is the ultimate family business, six generations of Ives having been in the trade. It thrives and has expanded recently in spite of the recession, and is planning to expand its range for 2014.
The connection with the footwear business started in the 18th century when Walter Ives, a farmer in Worlingworth, was also a currier. The first shop opened in Halesworth in the 1780s in a building that was also the family home and had two small shoe factories in its grounds. Some of the shoes made then are in the Halesworth museum.
Members of the family eventually had shops in Felixstowe, Leiston, Colchester, Littleport , Bury St Edmunds and Diss, as well the one in Woodbridge, which opened in 1987. The original shop in Halesworth can still be seen today at the north end of the shopping precinct. Although the last member of the family to own it died 30 years ago it still carries the Ives name on the fascia and in the doorway.
John Ives, the owner of the Woodbridge shop, went to Framlingham School, where he excelled at cricket, hockey and rugby, playing for the county youth teams in all three sports. However, he confesses to have been academically lazy and was happy to go straight into the family shoe business after National Service. He started by being apprenticed at the Diss shop, which was owned by his uncle James, but in 1965 he joined his father, Herbert , in the Leiston shop, which sold clothing as well as shoes.
He remembers that his father said the 1930s were very difficult with the recession “really biting” and that for him it was “a living nightmare”. He recalls that Herbie, as his father was known, had to be “as hard as nails” and survived by buying up bankrupt stock and driving very hard bargains. On one occasion, when he had agreed a price after a whole day of negotiation, he embarrassed John by asking the seller for another £5 off, because of the distance he had had to travel. “Frankly,” says John, “I was totally out of my depth in this kind of operation and dreaded going with him.”
Herbie, who was a larger then life character, used to run an annual harvest sale, which he called ‘REAP’, and John remembers driving near Snape one day and noticing that REAP stickers had been fixed in the middle of the road over every other white dash.
John took over the Leiston shop in 1965 and changed to all footwear, partly because “my attempts at suit measuring were horrendous.” Since then he has also had shops in Felixstowe and Colchester , but they have been closed for various reasons. However, he has been happy to concentrate on the one in Woodbridge, which he opened in 1987. “It proved just right for us; it felt like home”, he says.
The family tradition continues. John’s son, David, like his father went straight into the shop from school, 26 years ago. And daughter, Fay, has rejoined the business recently after spending several years caring for her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died last year. John stresses, “The shop’s staff have been with us for a long time, which means they feel like members of the family and know the trade and our customers well. Darrin, our manager, has been with us for 13 years, ever since he left school at 16.”
The business flourishes, now having 10 staff, and only last year it bought the former Jumpers shop to expand the men’s department. John explains: “Before that the space we had for men’s shoes was about as big as a postage stamp, so I could not resist the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take over the shop next door.”
He says the trade has changed a lot in his years in the business. “Today we have to carry a huge range of stock and offer a wide selection of brands and types of shoe.” He adds somewhat ruefully that they even sell a lot of the trendy all plastic Crocs to customers who sneak in and out hoping not to be seen. “Shoes today are much more casual, and branding very important. When I started, men’s shoes were mostly the traditional welted laced shoes with leather soles. However, the traditional styles are making a come-back and British manufacturers of such shoes are doing well.”
John is now 80, but still takes only one day a week off. In his leisure time he enjoys a little shooting and is still a passionate fisherman, even though he has to wade into the river clutching his two-handed salmon rod and two crutches, because he is very lame as a result of an MRSA infection following a hip operation.
John says “The secret of our continuing success is that as a family we’ve been in the business for so long. We really love what we are doing, and that comes through to customers.”
By Michael Rines.