Building a future on gems from the past
He’s weathered everything from early family break-up to homelessness, struggled with dyslexia and survived a tough six years in the Army – but Peter Smith is finally following his dream and running his own business – Shanklin Antiques. He tells Island Life how he got there, and his vision for the future.
Life couldn’t be looking more rosy for Peter Smith at the moment. Happily settled with his partner and biggest supporter Becky, they were overjoyed at the birth of their daughter Annabell on December 3, and have just rented extra space at Rectory Mansion in Brading to expand on their blossoming Shanklin shop business, found at 52B High Street.
“I really have Becky to thank for all her support throughout this journey” he says. “Nothing would have been possible without her belief in me and the business”.
It was all a very different picture as recently as 2010 though, when Peter left the Army after a six year term and found himself with nowhere to live.
His mother had moved away from his native Twickenham and without any other support, he ended up living for three months in a tent in his brother-in-law’s garden because there was just no spare room in the house.
He describes this as “one of the lowest points of my life”.
But it was certainly a test of his mettle and determination, because rather than feel sorry for himself, he got hold of a bucket and leather, bought a window blade from Poundland and started cleaning windows. As he couldn’t drive, he had to carry the ladders and kit around with him all day – and then went home to sleep in his tent.
The Army training had no doubt helped. As a keen Army Cadet from the age of 10, Peter had always wanted to be a soldier but was held back by his dyslexia. However, at the age of 22 he was finally accepted and joined the Royal Logistics Corps in 2004. Recalling his training at Purbright, Surrey, he says: “It was a lot harder than I expected. When I went in I was quite gobby – however they drummed that out of me pretty quickly!”
It wasn’t an easy decision – partly because he had made so many good friends in the Army – but he says he had a yearning to branch out and have his own business.
“Im not keen on working for other people” he admits, “I like to be my own boss.”
The window cleaning round was just the start of his road into business, though.
On a night out Peter met a nightclub doorman, a New Yorker called Vincent, and got talking to him about his living situation. Vincent offered him a room above the nightclub for free, so he moved in and started working evenings in the bar, whilst still cleaning windows during the day as it was such a good money earner.
After a year, and still yearning for the ultimate career, Peter sold up the window cleaning business and arrived on the Isle of Wight to try and track down his estranged dad who had left the family home when he was five.
He found his father living with his new wife in Cowes and after a reconciliation, Peter went and lived with his dad whilst he tried to find a council house. Being a single man meant he had no priority for housing, and to make matters worse Peter was also having to claim Job Seekers Allowance.
“This was another big low point in my life – every fortnight I’d receive £80 which had to pay for food, travel, and everything.”
From there, Peter ended up in an Island homeless housing hostel – just a tiny room but as he says, at least better than sleeping in a tent! After about six months he was offered a short-term flat at Hunnyhill, Newport.
“I was there six months and really enjoyed it, as my life was starting to get back together.”
While there, he did a Countryside course with Island Life’s countryside writer Tony Ridd and at the same time joined the Island’s Army reserves, 266 Port Maritime.
It was about then that Peter met Becky, in 2012. She was also in the Army reserve part of the same squadron (266 Port Maritime), and he says “she scooped me off my feet and moved me over to Portsmouth to live with her”.
This was the point when he and Becky began dabbling in car boot sales, and were so good at it that they bought a van and said “why not do this on a bigger scale?” From such humble beginnings, their current business was born.
After Peter passed his driving test Becky bought him a little Peugeot Partner, and his full time job was to go to Titchfield Auction on a Sunday evening and buy mixed boxes of stuff for a pound each, then ferry them back to Portsmouth, sort them and sell through the boot fair every Wednesday on Hayling Island. As business improved, he started attending Ford Market, near Arundel on Thursdays, doing the same thing.
During Peter’s travels he was lucky to meet Colin McCloud and Ian Parmiters, two more experienced dealers, who took him under their wing and taught him the business.
At one point, Colin offered Peter all the contents from Sabre sales which the ever-supportive Becky put on her credit card.
The stuff that they bought filled a 100 sq ft warehouse to the ceiling, and it took three weeks to clear the place. The haul included 600 tin helmets, WW2 webbing, 1000 sets of battle dress uniforms, and 2000 peaked caps all in tiny sizes. Peter sold the stuff at many fairs including Wimbledon, Ford, Ardingly and Bursledon, all over a period of a month.
With the proceeds he managed to get a bigger van, a Ford Luton van with electric tail-lift which made the job easier.
Eventually, they generated enough cashflow to move back to the Island – a Victorian house in Ryde which Peter affectionally calls the money pit!
“I’m going to have to work seven days a week 24 hours a day to keep the cash hungry house.” he jokes. Meanwhile, Becky managed to get a nursing job at St. Mary’s.
When Peter heard about an antique business for sale in Shanklin, he reckoned it was an opportunity not to be missed. He and Becky invested every penny they had to acquire the business.
Driving his trusty Ford Luton, he saved money by sleeping in the van most nights, and during the day would visit small antique dealers and local flea markets.
“The farmers would turn up with trailers full of stuff, and I’d be the first to rummage for bargains” he says.
Peter had one disadvantage in that he only spoke English, so communicating with the locals wasn’t easy, but pound notes seemed to be the common language. It was hard to find bargains as they knew that the crazy English was crying out for these oddities, so they would not haggle on prices.
These days he says he manages to achieve better results by visiting UK markets such as Ardingly, Newark, Shepton Mallet and Kempton, and paying the same price or less. These markets now are huge with over 65,000 people a day visiting, rummaging around 3,500 stalls with people travelling from all over Europe to grab a bargain. There’s one trader who turns up from Holland in a articulated lorry with trailer attached, full of just industrial lighting from all over Europe. All sorts of people go, including interior designers and TV prop management companies, as well as antique dealers and serious collectors.
“The way I think I’m different is that I will travel to get things, whereas most Island antique dealers don’t bother” says Peter. “It’s good for me, because that’s how I have the edge”.
Though he’s now relishing having his own shop in Shanklin, Peter doesn’t intend to stand still. He’s just rented some extra space at Rectory Mansion, the old Brading Waxworks, for his quirky old garden stoneware, and says ”My plan is to expand across the Island”.
Watch this space!