Patrick Fysh, co-founder of Rochester’s favourite independent store, talks good books, independent shopkeeping and taking on the family business
If you’re a Rochester native, the surname ‘Iles’ will probably mean something to you. The family have been local shopkeepers and retailers for generations, and at one time owned no less than three different businesses on the high street at shops No.73, 103 and 104. In fact, the family still owns the latter two today.
Store 103 sells artists’ supplies and operates as a local gallery and picture framer, while Store 104 has been taken on by cousins and Iles descendants, Patrick Fysh and Libby Horner, who have rolled the family’s long-standing knitting and yarn shop into a new, vibrant independent book store, which continues to sell knitting supplies and artisanal goods, as well as being a focal point for the community.
Store 104 is also a COVID-19 success story, given that Patrick and Libby took on the shop in March last year, just before the UK’s first national lockdown. “We opened in the summer of 2020,” explains Patrick, “so we’ve still not really experienced a normal year of trading.” Thankfully, despite this, the business is thriving. We spoke to Patrick about how he and Libby got their business off the ground and how Store 104 has become a local favourite in a short space of time.
Patrick, let’s start at the beginning. How did the idea for Store 104 come about?
We had the idea in March 2020, just as the first COVID-19 lockdown hit. We were both speaking to our parents; my mum and Libby’s mum and their sisters, who are the previous generation of the family business. They approached us and asked if we’d like to take over. Libby and I thought about it for a while and agreed that we’d like to do it, but to make the store something for us, rather than to continue as it was in our parents’ time.
So how does the Store 104 of today differ to what it was under the previous generation?
It just kind of made sense to open a book shop – and to add books to the knitting supplies. Books are a lovely business to be in and Rochester was lacking a good independent book shop. It clicked really quickly.
We’re guessing you spend hours and hours reading, then?
We definitely did at the start, and we had around 1,000 titles in stock when we launched. Libby does an incredible job of selecting the titles we carry and working through them all. Even things like the classics we carry are specific editions that we prefer, rather than the obvious choices. The great thing about being an independent bookshop is that we can choose what we want to sell and curate the books we keep on the shelves. We’ve got so many really loyal customers now who really trust what we have.
Why was it important to you both to continue with the family business?
To be honest, it didn’t really feel like that was what we were doing. It was more the fact that we had this incredible opportunity to take on a store. Since we opened, we’ve realised how much the local community knows the family and the business. I’d say regardless of what we sell or do, we’ve always been known for our service. The gallery and framers opposite is always by personal appointment. Everyone seems to love that aspect of it.
How do you go about curating your buy?
In terms of the yarn and knitting side of the store, we try to be as conscious as possible. All our yarn comes from sheep that aren’t mulesed and we try to stock environmentally responsible yarns too, like recycled linen. We even have a yarn spun from nettle fibres, which has fantastic sustainability creds. When it comes to books, we try to be responsible in different ways. We’ll never censor a book or refuse to order something for a customer, but with the Harry Potter books, for example, we won’t stock JK Rowling on the shelves, and if a customer orders one of her books in we’ll donate the profit to a trans charity. We try to do things like that where we can.
So, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in this first 18 months or so of trading?
I think the most important thing is probably to listen to our customers. As much as our customers rely on us, we rely on them too. We’ve been doing lots of book signings and author events, which have been a great way to offer something extra and connect with the community. We’re also starting to offer workshops in the store as well, like natural dyeing and knitting classes. There’s even a yoga class in the shop once we a week – we love it.
Lastly, what does being an independent business mean to you and Libby?
I’d say it’s about putting yourself aside from the competition, and it’s definitely not a way to make life easy for yourself. Things can be tight and it’s hard work, but we find it very rewarding. Libby and I are in the shop five days a week, as are our team, and everyone has the same level of responsibility. There’s no hierarchy or tier system. It’s personal, and that’s why we love it.