An institution in Church Street

Photo:Dockerills in the 1970s

Dockerills in the 1970s

Photo:Dockerills in 2014

Dockerills in 2014

Photo:"...products scattered all over the walls and floor"

"...products scattered all over the walls and floor"

Photo:There are 20 people working in the team

There are 20 people working in the team

Photo:Ginger, the cat

Ginger, the cat

Photo:Another photo of Ginger

Another photo of Ginger

Photo:Malcolm Dockerill

Malcolm Dockerill

History of Dockerill's family firm

By Malcolm Dockerill and Peter Crowhurst

Introduction by Peter Crowhurst, North Laine resident

In Part 1 of my interview with Malcolm Dockerill (see here) he told how Dockerill's was founded in Edward Street in 1920 by his grandfather and then at the beginning of World War II moved to North Laine.

Dockerill's expanded in the 1960s and 70s until Malcolm acquired the present premises in Church Street in the late 1970s. Since that time the business has been based at 3a,3b,3c Church Street and has become an institution in North Laine.

The shop is a reminder of how shops used to be with its wood planked floors, products scattered all over the walls and floor, and with over the counter service.

In this extract from the interview Malcolm tells us how the shop has managed to cope with the changes in the retail sector and reminisces about Ginger, the shop's famous cat.

We compete on service

We compete with the out of town store on service. We couldn't compete with their buying power. People are forever telling us that they go into B&Q and they get no professional advice and they don't know what they have got. People still come in and can't believe how many people we have working behind the counter. There are 20 of us altogether including family and part timers - really for the size of the business it is too many staff.

The staff are like family

Neville, the General Manager, was working here before he left school and he's still here. I've got another person, Gary, who’s been here the same sort of time. I'm only interested in long term members of staff. Getting the right staff is a hit and miss affair. You sit with someone for twenty minutes and think that this person could be brilliant and you employ them and after a month you think 'What a waste of time' because they've been no good at all and on the other hand you take someone on that you don't have a lot of faith in and you think 'I'll give them a chance' and they turn out to be a result. We've got some cherished members of staff here and we treat them as family.

Winning the Evening Argus award for Best Customer Service

I always say to staff that if you know someone's name, use it. Forget Dear Sir or Madam, if you know someone's name use it. People when they come into our shop do need help and I've got staff members who can help and upon instructions from us that's what they're free to do and that's what was picked up by the Evening Argus when they were giving out the Best Customer Service award. If you stood in the shop for a couple of hours, you'd hear somebody say 'This is my favourite shop in Brighton'. We don't advertise that much. I'd like to think that there is more skill attached to our success but the bottom line is that there's not too many people who do what we do.

Our average customer

Our average customer is working class. We have three customer bases. We have the general public, our institutional type of business and the building industry. Any one of these on their own is not enough. The fact that there's a mix and we try to look after all these customer bases in the best way we can - and we do.

Paranoid about people waiting

I'm sure builders get pissed off with coming in and standing behind someone who doesn't know what they're buying but on the other hand they don't wait long because we have members of staff in abundance. I'm paranoid about having people standing around in the shop waiting. If someone comes into the shop and asks for two screws I say to the staff they can have two screws. The staff who have been here for some time know when they can do that. People say 'What, no charge?'. Ladies come in with a push chair with the wheel fallen off. One of the staff might get that chair working for them - that's what we do.

Well known customers

A few months ago a famous TV presenter came into the shop. We were gob-smacked because the member of staff who served him, our counter manager, said he bought £60-70 worth of tools and he was going to help his daughter do up her accommodation for her stay at university.  Zoe Ball comes in occasionally. There are quite a few personalities who have been in the shop.

Ginger

The cat was of enormous interest to the general public. Someone who could only have been a journalist started writing letters to the Argus about our cat - a she cat called Ginger, a real character. When we had the shop across the road with the lawn mowers and gardening, there was a pet shop in Gardner Street that closed down and all the people living in the area came and said 'Why don't you do pet food?'.

We got overrun with mice

We did well with pet food in our shop in Burgess Hill so I introduced it in Brighton. Then we got overrun with mice and we were putting poison down and that wasn't working, One day a woman came into the shop and went to take something off the shelf and a mouse ran over her hand. She fainted and we had to call an ambulance as we couldn't bring her round.

Ginger got rid of the mice

Later someone said 'Why don't you get a cat?'. I thought somebody's got to come down and feed it and it may not work. Anyway we got a cat who unfortunately died so we got another, Ginger, who we put in the shop and, problem solved - no more mice.

They came to see the cat

After six months pet food wasn’t selling, so we gave up selling it. So now we had a cat that we had brought in to deal with the mice problem and who had solved the problem. (That was when we were buying Church Street where we are now.) There was no way we were going to get rid of her so we brought her over here with us and she was here for ever more. She lasted 26 years - she was lovely. Families used to come in and when we asked 'Can we help you?' they would say 'No, we've just come in to see the cat!'. When she passed away BBC Sussex asked if we could send a couple of staff members to do a phone-in.

Meridian TV did a story

Some time before she passed away, Meridian TV did a story about her. They sent a cameraman and reporter and interviewed me and when she passed away they announced her passing on one of their lunch-time news programmes. She certainly helped the business!

She nearly got run over

When we moved here we had to keep the door closed because we were frightened of her running away. One day the shop door was open and she ran over the road to where they were building an accountant's office above Surf & Ski. Doug Clifford was walking up the road and said Ginger had been run over by a lorry but had kept on running. We closed up the shop and all went over there but we couldn't find her. We came back to the shop and then a little while later, she ran in at 100mph and ran up the stairs. We called the vet because I thought she had been hit by a lorry although just in her rear. The vet confirmed she was fine other than shock. After that she never went across the road. She would go down to the Martlet's Charity Shop and sleep on their counter or go to the travel agents next door.

Ginger kidnapped

Ginger got kidnapped once by a rather strange lady. One day Ginger was walking along New Road and a woman picked her up. My son-in-law had a customer come into the shop., 'Did you know a woman's picked up your cat? she asked. I knew where the woman lived, up in Guildford Street, so Ryan went up and knocked on this lady's door and said 'You've got our cat. I want her back now'. She replied 'I haven't got your cat, I've given her to a woman who lives in Sydney Street who wants a cat.' So Ryan got the address of where she was and went to the woman and said 'You've just been given a cat by a lady from Guildford Street. That's not her cat to give away.' We therefore reclaimed her.

The best story about Ginger

The banks in North Street had telephones in those days run by blind people. There was one in the bank that we used, run by a chap called David who had a guide dog. He was a very keen DIY person and he would come into the shop a lot in his lunch break. In the shop we have two pillars and we used these to stand our extension ladders on. Ginger used to love nothing better than to sit on the top of the ladder watching the world go by. One day she was up this ladder passing the time of day when David walked in with his guide dog. Ginger leapt off the ladder and got herself onto this dog's back. David called out 'Malcolm, are you here? There's an obstruction in front of me. My dog won't move forward or backwards either'. 'No David' I replied, 'He won't because my cat is on his back'. The dog was just frozen there. I prised Ginger off the dog's back. Prior to this incident, whenever David wanted to come to the shop, he used to say to his dog ' Dockerills' and the dog would bring him here. From that moment on the dog would never bring Dave into the shop again. He was horrified about coming into the shop in case he passed time with our cat....

The Future?

We're hoping that with daughters and grandchildren involved, the business will go on in the same way. I don't see us expanding. We're doing internet now although the website is not as good as it should be but we're gradually learning. We're forever trying to widen our customer base.

 

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 228, May/June 2014]

 

 

This page was added on 28/06/2014.

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