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People Profile – Janet & Tim Poll – High Street Shopkeepers

Working in our newsagents shop in Cranleigh was never dull

JANET:

My parents, Ken and Joan, originated from Streatham, London and moved out to Sussex in the 1950’s. I was born in Brighton.

I am one of seven children, 4 boys and 3 girls. Sadly, one of my brothers lost his life in a motorcycle accident when he was 20. I attended quite a large number of schools as my parents had itchy feet, so we always seemed to be constantly moving to a different area. My father was a Sales Representative for Hamlyn Books and we could live anywhere as long as it was within his ‘patch’. After sometime we settled on Hayling Island where I spent the majority of my childhood.

I have many happy memories of summer days spent on the beach with my brothers and sisters. Being such a large family, we couldn’t afford holidays, but knowing the beach was at the bottom of the road was an adequate substitute.

I had a fairly regimental upbringing with each of us given our regular chores to do around the house. College was out of the question, as at the age of 16 we were all expected to go straight out to work to bring some money into the household. My first job was as a receptionist in a building company, I earned £14 a week, and I had to give £10 of it for housekeeping. At the age of 17, I went to work for Lloyds Bank as a Secretary utilising the skills I had learned at evening classes. I had hopes of being a hairdresser but my father talked me out of it saying ‘No, you don’t want to be washing all that dirty hair!’

Unfortunately, I lost both of my parents at a young age, my father died when I was 19 and my mother died when I was 26. I have always made it my priority through the years since they passed away to keep us all very close as a family.

Janet as a toddler

TIM:

It was one day in 1953, before I was even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes, that my father suggested to my mother that they move to America. They were living in post war London and still using ration books and my father said that he no longer wanted to live under such conditions and that he knew where the streets were paved with gold. We think perhaps he was influenced by American airmen he befriended during the war. My father came from a family of eleven children. His father, who worked for London Transport, somehow managed to make ends meet. My father, being a hungry 18 year old, opted for the RAF in 1943 purely because he had heard that they had the best food of all the armed forces. He was recruited into Bomber Command as a Lancaster rear gunner – known as ‘tail-end Charlie’. He completed a full tour of 30 operational sorties made up of 24 bombing raids over Germany and 6 highly dangerous food drops over Holland. Statistics would subsequently prove how fortunate he was to survive. So, it’s a miracle I am even here at all!

My mother, who is an only child, wasn’t keen to go and live in America. Back in those days it was a huge step for anyone to take, but eventually my father convinced her and in 1954 off they sailed to New York.

Mum, Dad, Janet and her little sister in our back garden

I was born 5 years later on Long Island, New York, the middle one of three boys. We settled into American life growing up on peanut butter and baseball and sometimes Mum’s Yorkshire pudding so as we didn’t forget our roots. We lived there until 1974, although we did come back for 3 years in the late 60s when my parents bought a sweet shop in Farnborough village in Kent.

While living in America my older brother and I became award winning paperboys. It was like owning your own business whereby you bought the newspapers direct from the publisher at wholesale price, charging the customers the retail price and you kept the difference plus any tips. You were rewarded for your efforts by graduating through the ranks from beginner right up to an ‘honour’ carrier, when you were given a certificate of excellence and a brand new bicycle. All of this gave my father the idea of buying a newsagent. So, upon our return to England in 1974, my parents purchased a newsagent in Fareham, Hampshire. My older brother ran the shop with my parents while I carried on with school.

After two years, my brother decided to move on to pastures new, so the job became available and I was next in line and that’s how I started in the news trade, straight from 6th form college aged 18.

Janet’s little house on Hayling Island

As luck would have it, Janet had moved to Fareham at the same time I had. We met in the local pub one night in 1978. I was there drinking with my mates when Janet walked in with her two friends. We all sat down together and I happened to sit next to Janet. We started chatting and got on really well, we were just drawn to each other and we haven’t stopped talking since! We dated for a year before getting engaged. In the meantime, my parents sold the newsagent in Fareham and bought another one in Selsey, West Sussex.

We continued travelling between Fareham and Selsey, but I didn’t drive at the time and it was a 56 mile round trip involving several buses and trains. Janet would visit me in her little car as she had already passed her driving test. Janet became Mrs Newsagent in December 1979, just in time for the Christmas rush. Quite a career change for her, as her only previous experience of shop work was in a greengrocer managed by her brother when she was 14. Janet had a lot to learn in a very short space of time, but she was an absolute natural and all the customers loved her from the start. We found it very easy to work together and we became a great double act. Being confident at mental arithmetic is vital too, especially if you have got seven or eight items to add up and you’ve only got Arkwright’s till. It’s a talent you never lose.

After 5 years of marriage, our daughter Sarah was born. This was big news in Selsey and caused a huge amount of interest amongst our customers. We were overwhelmed with their generosity when we received 39 hand knitted matinee jackets for the baby.

Janet with her siblings having fun and celebrating a Christmas meal together

We ran the shop for my parents for 9 years with my younger brother now on board running the Post Office side. You could say this was our apprenticeship and in 1987 we decided to buy our own first shop in Purbrook, Hampshire. Janet was 8 ½ months pregnant with our son Richard the day we moved in. The birth was perfectly timed, Janet went into labour just as we closed the shop at the end of the day and Richard was born during the night and I was back at 5.30 am just in time to open the shop.

After 4 years of steady trade in what was a very good first business, we felt this was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things. We sold the shop in Purbrook and after viewing 43 newsagents around the South of England we had almost given up hope of ever finding the perfect shop in the perfect location. Then we received the details of Maple News in Cranleigh (known as Gambles at the time) and we were the first people to view it. As we drove into the village we knew immediately that the location was exactly what we had in mind. The business ticked all the boxes so we didn’t hesitate to purchase the shop.

Our predecessor, Mr Gamble, was a tough act to follow. He was part of a much respected family in Cranleigh who had run the shop for nearly 20 years. People joked that we might not be accepted in Cranleigh for at least 30 years, but that simply wasn’t the case. I think it took 30 seconds. We soon felt it was the friendliest place we’d ever been to. We just felt the warmth of the people and fell in love with Cranleigh that first day in February 1992 and nothing has changed. Also, it was quite refreshing to know that the people of Cranleigh read an incredible amount of newspapers and magazines – thank goodness!

Tim as a young schoolboy ready for anything

When you run your own business every day is an adventure, and the memorable experiences we have had would fill a very large book. However, one of the few low points that springs to mind happened about 18 months after we had taken over the shop. A gentleman accidently backed his large estate car into the front of the shop at quite a speed. He was parked in front of Manns when he got his pedals mixed up in his automatic and he put his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake and careered across the High Street destroying the front of the shop. It happened at 5.00 pm on a busy week day and it was an absolute miracle that no one was killed or injured. There was no other car travelling along the High Street at that moment and nobody was in front of the shop. I was in a state of shock but managed to phone Janet, who asked a kind friend to look after our children so she could come and help clear up the mess. A local builder arrived quickly on the scene and very kindly offered to board up the window and secure the premises overnight.

We had a another very exciting day when Ant and Dec came to the shop to film a comedy sketch for one of their television programmes early in their career. A representative from Channel 4 approached us and asked if they could use our shop as well as one or two others in Cranleigh. It meant that we would have to close for one hour. Initially they wanted to film on a Saturday morning which would have been ridiculous as Saturdays were so busy, especially as we had just started selling lottery tickets. We offered them Monday lunchtime which they agreed to and they shot the sketch in the shop for exactly one hour and then moved on. Word somehow got out around to the school kids that Ant and Dec were in the village and after school there was absolute chaos in the High Street.

Tim’s Dad looking thoughtful in 1945

Really every day was fun in Maple News. We made it fun not only for the customers’ entertainment but for our own. It was never a chore. It also helps to have great staff, and we were always very lucky in that respect. We wanted customers to leave happy and to make their whole shopping experience as pleasant as possible and would look forward to coming back.

As Richard and Sarah grew older they became part of the weekend staff, playing their part and mucking in. By working in the shop they learnt some important people skills which they have carried into their respective careers.

Arriving at school on the bus

Alas, in 2011, after a total of 35 years in the news trade with usually only Christmas day off each year, we felt that it was time for a change. After a short break, we decided to think along the lines of a tea shop as Janet was already a keen baker. We were basing our search criteria on something similar to Cromwells Coffee Shop, but after a while it became apparent that another Cromwells didn’t exist. As luck would have it, a few months later Cromwells came up for sale and we snapped it up. It was very convenient for us as it meant that we didn’t have to move away from Cranleigh. The transition was made easier by the fact that we already knew most of our customers. We treated Cromwells customers as if they were dining in our own home. Janet was a dab hand in the kitchen and I found out that I was very good at making tea and coffee…… sounds like it was a piece of cake! Realistically it was very hard work in a highly pressured environment.

December was a particularly busy month as we used to serve Christmas lunches with all the trimmings. One Christmas Eve we’d had a torrential rain storm which wiped out the power in much of the local area apart from the High Street. We were open and we had our busiest day ever because people were unable to cook at home. We filled flask after flask with boiling water for folk to take home so they could make their own tea. We thought at one stage we would be inundated with requests to cook the customers turkeys! It was one of those occasions that actually seemed to add to the Christmas spirit.

Ant and Janet in the shop

Thinking of Christmas’s past and present, during our time in retail we learned that Christmas for us didn’t start in December. It started mid-summer when we had to place orders for Christmas cards, calendars, chocolates etc. We attended Christmas trade fairs in shorts and t-shirts whilst listening to jingle bells! It was the same with Easter eggs. We had to place orders in August or September, so that production could start straight after Christmas. At Maple News Easter was our busiest time of year, even busier than Christmas. As we had to compete with the supermarkets, we sourced more unusual eggs from the continent and people would come from miles to buy them.

All of our Christmas preparations at home had to be fitted around running the business. We would go late night shopping after work to buy gifts and spend many an evening preparing for the day itself.

A young Dec and Janet posing for the camera

Nowadays, we are still both involved in retail. I work part-time at Handymans Hardware in the High Street and also as part of the delivery team at Cranleigh Furniture. Janet is working in the showroom for Mitchell and Sons Flooring Contractors. We miss working together and have lots to talk about when we get home, which all comes naturally as we still haven’t stopped chatting for over 40 years.

Our advice to budding entrepreneurs who wish to run their own business is not to treat it as a job but rather as a way of life. Also, it is an incredible bonus if you can work well together as a couple.

Janet and I celebrating our Wedding Day in 1979

To survive in the present retail climate you have to be inventive, imaginative, find your niche and treat your customers like royalty. Above all else you must have a sense of humour!

Tim and Janet Poll

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