Antique shops in the time of Covid

By Geoff Harris

How is the antiques trade coping with the re-opening of ‘non-essential’ retail stores and the new requirement that customers wear masks – along with all the other rules and regulations?

We caught up with Vincent Page, owner of Antiques on High on Oxford High St and another thriving branch in the Devon town of Sidmouth. The Oxford branch has been going since 1997 and won the Antiques Retailer of the year Prestige award for Oxfordshire from Corporate Live

Did you re-open as soon as you could, or was it a more phased approach?

We opened both stores in Oxford and Sidmouth on June 15th with lots of precautionary measures – tape on the floor, masks for staff, and compulsory hand sanitiser. To be perfectly blunt, we won’t let anyone in who doesn’t use the hand sanitiser, and will ask them to leave the shop. An awful lot of shops just leave a bottle by the door and it’s optional, but not for us – there are a lot of asymptomatic people out there, and the government has admitted that it doesn’t understand how Covid-19 is transmitted. We’ve also got thermo detector guns, which you point at the forehead and they give a body temperature – we had one guy set it off in Oxford and he went straight to hospital, but we never heard anything back from Test and Trace, so I can only assume he was OK. I’ve heard thermo detector guns are quite unusual, which annoys me a bit. All shop owners should be taking these precautions.

Do you worry that these restrictions might reduce the traditional enjoyment of antique shops, where people like to browse?

To a degree. I do think people might feel a bit uncomfortable with the sanitiser and the temperature taking, but they get used to it. We have one regular in Sidmouth, a lovely fella of mature years – when I asked to take his temperature, he closed his eyes and stuck his tongue out! As for picking objects up, my view is that if everyone uses the hand sanitiser – and in our shops they have to – then even they touch something, the virus can’t be transmitted easily. We also sell clothes, including kimonos and vintage fashion. The rules say you can’t use a changing room anymore unless it’s sanitised after every customer, so in the Sidmouth store we have a space on the floor where you can stand with your arms out and won’t touch anything. People can try garments on over their clothes. I have also invested in a steamer which kills the virus. If people try something on and don’t buy it, the item goes into a bag and is quarantined for three days.

Longer term, what impact do you think the lockdown and social distancing will have on the UK antiques business? Will more of it go online, or be auction based - or do you think very specialist shops like yours might finally thrive on the high street as the big chains find it harder and harder to make a profit?

No I don’t think more and more antiques shops will go online as it’s a very traditional business. We use e-commerce and have six social media accounts which are updated every day, but when it comes to antique shops, I think they will continue, and customers will just adapt. If this is how it’s got to be, then so be it. I believe a vaccine is the only way out of this situation.

As for the future, most antique centres are traditionally located in large old buildings, which are becoming increasingly available, so there is plenty of space for social distancing. That, and masks and sanitisers, will seriously limit the opportunities for transmission. If it become the norm in the majority of antique shops, people will just accept it.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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