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The Star Article - Women customers fall at duo's feet

Thursday November 17, 2016 at 1:44pm

In 150 years there has never been a woman at the helm of the retail dynasty that is Pettits.

Which is pretty surprising, seeing as Pettits sell shoes.

The shop on Mexborough High Street is paradise-found for legions of loyal female shoe-aholics.
Yet it has been passed down from father to son for generations.

Has a female Pettit has never been allowed to get involved for fear of her laying claim to half the stock?

Not so, says Peter Pettit, great-great-grandson of founder William Squirrel Pettit: ""There must be countless women who would think their dreams had come true if they married a man with a shoe shop. Not in our family.

"From what we can gather, our early female ancestors were too busy bringing up their children to get involved in the business. My grandfather's wife died in childbirth - he ran the business and looked after seven children. And in more recent years the other wives have helped out behind the scenes, but were never all that bothered about shoes and handbags.

"My mother wasn't fussed about them and neither is my daughter-in-law.

"My wife Shirley could rival Imelda Marcos if she wanted but she's never had any interest. To her, shoes are a functional necessity, not things to covet," he shrugs, no doubt perplexed at the contrast between Shirley's pragmatic view of footwear and the raptures he sees female customers literally fall into at his feet on a daily basis.

"Shirley needs a new pair of boots at the moment, But I know she won't be coming in to choose some. I'll end up taking a few pairs home for her to pick from," he says, warming to his subject and clearly in no way fearful of a wife's wrath.

To my mind, Shirley sounds a shrewd cookie; why bother to trek all the way up Mexborough High Street when she can have an assortment hand-delivered. She knows she can trust his eye; he's been picking out the latest courts, sandals, peep-toes, and sling-backs at trade fairs for the last 40 years. (He has never taken Shirley with him; "anything she chose definitely wouldn't be right for the shop," he says).

Truth be told, Peter never really wanted to sell shoes for a living, either. His heart was set on university and becoming a teacher after working a couple of years in accountancy.

But after a three-month holiday job at the family firm before university term started, he was hooked. He turned heel on his dreams of studying.

His dad Bill and Uncle Arthur, who ran the shop together, must have been delighted initially; they were in their sixties, not getting any younger and thinking they would have to sell their grandfather's store.

They hadn't reckoned on the new young broom wanting to sweep clean, however. An eager and enterprising 21-year-old, Peter was determined to change the "staidness" of the shop - and bring fashion to Pettits.

Back then, Pettits was still the epitome of the traditional shoe shop; it was the place you headed for slippers, wellingtons, kids' football boots and plimsolls. There were rickety shelves, old-fashioned displays, shoe boxes piled high . Shoes were sensible and hard-wearing; neither style nor heels were high on the priority list.

His accountant's brain worked out that, in 1968, a shop in a thriving town surrounded by working pits, one which could easily sell a pair of top-notch Barker's shoes for seven guineas to the local solicitor when the average wage was 5 a week, wasn't doing all that well if its annual net profit was 2,0000.

He set about creating change - and putting pettits on the map.

Former saddler William Squirrel Pettit would have been amazed to see what his descendant made of the business he created.

Thanks to the vision of his great-great-grandson, there are now pettits stores in Beverley, Bridlington and Retford.

The little shop frontage W.S. Pettit Senior and his staff would bedeck with humble clogs, best leather brogues, dainty button-top kid boots, Gladstone bags and cricket bats every morning back in the 1800s is still there. But if he could step inside today, he surely would burst with pride at how his legacy became an empire, a palace erected in homage to the shoe. The original store has expanded beyond all recognition. It sprawls over two floors, the two shops next door and a huge extension at the rear for which the back yard was literally blasted into oblivion.

It's 8,000 square feet, a shoe-aholic's heaven. It's even got a cafe so shoppers can take the weight off their shoe leather for a while. It also sells jewellery, handbags and trendy menswear.

Actually, when he says "we", he means his 36-year-old son Paul, who is now at the helm. He came in at 23, another new broom - and Peter was determined not to step back into his father's tough and unforgiving old brogues.

"I didn't want to be like my dad. I didn't want to make it a battlefield for Paul," he says.

"Dad was appalled at many of the things I wanted to do. But I battled on and he usually changed his mind once I'd done them.

"He hated the thought of us having a cafe. But once it was installed in 1980 in what had been Uncle Arthur's upstairs flat, he loved it; he would hold court in there, chatting away to the customers.''

After 150 years of male domination, the next generation of pettits to take helm are set to be females, though. Paul has two daughters.

In an age when businesses are going to the wall on a daily basis and shops that were the backbone of a community for generations have been replaced by Poundlands and takeaways, pettits is still an oasis of elegance on Mexborough High Street.

It is still a traditional shoe store, where you can still buy slippers and school pumps - though there is now massive competition from the supermarkets. It still runs the customer accounts and shoe clubs its founder set up 150 years ago to give townspeople free credit and the ability to save for a good bit of shoe leather. The Pettit family believe they are just as important for today's' customers as they were in the Victorian era.

It still sells posh shoes to local solicitors and doctors and though the pits are long-gone, there's still a huge demand from the solid, working class inhabitants of a still-proud town.

"But the secret of our survival has been our determination to move with the times," says Peter Pettit.

"We've got to keep up with the trends, the demand for big names and compete with the likes of New Look..."

The big name brands customers want are all there. On the handbag stands arm candy from DKNY and Armani at up to 400 nestles next to moderately-priced Radleys and Fiorellis. On shoes you'll find Gabor, Lotus, Ted Baker, Ravel, Fit Flop and Lacoste.

Those expensive, burnished Barker's sit, gloriously glossy, alongside well-made, value for money fashion styles at recession-busting prices.

And Peter is a man who has seen so many shoes come full-circle.

"The lace-up boots Victorian ladies queued up for are back in vogue and we've seen kitten heels and platforms a fair few times," he comments."Clogs are back in fashion again - they would have been a mainstay of my great-grandfather's stock in the 1860s.''

, though they would have looking nothing like as fashionable as they are now," says Peter.

"I remember when they were big in the Seventies. I brought 24 pairs of wooden ones back on the train from London, with the strings on the carrier bags digging into my fingers, they were that heavy."

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1 Comment

Joanna Tatham | Tuesday October 2, 2018 at 11:10am
I have just ordered some shoes from the website;a far cry from gazing into Pettit's shop windows as a child &a young woman growing up in Mexborough.....' Looking in Pettit's' was a favourite hobby in my youth,(and perhaps the start of a lifelong interest in good leather.I now live in (very) rural France, which I love, but very far from accessible and affordable shoe shops.So, thanks to technology and trust in the name of Pettit, I can't wait to open the shoe box.....and oh, the smell!!

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