36 - Bringing you cool stuff & groovy gear since 1974,
pioneers in the retro shopping world, starting in the early
70s when The Internet and SatNav were things you might see in
a science fiction movie. This was a time even before Abba!
John and the
team run a friendly and helpful business, both from their shop
and also via The Internet, and are proud to have many loyal
clients from all around the world looking for funky, wacky or
fun retro stuff.
spirit continues with Retro36 fully embracing The Internet and
social networking sites and with plans for additional shops.
talks to John at Retro36.
Hello John. Retro36 has been
around for 37 years. There must have been lots of changes that
you've seen. What have been the biggest changes in that time for you?
Yes, too many to mention really. Obviously, the rise of Internet shopping has made everything much more competitive. It gives people access
to a wealth of knowledge and products just at the touch of a button. I’ve watched
different retailers come and go over the years.
There was one retailer who has gone now who sold retro games, Chopper bikes and even the pub tables that had Space Invaders and other games on them.
Space hoppers but we don’t have any Raleigh Choppers.
first started what sort of items were you selling?
All sorts. We were less gadgety back then and there were more
gifts. Condiments and jams, curiosities, Steiff bears,
Shrog’s pressed flower cards and all that sort of thing. We
did have an Athena shop and were the first in the
to have one.
remember the tennis girl scratching her bottom.
Yes, we sold thousands of those. It’s amazing to see that we were selling posters for around £1 thirty years ago and now they’re selling for about £4.
Whereas items have gone up times ten. £1 then should be worth £10 now but you see that consumables now are virtually as
cheap as they were back in the seventies. Another product, Newton’s Cradle, which we have been selling for thirty years, was £14 in a naff brown box and now it comes in a much better box selling at the same price thirty years on. Bread’s
gone up from 5 pence to £1 in that time, so that’s quite a big difference that you see.
I suppose another big difference is where you sourced these items from? In the old days it would have been from the midlands and now it’s
That’s right, everything’s from the far east now, most of
it is from China and some of it is from Taiwan or Korea.
What do you think will
be retro in twenty years’ time? There’s so much retro around now I wondered if it meant that the nineties and the noughties wouldn’t have anything that stood out as
nostalgic in the future?
I’m actually thinking the same thing. Everything seems to be going back, like with films, back to the beginning as if they’ve lost creativity and say “What are we going to do? Oh, we’ll have to go backwards again.” Obviously some
things are going forwards but a lot of things seem to be, as you say, retro.
I wonder what they’ll look back on. iPods and so on?
Yes, it probably will be that type of thing. But there doesn’t seem to be an amazing amount of stuff out there that would be interesting, as it were.
generation was spoilt for choice because there was so much good stuff creatively - the TV, the music, the film.
That’s right, and it will be difficult to pinpoint what we will look back on from now because there’s just so
much out there. When we went to the trade fair in February it was just amazing. There were twenty halls just full of stuff and it is unreal what’s out there.
How do you go about choosing which ones you’ll sell?
I think it’s just like an innate skill.
Obviously part of it is experience, almost like an intuition, and you
weigh something's potential up in your brain. You may be born with it,
this ability, and over time it develops and you find out what will sell well. So you have to look around and pinpoint the things that catch your
attention and capture your imagination, because if it captures
your imagination then it will capture the imagination of our customers. So, first and foremost, we really buy what we like because if we’re interested in them then, hopefully,
other people will be interested in them as well.
What are the bestsellers?
Bestsellers? We do very well on jigsaws, because they’re
great value for money. Tin toys, the old nostalgic tin toys
which people of a certain age will remember well. But,
unfortunately now due to toy safety regulations they can’t
be sold to anyone under eighteen. People were playing with
them forty years ago and hopefully never got hurt but the
regulations are stricter now because it’s tin and paint.
Didn’t do me any harm! (Laughs)
are more stringent now, but customers over 50 will remember them and playing with them so will buy them to recapture their youth and put it on the shelf somewhere. And the
Moomins have been very good.
Oh yes, I saw them on your site.
where they’re from? I thought they were Japanese.
No, they’re from
Finland. The Moomins – it’s the 65th anniversary this year and they’re soft toys, very light troll-type things and they are unique and very unlike anything else.
Yes, it said “Choose your favourite one” on the website and I couldn’t choose because I liked all three being shown!
I hope that’s what your customers think as well. (Both laugh) So what gives you the most pleasure from running the Retro36 business John?
I think first and foremost would be finding new products and
buying new things. That is the most interesting thing.
Have you got a warehouse or do you take orders and fulfil them from
elsewhere? Or both....
We have a shop,
obviously, full of stock and then we’ve got a basement which is very large and it used to be the Natwest bank. It’s reinforced
concrete downstairs and still has the old safes in there and
it’s very dry and very solidly made. So we have a very large stockroom downstairs which we use to
fulfil orders to customers. And when we replenish the shop stock we
obviously go downstairs and pick up what we need.
I suppose when you come in first thing in the morning you’ve got loads of orders that have come in from around the world in the night?
right, which is a bit of a boost really when you come in and there are all these
orders and you think “I wasn’t working in the middle of the night but we’ve still
That’s pretty good – it must be a nice
Definitely, a very warm feeling.
Why are people continually so interested in retro
I think it’s
human nature to look back and reminisce, because no-one can look
into the future because nobody’s experienced it yet so all you really have is the right now. So the past is the
only thing you can be sure of.
We only seem to remember the
good in the past, don't we?
Exactly. We have fond memories etched into our minds of, maybe,
a favourite toy which you played with, a good childhood friend or a favourite car or whatever. And you want to relive those happy memories, don’t you? So you buy a toy or watch a TV programme you loved
when you were a child and suddenly a happy warm feeling comes back and makes you feel good again. Maybe not young
again but certainly happy.
What are your retro passions? Do you collect anything or are you a fan of a retro band?
My favourite band is The
Stone Roses who are a Mancunian band and they weren't around for very long and went into the abyss for a few years.
it happens a lot, doesn’t it?
Yes, it had something to do with
the fact that Silvertone Records had signed them saying that they
could only get royalties from vinyl. But then with the arrival of CDs and everything else they thought that wasn’t fair. Then they released a second album in ’94 called The Second Coming but that didn’t get very good reviews and then a couple of years later they
were finished. That’s my passion, that and Superman comic books.
Obviously I read them when I was a child and I still enjoy them.
There’s a shop in London near The British Museum that
specialises in comic books and magazines. I know that Jonathan Ross is a regular customer there.
No, this is specifically magazines and
comics. There used to be a load of good movie and music-related memorabilia shops around there but they’ve all closed down in the last few years.
It’s that the rates are just so high – they’re astronomical really.
There was a great shop called Rare Discs that used to do, well funnily enough, rare discs, and a shop called Flashbacks which sold movie posters and stills and I could spend many happy hours in there. That has become a café now.
I like the name Flashbacks.
It was great. A really musty smell and loads of boxes to rifle through.
Our biggest overhead is the rates and rent. They’re very high.
Yes, and you have to make that before you even start to make a profit.
And because of Internet shopping all that money isn’t going
onto the high street like it used to thirty years ago, or twenty when The Internet was in its infancy.
When did Retro36
jump onto The Internet?
We only jumped onto it in 2005.
Wow, that was quite late then relatively?
We were always contemplating it and three years before we got on we were looking into it but because my dad had only just started using a computer I was a little slow in getting it sorted out. So we were very late, I suppose.
What does it mean to the business
I think it’s an instrumental tool to keep growing and be successful. We had a new
website launched this July and then social media websites like Twitter and Facebook – they allow you to connect with a much larger audience with just one Facebook post. So it’s great to post a link on Facebook and then to get
instant feedback from someone saying “Oh, I love that product, it’s brilliant.”
Have you noticed it working?
Oh yes, we’ve got 777 fans on Facebook now.
John: 777. They come from as far as Australia.
Wow, and these tend to be people that come in and buy stuff as well?
Yeah, yeah, so there are a lot of local people and a
lot of Internet customers as well.
that work? You create a Facebook page…
It’s a fan page. You can create fan pages rather than
personal pages because the problem with personal pages is that
you can only have 5,000 friends. With fan pages you can have
50 billion. They’re called ‘likes’ now rather than fans.
Do they find you by searching on facebook or from a link on Retro36’s website?
I think it’s basically a bit of both because if someone puts a link up on Facebook about us then someone else will click on it and say “What’s that? Oh that’s a cool shop – I’m going to buy something
from there.” And then they either shop online with us or call us up. We
are also trying to develop our weekly blog called Retroworld where we’ve already done fourteen episodes.
Are you reviewing products?
Yes, we just did one where we’re taking people around our dedicated poster room. We re-did the room as a poster room with music posters – retro like The Doors, and
These are for sale?
Oh yes. They’re repros including some little mini ones which are £2.
Tiffany's, Marilyn, Elvis and things like that?
Yes, that’s right. Hendrix, James Bond – Sean Connery in his white tuxedo saying “The name’s Bond. James Bond.”
very impressive actually. From not being bothered to do anything on The Internet it now sounds as though you’re doing everything on The Internet.
(Both laugh) Yes, as you say from doing absolutely nothing we’re now really going for it.
Obviously it’s not the be-all-and-end-all but it’s a very useful tool.
Well, as you said, you come in first thing in the
morning and hopefully you’ve got enough orders that will hopefully
have contributed towards your rent and rates and that’s before you start your day’s work.
That’s right, exactly, and hopefully over the next few years we’ll keep
developing it as well.
Do you do
anything on eBay?
We don’t do
anything on eBay. Just on our website. I did do a little bit of eBay very early on but I found it just so tedious.
You’re absolutely right.
thought that it was just so stupid with people asking all these questions. And eBay
kept putting up their charges and then they changed it so that only customers could put feedback on and you can’t reply back
properly. I thought it was a waste of time so now we only sell on our website. I don’t think I’ll change at all.
eBay started so well as an auction way back – I was on it very early in the nineties buying and selling posters, but then it became a general store and a boot sale for the world and his wife. That and the extra charges for everything, as you mentioned, really spoiled a great concept. It’s not a proper auction anymore and there’s so much dross on there now.
If you put a good memorabilia item on there then there’ll be 10 others, mostly inferior and all incorrectly priced and described, also on there.
I don’t buy from eBay now – I always buy from independents now and locally where possible.
Where do you think the business is heading in the future?
We were looking to open another shop in a
nearby town in the next two years. We’re just keeping our eyes peeled for a good
it’s just easier to look after.
And there’s a big enough market to serve people in two towns?
Yes, we want to get a few
more shops open.
So eventually you could have an empire of
Hopefully. As close as we can to where we’re based so we can keep an eye on them and travel without too much hassle. If they are too far away then I don’t think that’s a great idea because too many things can go wrong. If it was too far away, say three hours’ drive, and things went wrong it could be a
whole day away to sort it out when you could be working locally and keeping it as you want it. I think twenty minutes away or so is good because we can keep an eye once a week without
too much travel.
definitely a market for your kind of stuff in each big town because there was a shop that sold
your kind of stock here in Northampton and it was always buzzing with customers. I suppose it closed because the lease didn’t renew or something like that, but it was very popular.
There is a market for it in major towns – maybe when you have your local network of shops in a few years you might have to decide whether or not to be a bit further afield – York and Birmingham and Bristol and so on.
That’s right. But obviously our priority is that we strive
to be the best that we can. We’re money-driven to a degree
but it’s also a passion and a labour of love. And that’s
what gets us up in the morning. Because we want to be best at
what we do and getting customers saying “You’ve got a
great shop.” Or “You’ve got a lovely website.” Or
whatever. The money is nice as well but we like what we do and
we try to do it the best we can. That’s the main mantra, as
Your mission statement?
I was teasing a client earlier on because she is running her business from a room in her house and on her website it says
corporate headquarters. (Both laugh) That’s what you can do with The Internet.
Well John, it’s been good talking to you and we have got a great insight into your
business so thanks very much for that.
Thank you David.
36 is a successful family business established since
1974. Our team of buyers constantly strive to find new,
interesting and out-of-the-ordinary products, helping
make the Retro 36 range truly unique. Cool stuff, things
with a twist, quirky, funky and fun are just a few of
the words to describe the Retro 36 range. Our
award-winning retail shop and website brings the unique
Retro 36 experience to everyone.
We're still small compared to the world of the
multi-billion pound retailers but we think that should
be championed. Being a small independent business we
care more for our customers and you're certainly not
just a number when you buy from us. We're real folk just
like you, working hard to bring you the very best toys
and gadgets available. When you buy from us you can be
certain whatever product you choose will be a sure hit
with the receiver. That's because we use our 37 years of
experience to pick the most fabulous products from the
best suppliers in the world. There's no need to hassle
yourself looking through 1,000s of products at other
retailer's websites (or shops) to find a good one. We've
already done that for you. Only awesome products find
their way into our shop and onto our website.
Our business began as a relatively small retail shop,
specialising in retro toys on 36 St. Nicholas Street in
Scarborough (hence the name Retro 36!). The shop was an
instant hit and within 18 months, we had moved into
larger premises. Since then, we have continued to expand
via our website and have become a well-loved and
37-39 St. Nicholas St
Telephone: +44 (0)1723 381707