Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge prepares to move into new premises

The owner of the Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge says moving into the former Barclays Bank will be a huge step for the business.

By Tom Scargill
Thursday, 27th January 2022, 4:24 pm
Afghan Rug Shop owner James Wilthew at the new premises

RAF veteran James Wilthew, who lives in Cragg Vale, completed the purchase of the building just before Christmas.

James has bought the downstairs space in the property, which had been empty for two years.

"We've got rugs in the shop we can't unfold because the shop's not big enough," he said.

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Afghan Rug Shop owner James Wilthew

"We've needed new premises for a little while.

"I approached Cresswell's, knowing they had the old bank over the road that was vacant and made them an offer.

"It wasn't on the market but I asked them if they were willing to sell it and we negotiated a price.

"It's four times the wall and floor space of our current shop, and the mortgage is cheaper than the rent we currently pay so it's a no-brainer really.

The Afghan Rug Shop

"We're growing, we've got another one-and-a-half tonnes of rugs due in the next week as well.

"Cresswell's always rented the upstairs two floors for their office space, as well as one of the buildings on the site, so when it came up for sale they grabbed it to secure their work space.

"But it left the downstairs with a big question mark over it.

"They've had a few people looking to rent it but there was a lot of money needed for renovation which a lot of people are reluctant to do if they're just renting, and it's also a lot of work.

Afghan Rug Shop owner James Wilthew

"I'm now spending my days covered in rubble!

"But it's an exciting time for us."

The Afghan Rug Shop has been going since 2015, and stems from James' time in Afghanistan around 20 years ago.

"It's a legacy of my tour of Afghanistan in 2003 where I developed my interest and passion for rugs," he said.

"We were in a non-fighting role, out and about talking to dignitaries and we'd spend a lot of time in the city, and during down-time, would sit in the rug shops and watch the world go by.

"I ended up buying a load of rugs thinking I'd never get the opportunity again, I bought over 40 during the six months I was there.

"I sold a few, which helped pay for my wedding, and the rest were expensive loft insulation for a while.

"It took my three months in 2015, through phone calls, emails and Facebook to track down my old interpreter and through him, the guy I buy from and I said 'look, I've got an idea, I think it might work, how do we do it?'.

"He said 'give me a few months to work out how I send the stuff to you', but it was very quick and easy, and seven years on, we're still growing.

"Even after floods, Covid and horrific exchange rates with the dollar."

James hopes to have the official opening by early June.

"It will be a proper flagship store for us," he said.

"I hate saying this, because so many people were badly affected, but Covid was a blessing for us because people were sitting at home during lockdown thinking 'god I hate that rug, I need a new one'.

"So we did the same turnover, closed for a year, that we did the previous year.

"We've had some losses, but that offset them all, and we're in a really strong position where, for the first time in years, I've got the capital to invest.

"It's about investing it wisely and I think we've done that.

"It was also finding the right place. There were only a few places in Hebden I would have considered, but it's in the right spot.

"I know Market Street, I know the footfall, the shop is visible.

"It's a massive step for the business, it will increase our turnover because we'll be bigger and more visible.

"The new shop will mean we'll have five times the amount of stuff on display, which means we'll do more trade.

"We have a new website going live in a few weeks' time as well.

"I don't want the hassle and the stress of multiple stores, I want one big store, and the rest is digital marketing online, that's where we'll focus our energy once the new shop's open.

"It's Grade Two listed. The windowsills are really high on the front of the bank and they don't lend themselves to a retail space, so we're dropping the sills two feet.

"But they're structural so that's costing me £14,000.

"We're going to put brand new plate glass windows in with wooden frames, which has all been approved.

"We're bringing the building back to life.

"There was a lot of booths that were ripped out before I bought it, so it's an open plan space inside, it's huge."

James is confident that business will get back to normal in Hebden Bridge following the challenges posed by Covid-19.

"We could see signs of normality just before Christmas," he said.

"The footfall's not back to 100 per cent, I'd say it's about 75 per cent.

"People are getting a bit more confident about going out.

"The Omicron thing hasn't really helped because it caused a bit of a slump just in the last month or so.

"But there's always a change in March, when the clocks go forward, the Easter weekend is when the tourists return to Hebden.

"January is always the quietest month but it's getting there.

"There's some good early signs but we're not back to 100 per cent yet so we do need more visitors.

"Hopefully by the spring and early summer we should see a return to normality."