It was serendipity rather than strategic planning that led Benjamin Crowe to the building which is perfectly synchronised with his business. He happened to be driving past at a time when he needed more space and noticed that the charity shop based in the property was closing down.
The characterful three-storey shop with its small rooms and nooks and crannies became home to The Vintage Tool Shop. “Yes, there will be leaks and other problems, but it somehow fits the style of what we sell,” says Crowe. “This was an ironmonger’s store in the 1870s and I love how appropriate it is that it’s now being used to sell tools again.”
It’s attitudes like his – plus Crowe’s desire to create local employment opportunities – that arguably augur well for the future of rural enterprise.
He was already restoring and selling old tools from a rented studio nearby but had outgrown it and fancied taking on shop premises, not so much for retailing per se – at least 70% of sales are through eBay and at least 40% go abroad – but because he believes a physical presence provides more credibility.
Crowe attributes the popularity of refurbished tools to an increased appreciation for well-made objects, a backlash to the throwaway society, obsolescence and poor quality.
“Some of what we sell are antiques, sold to collectors, but most are functional tools, bought by hobbyists,” he explains. “A professional would use an electric tool, but vintage tools are a slower and quieter way to work, and a lot of people like that. We can take something that’s been rusting in a shed since 1980 and a week later someone is using it. We see some beautiful things; we have just restored a moulding plane (a carpentry tool) dating back to the 1700s but it’s as good as new and could do the same job today it was made to do three hundred years ago.”
His challenge is to sort the wheat from the chaff, as it were, in order to maximise margins. “If I buy a box of tools for £100, I know that half of that will be dross, and I might have to send that to auction as a job lot.”
It’s the other half that brings the profit, says Crowe. “If I’m faced with a table full of tools, I have to see three or four that I know will sell, to recoup the investment as quickly as possible. Yesterday, I was offered a collection of planes, one of which on its own I could see was worth at least £700. The seller was willing to sell it to me for £300, on the condition that I took the whole lot off his hands.”
Because the labour cost of restoring and listing each tool for sale is at least £5, the minimum retail price is £8; but selling a single item at that price would not generate a profit so Crowe relies on customers buying more than one item.
He estimates the business holds about £70,000 worth of retail stock for sale and twice that again in tools being restored at any one time. The more stock that sellers bring in, the more staff he can employ – currently ten; most are part time.
Ironically, digital technology is fuelling interest in the traditional ways of working, namely YouTube. “You can find a video to show you how to do anything,” says Crowe. “People can see the tools I use and want them. For example, you could buy a router plane for £10 a few years ago but now they are selling for a hundred quid apiece because a famous woodworking YouTuber used one.”
Crowe recalls the excitement he felt at the age of eighteen when he made his first guitar and says his nine-year-old son wants to be a blacksmith because of watching a YouTube channel about historic weapons. “Both my sons like watching people making things, and they realise they could do it themselves. The world is changing: people who sit at a desk all day want to do something physical; it’s a response to the fact that no one, as an individual, makes a complete something any more.”
Crowe trained as a stringed instrument maker (a luthier) before starting his original business, Crimson Guitars, which makes instruments to order, teaches others how to make guitars (“we’re the biggest school of guitar building in the world,” he claims) and also produces guitar-building tools (in which specialism Crimson believes they are the world’s second biggest).
Through Crimson, Crowe developed an abiding love for the “sublime” specialist hand tools used in making instruments. He explains: “I remember making a guitar for Robert Fripp (longest lasting member of the progressive rock band King Crimson). I was trying to get him to tell me what he wanted me to make, and he said ‘you tell me what you want to make’. He saw the guitar maker as the rock star’s rock star. For me, the tool maker is the guitar maker’s rock star.”
Crowe’s guitar-building channel on YouTube (Crimson Custom Guitars) has nearly 170,000 subscribers and spends about half his time filming. His fame as a YouTuber enhances the physical business, both in terms of guitar sales and in revenue from clicks to online adverts (he has earned $260 in the past few days alone, just from clicks from one video).
“Because I love sharing my knowledge, hundreds of thousands of people around the world know who I am and support my businesses, even though I’m based in a quiet rural village,” he observes.
But in 2016, the workload of constant filming while running Crimson led to Crowe “burning out” and struggling to cope, so he decided to promote a member of staff to managing director, to take over its day-to-day management. “I realised I needed to step back and it proved to be the right thing to do,” he says. “My MD runs Crimson day-to-day and I keep a majority shareholding, a say in what happens, and ultimately a veto.”
But having freed up some time, Crowe found he got bored so bought some tools to keep himself occupied. Finding a slide rule for sale on eBay for £1, which he subsequently sold for about £1000, inspired him to make a business from it. It went so well that within a year or so he had opened the shop.
It’s having staff that pleases him most. Crowe says the primary purpose of The Vintage Tool Shop is not so much to make money as to feed his passion and bring interesting jobs to a village that doesn’t have many employment opportunities. He recently had fifteen applications for a vacancy, just from word of mouth.
Having hired apprentices over the years, he is in two minds about trainees. “I have had serious issues with young people not understanding the value of work,” he says, “or not being able to follow instructions. When you tell them to do something in a particular way for the umpteenth time, you get seriously irritated.”
But this isn’t a traditional rant from an older generation. The director of operations at Crimson and the head of production at The Vintage Tool Shop both started as apprentices.
Crowe managed to build both his businesses up without external funding – and got the tool shop up and running with less than £2000-worth of stock. He would advise other entrepreneurs to look at alternative sources of growth funding, and points to a type of invoice discounting available from PayPal, which he says is cheaper than a bank loan.
Speaking of money, Crowe would like to see the return of small business rate relief. “It made this shop viable,” he explains. “And I got rebates on my first apprentice. It meant I took on more people than I really needed at the time, which meant I managed to grow the business faster.”
Thinking back to the day he first spotted the shop, Crowe says he’s now got his eye on the building next door, and would take that on if he got the chance. Ideally he’d like to hire an MD to run the tool business, just as he did with the guitar business. “I have any number of other business ideas I want to explore,” he explains.