Uppingham stalwart calls it a day after 57 years of trading

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This week marks the end of an era as an Uppingham entrepreneur closes her doors for the final time after almost 60 years of trading.

Kath Gilbert, owner of Gilbert’s Furniture and Giftware in Ayston Road, is stepping down at the end of this week to finally enjoy her well-earnt retirement.

The name Gilbert’s is synonymous with the town, and for good reason; her journey began in 1960 when she began working from a house opposite the Exeter Arms. Then in 1962 she moved to her current premises in Ayston Road, and has been there ever since.

But that is only part of the 83-year-old’s story.

She said: “I had no intentions of starting a furniture business. I wanted to buy a bed to furnish a house I was letting, and set myself a budget £8 to spend. I went to an auction, and the first bed that came up was £2. The next bed that came up was £1, complete with a mattress, and then another bed came up for 2s 6d. I bought all three and still had change from my £8. I was made up, so I kept one bed and put the other two up for sale in the local listings.”

Her furniture career was up and running.

“I started off selling beds, mattresses and tables and chairs. It was easy then – this was in the days of utility furniture; everything was made to certain specifications as defined by the Government, and people wanted pretty much the same things.”

Then in 1964 her business really started to take off.

Kath said: “I’d heard on the grapevine that somebody was looking to buy a shop in the High Street and sell new furniture. My bank manager approached me, and asked whether I’d be interested in buying it.

“Remember, in those days women couldn’t get a mortgage, but my bank manager told me to write a cheque, and I ended up with the shop. It cost me £3,750. That would never happen today – most people don’t even know who their bank manager is.”

Flushed with success, she decided to open a furniture shop for an hour one evening, and after selling everything at her very first attempt, Kath, who was working full-time as a demonstrator, was soon forced to make a life-changing decision – carry on working full-time or commit to working for herself.

Kath said: “Bob Hamblin, who owned the local garage, had some space for rent in Ayston Road, and after badgering me for months to rent his site, I eventually gave in and began renting this site off him for £1 a week.

“When Bob died, his son, Peter put the rent up to £3 a week, and I eventually bought the shop off him. I’ve been here ever since.”

The shop has changed considerably in that time. The original corrugated iron structure was pulled down and rebuilt, with Kath expanding her empire to acquire the site next door.

What is the secret of her success?

“All of my businesses have been about offering the very best service and good value for money, and it is this approach which has served me so well for so many years,” said Kath.

It isn’t just inUppingham where Kath has excelled, – she’s also had her fair share of success in Oakham too.

Kath said: “At one time or another I’ve owned John Clarke’s old grocery shop, the old Co-op and the petrol pumps in Oakham, but my heart very much belongs to Uppingham. I was born just outside the town, and I’ve lived here all my life. The town has played a huge part in my life.”

Aside from her businesses, Kath has played a prominent role in promoting trade in the town. She was instrumental in bringing Christmas lights to the town for the first time after the Second World War, and has been an active member of Uppingham First and the Uppingham Chamber of Trade in all its guises.

But now the time has come to take a step back.

Kath said: “I’ve been thinking about stepping down for a while, and the rise of the internet, with its infinite choice, and the enormous increase in business rates made my mind.

“I’ve met many good people over the years, and have been lucky enough call some of them friends. This isn’t just a business for me, it’s a community. For example, for the past 12 years I’ve had a musical evening here every December on the first late night of Christmas shopping, and it’s this kind of interaction I’m going to miss.

“I will be very sad when the door closes for the final time, but now is the right time to go.”

Ron Simpson, secretary of Uppingham First, said: “Kath is an amazing woman, an absolute champion, and is testiment to what can be achieved when businesses offer people what they need.

“She is a stirling example to young businesswomen. She was one of the very first women to trade in the town’s High Street and is incredibly community -minded. She has given a lot to the town and I hope she enjoys her retirement.”

However, the Gilbert name will live on in Uppingham, with Kath’s son, Mark, continuing the family mantle through his antiques business.

Kath said: “I can remember my youngest son, Mark, always being interested in antiques as a child, wanting to know what made certain things valuable and desirable. I can remember giving him £10 to try and make a profit, and he came back from an auction with a salon suite – three pieces of very elaborate Victorian furniture. That was the start of him, and I’m proud that the family name will continue to do business in the town.”

n Full details of Gilbert’s closing down sale on page 31.