For those of us lucky enough to live around the bustling Bishopthorpe Road community in York, Johnnies Hayes is a familiar and well-loved figure. He is the Chairman of the Bishopthorpe Road Traders Association, as well as co-owner of Frankie and Johnnie’s Cook Shop where he and his wife Frankie preside over the treasure trove of practical, beautiful and unusual goods which make this particular unit a destination.
Johnnie, like many York residents, is not a true Yorkie, having been born and brought up in Bradford, over in West Yorkshire, where he trained to be a teacher. After a stint teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain, Johnnie was looking to return to England. “I put a flag in a map, and where it went in, that’s where I decided to live”, he tells me over coffee in the storeroom come office in the back of the shop. That flag brought him to a career teaching art and design in a local school for 20 years.
But it wasn’t in the area of art that Johnnie finished his career in education. “I was good at teaching people with learning difficulties,” he remembers; “I saw the finer side of them and had a sympathy for them that not all teachers showed at that time”. This led to Johnnie’s appointment as a Teaching Adviser, a post that lasted until 1997 when his role was made redundant. “I decided I didn’t want to go back into teaching”, he tells me.
Looking around the storeroom at the piles of baskets, pots, cards and the myriad of kitchen equipment that waits its turn to go into the front of the shop I can see Johnnie and Frankie’s artistic eye being behind the choice of stock. I ask him if that is when he decided to go into the retail business.
“Oh no, not yet”, he laughs. ” First of all Frankie and I set up a theatre in education group, going round schools doing plays on subjects such as bullying”. He laughs as he remembers those times; “It was just as many people as we could fit inside the van. We were poor, but we had a few laughs”.
There were two reasons why Johnnie went on to the next phase of his life: the bureaucracy that was associated with working in schools, and needing to provide for his growing family. By now he had 4 children. One day, preparing to do some gentle DIY, he went out to Pextons, the well-known hardware shop which had been an institution on Bishopthorpe Road since 1933. He got chatting to Brian, the owner, who was looking to retire properly and sell the shop. “Frankie always tells people that I went out for a tin of paint, and came back with a shop”, he laughs, “And she’s right!” Frankie and Johnnie became the third owners of Pextons, which at the time was on its knees financially, losing business and failing to keep up with the changing needs of the next generation. Under Frankie and Johnnie’s careful stewardship, it doubled in size, quadrupled the takeover, became profitable – and in 2010 won the industry award for Britain’s Best Hardware Shop, all the while keeping its reputation for being family-friendly and purveyors of practical advice. There are many of us, all over York who would never have dreamt of picking the right rawl plug, piece of dowling or replacement light fitting without first asking Johnnie’s advice.
“So, I ask Johnnie”, slightly puzzled, “Why did you exchange one shop for another?” In 2012 Dan, computer whizz kid, tired of a life spent in front of a computer screen, bought the shop off Johnnie and Frankie. “Well”, he replies, “I had a desire for a bit more life. I’m 59 now, and for us, Frankie and Johnnie’s Cookshop is about downsizing. It’s a lot less complex a business than a hardware store that has hundreds of different lines, and nor do we have to give out advice to anywhere near the same extent as we did at Pextons. Pextons is an institution, and it’s a big responsibility running an institution!”
“So this is prime time for you?” I ask him. “Absolutely”, he exclaims; “Now I’m the world’s oldest Saturday lad!”
I invite Johnnie to tell me about this next phase of his life. “Well, I work a day and a half a week in the shop, either out front or here at the back. And after we sold Pextons I got together with a few other of the shopkeepers and business owners on Bishopthorpe Road and we set up the Bishopthorpe Road Traders Association, which for me comes from a deeply-held philosophical antipathy for big business and how it is taking over our communities. We want to solidify this street as a place with a future. This takes a day a week, and I spend another day a week as a Trustee of York Cemetery”.
I smile in appreciation at this, as the old cemetery in York is, like Bishopthorpe Road and its thriving business community, a source of real pride to the residents. It is a beautiful Victorian burial ground that fell into disuse and disrepair, until a group of energetic enthusiasts bought it from the Crown in 1987 for £1 and turned it into a fabulous nature reserve – and you can still get buried there. My husband and I have reserved a spot under a beech hedge, near the war memorial.
“It sounds as if you’ve become a pillar of the community”, I laugh. “It does, doesn’t it,” replies Johnnie, “But I’ve also carved some time out for myself and what I want to do.”
Johnnie then tells me about his plans to learn more about British painters of the 20th century. “I want to do some academic work, but I’m not one for going on courses”, he tells me; “I’m enjoying reading, and learning about the artists, and im going to start painting landscapes and still lifes again too. Frankie and I have never been in the habit of going on long holidays. When you have a shop, you don’t really have the time. But we love Southwold, and have a week there every year with the girls, and this year we’re going to explore Dubrovnik as well as I do love a bit of architecture”.
It’s Johnnie’s turn to man the shop, but he shares one last insight with me. “Life is so much easier without the pressure of full-time work. Everything gets easier: work, hobbies, holidays. Even dealing with serious illness is easier”.
Johnnie’s Prime Time Tips are:
- Make plans before you finish your job. It can take 12 months to put the plans into place
- Let the dust settle. Don’t jump into anything that will suck you in completely
- But don’t do nothing either!
- Have ambitions – you could well be around for another 30 years, and you could achieve an awful lot in that time
- Make sure you enjoy your life in and around your home; don’t just focus on dashing off elsewhere