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From barrow boy to retail magnate
WHEN his off licence business collapsed in the 1980s Philip Lewis started selling Geordie-themed gifts from a barrow in the MetroCentre, Gateshead.
As Collectables becomes the latest famous name to call in administrators Business Editor Andy Richardson looks at the ups and downs of one of the region’s most colourful retail magnates.
A FORMER newspaper delivery boy who opened a chain of successful newsagents Philip Lewis preferred to describe himself as an “expansionist” rather an entrepreneur.
After starting as a barrow boy in the MetroCentre in Gateshead he built an £18m empire of Collectables gift stores and furniture showrooms, which included a vast branch in Stockton that Mr Lewis claimed was the biggest china shop in the world.
In the 1960s, he launched a newsagents business in his native North-West.
"I got up at 4.30 in the morning every day for 12 years. I couldn't stop working. I didn't have holidays because I didn't know what to do with them,” recalled Mr Lewis, who sold up, moved to the North-East and opened off-licences in mining villages.
Soon he had 26 shops employing 500 people, with a £27m turnover. The miners' strike of the eighties shattered communities across the region and proved disastrous for Lewis’s Wine Stores.
After losing his fortune the father-of-one started again from scratch with £100 in his pocket.
Mr Lewis pitched up in the newly opened MetroCentre and from a barrow began selling toys and North-East souvenirs, such as Geordie passports and tea towels featuring the Tyne Bridge. The skills he’d honed as a teenager when he’d sold lettuces door-to-door ensured that his new venture became a runaway success.
He soon had two barrows and then opened his first Collectables shop, in the MetroCentre’s Antiques Village, that sold popular items such as Lilliput Lane cottages, Border Fine Arts figures, Lladro and Royal Doulton. It was a true family firm with his son David and wife Barbara taking roles as buyer and bookeeper respectively.
The store began to stock fine china and crystal but Mr Lewis had a policy of not charging for breakages.
"Accidents happen,“ he said. “The people who want to pay, I wouldn't take the money from and the other sort are out of the shop as soon as you've heard the crash. Shopping should be a pleasure.”
Collectables became renowned for hosting collectors' events and it commissioned limited-edition pieces based on characters from Catherine Cookson's best-known novels.
After shoppers complained that there wasn't a Collectables on Teesside, he opened one in Portrack Lane, Stockton in 1995.
“I wanted a large store that would supply a region rather than a town. We wanted a shop that could supply people from Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington and that’s exactly what did happen,” said Mr Lewis.
Disaster struck three months after the shop's grand opening when 70 firefighters were called in to tackle a blaze that caused the flagship store an estimated £2m of damage. It was later rebuilt.
Always one with a keen eye for an opportunity, Mr Lewis bought the site at Mandale Retail Park, Stockton which became Collectables Retail Park and included a bed shop and restaurant.
Sales dipped from a peak of £18m in 2008 amid a turbulent period on the high street which has seen major names such as Jessops, Comet, JJB Sports and Clintons disappear.
For more than 35 years Mr Lewis has supported grassroots sport as chairman of Future Sport, a charity formerly known as Sports Aid, which funds youngsters to help them pursue their sporting ambitions.
Earlier this year his wife Barbara died following a period of illness.
Now aged 73 it remains to be seen if Mr Lewis has the appetite to launch yet another retail venture.
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