Celebrating 50 years of Northamptonshire stationers
The year is 1969.
Newsagent John Coleman has just sold his two shops in Higham Ferrers and Rushden after being offered a good deal by a man who turned up in a Rolls-Royce.
He’s out of a job and gives himself three weeks to get himself sorted.
He opens his own shop in High Street, Higham Ferrers, selling machines after a contract clause banned him from selling stationery for two years.
Fast forward 50 years and Mr Coleman, now 85, is still working four days a week for the business he founded which now has 15 branches and employs just under 100 people.
It’s been a remarkable half-century for the much-loved stationers but one Mr Coleman never predicted.
He said: “I couldn’t have ever envisaged that we’d be in this position now.”
Back in the early 1970s, businesses who bought machines from Mr Coleman started needing supplies such as paper and envelopes as office automation kicked in.
He was joined by an old school friend, Harry Bird, and together they became Coleman Bird Associates – earning them the nickname the Mustard Custard Organisation.
Business was good and they soon thought about expanding, despite Mr Coleman being threatened with a divorce by wife Dorothy when he had expanded his newsagents a few years earlier.
Mr Coleman said: “I could see we had got two areas, Wellingborough and Kettering first of all, where we were vulnerable if someone really on the ball opened up.
“So I decided we would get there first.”
John’s daughter Joey Coleman, who is now managing director, said: “In those days everyone shopped in their local towns.
“We had to have a shop in the town because people wouldn’t travel from Kettering to Higham to buy their stationery, they wanted to buy it in Kettering.”
And expand they did. Stores in Wellingborough (1972) and Kettering (1974) were followed by their first acquisition, opening in Northampton in 1977 after taking over Branson’s in St Giles Street.
Further stores opened in Huntingdon (1979), Peterborough (a 1983 acquisition), Stamford (1987), Bedford (1991), Towcester (a 2000 acquisition), Oundle (a 2002 acquisition), Oakham (2009) and Market Harborough (2017).
They also opened a central warehouse in Rushden in 2000, a craft centre warehouse in Rushden in 2005 and now also deliver items to businesses.
There are further branches in Malvern in Worcestershire and Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire run by Mr Coleman’s son Nick, who lives in that area of the country.
It’s the family feeling that is loved by so many of Colemans’ customers.
Many of their staff have worked for the company for decades.
They include Karen Burton at Colemans’ Oundle bookshop, who has worked for Mr Coleman for almost 50 years, and operations manager Karen Holmes who has been employed by the stationer for nearly 40 years.
Mr Coleman said the thought of becoming a national chain intrigued him – but that the loss of their customer relationship if they did go down that route made them think again.
He said: “I used to wonder if we could go national but it is a huge leap.”
One problem local firms across the country have faced in recent years is the rise of internet shopping, with several High Street names shutting up shop.
Colemans themselves will be shutting their stores in Wellingborough and Peterborough at the end of March and April respectively.
Ms Coleman, who took over the business in 1993, said: “Sadly we are closing two branches this year.
“The demographic has changed and the footfall has fallen away.
“The way that people shop is changing dramatically and in certain areas the traditional shopping street has declined to such an extent that, while we have our niche customers who are still coming to us, with a lot of shops closing around us it is very hard to keep the footfall coming.”
However, the family firm will be creating a warehouse shop in Brindley Close, Rushden, where people can pull up outside and buy stationery.
Ms Coleman said she hopes, with Rushden Lakes just on the other side of the A45, it will draw people in and added that she hoped the rise of the internet wasn’t necessarily the future.
She said: “You can go on the internet and click on things and buy them but you don’t get the pleasure of selecting that product in person.
“Retail is still alive and kicking in towns that can support it.”
Colemans stores are now spread across the region but it was back in Higham Ferrers where it all began.
The shop is still in the same unit as it was in 1969 and there has even been a Colemans shop in the town since 1937 – Mr Coleman’s parents ran a chip shop and greengrocer.
Mr Coleman has always diversified and was a bit of an entrepreneur himself, creating the first newspaper vending machine in 1967 with Eric Sanders and G.W. Tebbs in 1967 to make the Evening Telegraph available 24 hours a day.
He’s retired officially three times, the first time when his 26-year-old granddaughter Tallie was born, and has built up an impressive collection of retirement presents.
But, having been behind a counter since the age of 16, he has no further plans to give up and still spends hours each day picture framing at the Oundle branch.
He said: “I’ve retired more times than Frank Sinatra.
“They’ll have to carry me out of here in a box and if they do I’ve told them not to shut the shop!”