Bridport’s Lyndon ‘Riff’ Tilbury of Steptoes has had quite the journey – showing patience and agility still pays off in retail, despite massive changes in the high street over the past few decades.
And the 72-year-old shoe seller shows no sign of slowing down. Though he’d quite like to go back to his real name.
“I used to play in a band years ago – I still play in a band – and they called me Riff. Now I think I quite like my real name, but I don’t know how to get people to start calling me that…”
Riff, whose full name is Lyndon Edgar Flawn Tilbury, started selling footwear from a market stall 40 years ago – till he discovered that the rent on a shop worked out about the same price and saved him erecting a 50ft market stand every day.
There were many difficult patches along the way, with Riff robbing Peter to pay Paul, using post-dated cheques to stay afloat and occasionally buying ‘absolutely useless’ stock as he tried to smell what sells.
Now he is celebrating 30 years in his hugely popular shop near the traffic lights in East Street, having seen other shoe shops come and go and reaching the stage where he has a full stock room and no debts. He is chipper.
He said: “I didn’t start the business to make a fortune.
“I just wanted us to have enough, to be secure.
“We put all our money back into the business. We don’t owe anybody anything.”
Riff ‘dropped out’ aged 19 and went to India. When he returned to the UK his mother had remarried and moved to Weymouth with her new husband. As he was unemployed, he was forced to move back in with mum.
He said: “I stayed here after she moved back to Aylesbury. I worked at Henry Ling’s printers in Dorchester for five years and they gave me a room.
“Then I worked on a market stall selling espadrilles imported from Spain. I had a hamper full of espadrilles and a Ford Escort estate and would sell outside Wimpy.
“At first I wasn’t very good at buying stock. I did 18 festivals with the espadrilles for the first year, but of course they don’t really sell in winter. The second year I went to Bristol and started looking at slippers and stuff I hated. But I bought a few boxes and put them on the pavement, and all these old ladies came and bought them. I also spent £10,000 on absolutely useless stock…”
He met wife Julie and her little brother Jason Thorne and they started working together, doing all the markets and festivals.
He said: “We formed a working combination where we all brought different stuff to the company. I was the one with the big mouth who made all the mistakes, Julie was the one with the attention to detail and Jason followed everything his sister did.
“This was 38 years ago. We worked really hard, attending most of the fairs, working straight through from 6am on the Friday to 6pm on the Sunday.
“We had no money – we used a lot of trade credit and post-dated cheques.
“But eventually we started doing a bit better. We became huge Oakley sunglasses dealers. We moved from Dorchester to Bridport as I know so many people here.”
In Bridport, Riff found his spiritual home, among left-leaning, socially-minded folk. “We are socially motivated,” he said. “The customer comes first.
“We’ve still got plenty of independent retailers here.
“People come on holiday and always buy their shoes here. And people come from major towns, knowing we have plenty of independent retailers.”
Riff started making deals with some of the big names in footwear. When Douglas Read closed down Steptoes became the only shoe shop in Bridport, and they started selling men’s shoes too.
One of the first to come on board was Dr Marten.
“We’ve sold Dr Martens for 40 years. The original 1961 classic boots were awful quality – but they were such a classic people actually wanted the original plastic, which would crack, rather than the decent leather version.
“Over the years we have won contracts with major manufacturers. We do Toffeln, which supplies clogs to the NHS, vets and places like that.”
Riff has now added a plethora of big names and also popular cheaper brands to his stock, with Fly London and Birkenstock beside Heavenly Feet, Blundstone and Grisport in his large stockroom.
At the time he opened the Bridport shop, Riff, Julie and Jason still had a shop in Dorchester, as they had signed a 25-year tenancy. They also opened a shop in Wimborne, which never thrived.
They closed the Dorchester store, in South Street, as soon as the agreement came to an end, having made no money there.
“It wasn’t brilliant,” Riff said. “The rents in Dorchester are so high we could never make it pay.
“We had a 50ft stall at Bridport Market which cost £50 a day and when I added it up, if we had our stall there six days a week it would cost the same as a shop here, without all the hard work of putting the stall up each day. Though putting up that stall gave Julie lovely muscles!
“When we moved in here we also had a year’s free rent, which really got us going.”
The trio got out of the markets during the recession as trade was dwindling. Most of the surviving stalls were smaller ones – the appetite for the bigger traders was on the wane.
Riff still loves the markets, however – and says Bridport’s is still one of the best.
“Bridport has kept the market on the pavement, which is important,” he said. “Elsewhere, where they’ve moved their markets into a car park it hasn’t worked.”
Riff added: “Between us three we have 100 years of experience. We have made some mistakes over that time, but we are now where we want to be.
“We are in the lucky position of being able to support as many charities as we can and help the community. I do feel lucky.”