“i find antique shops incredibly boring” — selwyn hyams, pilgrims progressBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
“There’s a very good poem by T.S. Eliot, called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It goes, ‘…prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet’. Well I don’t have to do that, do I?”
Pressed between two clean-lined, grey blocks of flats on Bridgewater Street is a five storey, red-brick’d building; once the workplace for seventeenth century cotton merchants, and now the home of Selwyn Hyams’ antique and restoration business, Pilgrims Progress.
Selwyn has worked on Bridgewater Street for thirty years, first in a seven-storey warehouse that he sold in 2010, when he downsized his stock and showrooms and moved everything into his workshop space next door. He has re-installed three themed rooms on the first floor of Pilgrims Progress so that people can still time-travel amongst the piles of antiques and his workshops, and the converted warehouse now stitches together the new builds of student accommodation and flats springing up around Bridgewater Street and Jamaica Street.
“The developers are changing it into somewhere for people to live, as is the way,” says Selwyn. “I’m in an area now called The Baltic Triangle, which is very much in the throes of gentrification. There has always been a plan for this area to be revitalised as an art and student space — it was on the books fifteen, twenty years ago. But things don’t change overnight, do they?
“Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have had that window open,” he says, nodding at the draughty open space where furniture is hoisted between the floors.
“People used to get beaten up outside, their cars broken into, radios would get stolen. Of course, there’s no value in radios now.
“I’ve earned my stripes as far as that goes. This wasn’t always a nice place to be.”
November weather gave us some typical greys on the day we arrived at Pilgrims Progress, and upon reaching the heavy black door we became (atypically) nervous about pressing the buzzer. We’ve become acclimatised to all these modern ‘hello, bonjour, don’t you dare pass us by, look at the fuzzy cacti’-type entranceways, and the thought of pressing this small buzzer and waiting for what came next was enough to put us off the adventure all together. Embarrassing, really.
We think we can hear someone coming down the stairs inside, and that only increases our anxiety as we hover outside that heavy black door, until the door opens, and we’re greeted by a man in a red boiler suit and blue knit cap.
“Hello, who are you?” he asks.
“We’re here for the interview?”
“Ah. Right,” he says, looking out behind us as if someone might be watching. “Right, well come in, come in.”
“You don’t mind asking questions as I work, do you?” he adds, as we follow him up an iron staircase.
Pilgrims Progress is a wonderland for nostalgia and the nostalgic. If Selwyn told us that the antique furniture, bronze statues, lamps, dollhouses, signs and record players all fell from a rift in the space-time continuum hovering over his warehouse, well, we’d probably believe him. His life’s work has been collecting, selling, saving and transforming all our lost and broken things — the things we used to love or maybe just used to use.
“I feel lucky that I’ve never had to wear a suit, I haven’t had to have short hair,” he says, touching his cap as if to remind himself. “Which I do now. But it didn’t used to be.”
How long was your hair? we ask.
“It was shoulder-length — as you’d expect,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone, that he only uses when the statement isn’t matter-of-fact at all. “It’s a business that allows you to be slightly eccentric. You can get away with things, because there are no rules.”
Selwyn isn’t someone who follows rules, and only makes his own rules if he can break them, which suits the surreal, cultured world he has created at the warehouse on Bridgewater Street. The only rule he follows is to live his life as passionately and imaginatively as possible, always surrounded by his friends — many of whom are long-time clients and employees.
“I find antique shops incredibly boring,” he says, gliding between objects as we follow him around the building, avoiding the sharp corners of tables that have become natural accessories to his movement. “They’re full of things that people are selling that they’ve bought from other people. I suppose they have wonderful values and all the rest of it but they’re boooooring.”
He pauses, and turns to look at us. “My ideas came out of not wanting to be boring.”
Selwyn began his studies at Manchester University, ended up at Edge Hill College (“it’s now a university,” he adds) and graduated with a degree in physics.
“My father was just at the point of retiring, so I helped him for a year,” says Selwyn. “He said he knew someone in America who wanted furniture. I said, great, but I’ve got no money to buy it. This is back in the days when we used to export and send a lot of stuff to America. This man actually sent money over for me to sort some pieces for him.
“Anyway, one day I had this wardrobe he wanted on top of my car — I used to move everything like that. That day it rained and I thought, we can’t leave the wardrobe like that, we’d better strip it. After we stripped it we found this wonderful walnut.” He walks to a wardrobe and touches its door. “It was like this. See, this is American walnut; they used to stain it to look like mahogany, but we discovered that when it was stripped it was a much nicer wood underneath. That’s how the restorations started.
“It was a proper business. There ended up being ten of us, by the time I was twenty-eight. You know, I had one brother-in-law asking if I wanted to become an optician, another one offered me articles in law. But I didn’t fancy doing the middle class norm. It was much more appealing to do something that I feel proud of.”
But how did you get from physics to restoration? we ask, as Selwyn winds the brass cranks of a grandfather clock.
“I learned how to find people who knew what they were talking about,” he says. “I wouldn’t put myself as an example of someone who’s particularly good at anything in here. I’m not the polisher, James is the polisher. I’m not the cabinet maker — I’m quite good at doing cabinets, but for proper cabinet work I go to my friend Kenny. Steve is an excellent upholsterer, a traditional upholsterer.
“The other week I was talking to the guy who used to do cabinet making for me. We’d always meet in the Roscoe Head, the one that’s around the corner from Oldham Street. My training took place every Friday between the hours of five and eleven o’clock at night. We’d consume many pints of beer, and he’d teach me about the love of antiques.
“He was trained at a college in High Wycombe, which was one of the top cabinet making colleges in England. He also did a degree in philosophy. You see, if you’re clever in one thing, you can usually be clever in something else,” he says, making his way towards the hoisting window. “So many of us are retired now, it feels like everyone’s just playing about. It’s only now that I’m not taking it so seriously that I’ve discovered that I managed to pick up a few skills along the way!”
We’ve followed Selwyn from one end of the first floor to the other and back again. He pauses in front of a picture board with The Guild of Master Craftsman stamped onto the centre, and photographs of two men and a series of wooden wardrobes.
“These are some of the people who taught me,” he says, tapping his finger against an image. “That was Charlie — he worked here until he was 92, and Ray worked here till he was 91. They were two brothers who married two sisters,” he says, laughing. “In the morning I’d come in and there would always be Radio 3 or Classic FM on, and they knew every word to every aria; they could sing every opera.
“They really were gentleman craftsman.”
So much of Pilgrims Progress’ charm — and its success — is due to the people that Selwyn has invited to work in his shop. Many of them are still in the workshops, still doing the odd job now and then, popping by for a chat or coming in to see new pieces.
You must have had quite a few people come through here over the years, we say, following Selwyn down the stairs to the basement.
“Over the years, yes. It’s not particularly true now,” he says, pausing at a small landing. “But over the years, thousands.
“During the day now, there will be three or four people who walk through. Many of them have been customers for twenty-five years who are now my friends. My friend Robert will turn up twice a week now and he’ll say, ‘What are you like?’ And I’ll say, ‘Not bad, you know where the kettle is. Put the kettle on and then I’ll show you some things.’
“You know,” he lowers his voice as if he’s about to share a secret, “amongst my friends there are not many who are practical. Most of them tend to be academics or professionals.”
Selwyn turns away and starts his journey back down the stairs, talking as he goes.
“Of course a lot of the people around me are retired, apart from my upholsterer Steve. No one works full-time anymore, which is nice, because all that pressure that used to be on everyone is gone. You’ve got to pay for staff, you’ve got to make a living, you’ve got to pay your mortgage or your rent, whatever it is. All the people around me have done that now.
“Lots of people ask, ‘Why haven’t you retired?’ and I say, ‘Well, what am I retiring from?’ When it stops being enjoyable, then I’ll retire. My father didn’t retire. For thirty years, my business was my father’s hobby.”
So you worked with your father? we ask.
“Well it was my business, but he came in every day for thirty years and played about.” He turns towards us again and smiles. “Not always to my standards, I might add. Oh, we’d have terrible arguments. I’d say, ‘Look, you’ve got to do it right,’ and he’d go, ‘It’s okay,’ and I’d go, ‘Well, it’s not okay.’
“But the number of recommendations I still get from other tradesman, who say, ‘Go see Selwyn, he’ll do it properly.’ It’s really nice to have ended up in a situation where people respect my standards, particularly as I’m not a trained person.”
We’ve now reached one of Selwyn’s workshops in the basement. The room is crammed with tools and equipment, and has a chaotic, constructed feel about it that reminds us of a film set. Selwyn stands in the centre for a moment, adjusts his cap and surveys the room.
“There used to be three guys working in here,” he says. “Now it’s just me pottering about. This is where all the stripping takes place. We do spray polishing there, hand polishing there,” he says, pointing out areas of the room, “And all the preparation takes place here. We’ve always had these workshops, even when we had the old building. The difference then was that we used to have five times the amount of showroom.”
The showrooms – three living rooms that are designed to match different eras — are a defining element to the magical world Selwyn has created at Pilgrims Progress. Practically, the rooms are used to showcase different pieces and to help a customer imagine what a chair or a lamp or bronze statue might look like in their living room. But the rooms, curated to feel like living cutouts from an old photograph, are emblematic of Selwyn’s own curated, eccentric lifestyle — the one he’s transported into a converted warehouse on Bridgewater Street.
The showrooms began in 1989, when Selwyn’s friend Barbara, an artist herself, decided it would transform the experience for his customers.
“We had the building next door and she thought it would be more interesting to do things this way,” says Selwyn, moving a lamp from one room to another and plugging it into the socket. “They’re supposed to be themed, although sometimes it’s a bit difficult because we’ve got to find something that’s going to work.”
He turns on the lamp. “The idea is that they should be themed. That’s what I’d like them to be.”
What’s the theme of your house? we ask.
“I live in a little cottage in Aigburth,” he says. “I think it’s a combination of everything. My bathroom is all art deco. It’s my house, and my partner’s house. Actually,” Selwyn lowers his voice again, “it’s my house but it’s been quite interesting accepting her taste, which isn’t completely my taste. She’s bought all these modern things which I wouldn’t necessarily buy.
“But really the theme, I hope, is comfort, because that’s what’s most important. There’s a lot of wood in the kitchen area and people love its warmth.
“We have quite a lot of dinner parties,” he adds. “We’re sociable people.”
Selwyn has been adjusting pieces in the art deco room as he talks, and steps back across into his workshop, circa 2015, to inspect the scene.
Do you have a favourite of these rooms? we ask, trying to decide ourselves.
“Ah well, look at this wallpaper,” he says, pointing to an Orla Kiely-style wall. “My friend chose it, and I just love it. This should be a fifties room, but fifties things get sold.”
Selwyn takes a step over into the next room. “I like the art deco one. I’m really happy with it and I think we’ve got the style right, more than you’d actually see in a house.” He pauses, his face concentrated, and we can imagine a couple clinking glasses as another party-goer examines the statue on the mantle.
“Actually I think we’ve gone too far because that shade of green is not a shade I would have chosen, but it looks amazing. It’s in your face, it’s there to make a statement. It’s like theatre isn’t it?
“There’s no point in going,” he crouches over and lowers his voice to a whisper, “Hello nice to meet you.”
“You’ve got to go, Hi!” He stands suddenly, opens his arms, and begins shouting in an American accent. “How are you? Lovely to see you! Looking good today!”
Selwyn surveys the space again and crosses back into the world of art deco. “And of course there are a few things I love, things that I won’t sell.
“Like that lamp — that actually came out of a party in the early eighties down in Norwich at a friend of mine’s.” He lowers his voice. “Who is now a multi-multi millionaire.”
Back up again, “I sat next to this woman and was chatting with her. My friend was actually selling his things, and she told me that she’d always wanted the lamp but she couldn’t afford it. And I said to her, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll have it, and when you’ve got the money contact me and it’s yours.” He laughs. “Well that was thirty years ago!
“And there’s this lamp here,” he says, touching the warm-white glowing bulb sitting on the mantelpiece. “I mean, it’s gorgeous. Pure art deco, absolutely spot on. See, I’ve even put the word sold on it,” he says, pointing at a sticker, “because I don’t sell these things. I like them too much; they’re nice to have around. And,” he lowers his voice again, “I’ve discovered that if you sell all the really nice things the place looks boring. I don’t want it to look boring.”
Antique-sellers are known for being experts in history, or at least, the history of things. So when we point out how much research must go into his line of work we’re surprised to see Selwyn shrug his shoulders and shake his head, laughing.
“The one criticism my father used to make of me all the time was that I didn’t do enough research, and I let things go without realising what they were, or what they were worth,” says Selwyn. “‘Do you even know what that was?’ he’d say to me, watching something go out the door. And he’d be quite right.
“This is a business where you do need to have some knowledge, but it’s also a business where you make money out of other people’s lack of knowledge. That seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Very few of my friends are dealers, because dealers often sit around and boast about how they succeeded in buying something right under somebody’s nose, and I actually find that quite repulsive.
“I found that restoration was a much more honest way of making money, much better than just buying and selling. I can’t deny that I never made a profit or I didn’t find something that was worth a bit more than it cost me — that has to happen at some level. But generally, I buy things that are broken, restore them, and then it has an honest, added value when I sell it.”
Selwyn takes a seat on the light green settee in his art deco room, and crosses one leg over the other. “But I never made much money,” he says. “I only really started making a profit the last two years, and that was only because I slowly built up a property portfolio. I was nuts!” he laughs. “I used to use the money for my rent to keep the business going. But I believed in what I was doing, in what we all were doing here.
“Like I said, when this all got going I was twenty-eight. When I was your age, I didn’t really respect older people. They got in the way, they didn’t have their heads going in the direction mine was in. And they were boring, they were tedious. Suddenly you reach an age when you’re like — my God, they really do know things don’t they? They have something to teach.”
We pull up a chair at the edge of Selwyn’s art deco living room in his converted warehouse on Bridgewater Street.
“Do you remember J. Alfred Prufrock, then?” he asks us. “I heard them talking about it on the radio the other day. Did you know he was twenty-three when he wrote that? How the hell did he have that knowledge, that feeling of being old?”
He begins to recite. “‘I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’. We studied that in school but it has never left my head. The image of the man, paddling in the sea, with his trousers rolled up.”
Selwyn lowers his voice and smiles. “Hopefully I won’t be measuring my life out in coffee spoons.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Liverpool, issue 1