Published: 06:00, 01 May 2021
| Updated: 13:34, 01 May 2021
In the cut-and-thrust world of high street trading, nothing's a nailed-on certainty – apart from Johnstone's Tools of course.
The tool specialist and hardware shop today celebrates its 70th year trading at 81 High Street, Rochester, and owner Archie Johnstone, now 86, has been at the centre of operations since the start.
Still working despite a recent cataract operation, Archie is as durable as a diamond drill bit, and was aged just 16 when he was greeting customers on opening day, May 1, 1951.
But his career in the trade began even earlier, when he helped his grandfather at market stalls in Gravesend and Maidstone.
"I was 11 when I joined my grandfather at Gravesend market," he recalled this week. "The stall used to be just as you went into the market, the second one in.
"The first thing he said to me was your main job is to watch the hands coming over the stall, you're the policeman. We've had a few things nicked over the years.
"My grandmother used to be involved as well. She would be taking money while my grandfather was cutting keys. I worked there until I was 13, and did Maidstone market as well. It gave me something to do and I thoroughly enjoyed it."
On leaving school, Archie harboured some thoughts of being a farmer, and would spend some time working on a croft in the Hebrides, where part of his family was from, but the tool trade always beckoned.
In 1936, his uncle Alan Smith had opened a tool shop in New Road, Gravesend, and Archie began helping out there before they opened the second branch in Rochester.
The company was by then an established supplier of tools to businesses in Kent, many in Rochester and Chatham, such as Blaw-Knox, CAV, Ozanair and others occupying the old Shorts sea plane works, as well as Aveling and Porter making steam rollers on the Strood side of the river and many businesses supporting the shipping industry in the port of Rochester.
Archie went on to manage the whole company for many years from the head office in Gravesend, bar a two-year stint in the RAF, based at Cologone from 1955-57. "That was a good posting," he said. "It was just like being in London."
But following the recession in 1990, he returned to Rochester in 1993 to continue the family business under his own surname, along with his wife, who sadly died a few years ago.
These days the business remains a family affair with daughters Sally and Fiona also central to operations.
"My daughter Sally has never done anything else," added Archie. "When she finished school she went for a job at a bank, but she didn't get it. So I said 'right you're in at 8am tomorrow morning'."
It's an old-school approach, but the hard work ethic has clearly worked out, and at least Sally can look forward to a celebratory treat today.
"On Saturday we'll be giving out sweets in the shop – apart from the ones the girls have eaten," adds Archie. "I might have a glass of wine. It's only a glass these days, not a bottle.
"I work seven days a week and I live over the top of the shop. I do all the sharpening, all the grinding, as well as selling plants – fuschias, bedding plants, runner beans. I'd get bored otherwise. I'm never happy unless I'm doing something."
Archie recalled Rochester was a different place back when they first opened, with all traffic going north travelling up the High Street, and buses stopping opposite the old post office in front of the electricity board, shops and offices.
"On sunny weekends the traffic coming back from the coast was a problem, nose to tail from Faversham to Rochester Bridge," he added. "The building of the M2 solved the problem.
"The joy is that all the historic sites and buildings have survived in spite of neglect by some landlords.
"We live in a beautiful city. It is a shame not all the population appreciates it and dispose of their coffee cup and beer cans on the ground wherever they are.
"That you would never have seen in times gone by – people would find a bin or take their rubbish home with them."
As usual, it's a point well made by the tool specialist – and a point worth hammering home.