Let me confess upfront: I’m a big fan of Ace Sports. It reminds me of a shop my father took me to as a child in Bury St Edmunds; a throwback to what us fifty somethings call a simpler time, when retailing of any kind was about knowledge and service.
In those days sports shops were full of proper kit and equipment, the staff knew the differences in the fit and cut between Speedo and Nike, and they’d explain the pros and cons of blades versus screw-in or moulded studs. Not only that, they’d also remember not just your name but those of your children. These are the values that underpin Nick’s approach to retailing – and what make Ace Sports a little jewel in Kentish Town.
In many respects Nick is an unlikely entrepreneur: having left Cyprus with his parents and ‘landed’ in Finsbury Park aged six, back in 1957, he embarked on an apprenticeship in engineering in the late 1960’s. Five years later, he led a three month sit-in after the firm, Crossfield Electronics, announced its intention to close the company. ‘Thanks to the TUC, I learned an awful lot about negotiating and really developed my people skills,’ Nick says, getting misty eyed about a period of time that not many business commentators look back on with nostalgia.
Nick still wears the watch he was given when he completed his apprenticeship and has annual reunions with some his closest friends and colleagues. A ‘year out’ followed, when he was a roadie for a band called ‘Dr Marigold’s Prescription’, ‘four lovely lads from North London who played good music between ’69-‘75’ – or so it says on their still current Facebook page.
Nick’s break into sports retailing came via a mate who owned Holloway Sports and needed somebody to manage a new shop he was opening in Stoke Newington. He spent eleven years learning his trade before buying Ace Sports, then in Kentish Town High Street, from its original owner Cryril Atkinson: ‘The old man asked me, “How much can you put down? And are you going to change the name?” I told him fifty grand, and no I wasn’t. I don’t think mine was the highest bid, but he sold it to me nevertheless.’ Cyril’s son Joe was to stay three months and help Nick manage the transition; he ended up doing eleven more years.
Nick kept the shop in its original location until 2010, when his then landlord indicated that he would like to increase the rent by a significant amount. This led to the move to the current location in Fortess Road and Pret a Manger occupying the old site.
The changing nature of Kentish Town’s High Street is a subject on which Nick has very strong views, and has been very involved in. I asked him to identify what, looking back over the thirty years he has been a high street sports retailer, has had the biggest impact on the business? The rise of the ‘pile ’em high’ merchants like Sport Direct? Or the growth of the internet?
Not in Nick’s opinion. The key date in Nick’s business diary is November 1999, when Camden Council introduced Control Parking Zones. Over the course of long conversation with Nick you are left in no doubt as to what he thinks about the job that Camden Council has done in balancing the needs of residents and businesses in Kentish Town.
Despite greedy landlords, difficult economic times and a Council that he feels has no real understanding of the needs of the local businessman, Nick remains optimistic about the future. Ace Sports has embraced the digital age and remains, through links with local schools sports clubs and the shop, deeply embedded in the local community.
So when you go next to Ace Sports, strike up a conversation with Nick or Chris (who’s been with Nick since he left school), and you’ll also find a real sense of community, a little bit of which will walk out the door with you.