‘Talk of tearing it down worries me greatly’ – Hitchin family–run retailer on Churchgate future

Etcetera Home Fashion has been a part of Hitchin's Churchgate Centre since 1982. Picture: Katrina Ra

Etcetera Home Fashion has been a part of Hitchin's Churchgate Centre since 1982. Picture: Katrina Raill - Credit: Archant

The owner of one of the oldest shops in Hitchin town centre has spoken about her time in Churchgate and the changes she would like to see made there in the coming years.

From its position overlooking Hitchin’s town centre, Etcetera Home Fashion has served as the shop window for the Churchgate Centre for almost 38 years.

The independent, family–run retailer, that specialises in home fashion, accessories and gifts, has proudly stood on the corner of Churchgate since November 19, 1982 – making it one of the centre’s longest running shops.

Anne Raill, the founder of Etcetera, fondly recalls the day she opened the shop’s doors.

She said: “I remember people were queueing up outside and saying &rlquo;Oh that’s a lovely little shop, but it won’t last three months’.

“Those days you had either expensive shops or not-so-expensive shops. We were just trying to be somewhere in the middle, and always keeping up with the latest trends.

“Perhaps it’s hard to believe but in the 70s and 80s, Churchgate’s concrete look was fresh and modern. It was only seven years old when we opened and was actually quite vogue.”

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Anne has seen a lot of change in that time – including new trading laws, two global recessions and a revolving door of retailers in the community.

She said: “We moved from next door into unit number three in 2001, just because the old space wasn’t big enough for us.

“It’s always heartbreaking to see other small stores go out of business, particularly when they are independents like us.

“When you see that it makes you stop and think. But also work that little bit harder every day because you never know.

“This isn’t an easy job, but I feel we have made a success of it because my family have it in our blood. That’s a good thing because I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

Anne admits there is a need for change in the town centre and thinks Churchgate has been allowed to “get a little bit scruffy”.

“The talk around regenerating Churchgate has been going on for goodness knows how many years now. We should all remember that it’s a centre with space for good, small units for independents like ours.

“Hitchin is such a pretty town that has always had independents and it’s one of the reasons people visit here.

“The talk of tearing it [Churchgate] down worries me greatly. Sun Street has been dug up twice and shops had to leave because of it. What’s to stop that happening here?

“Yes, we all know the area is in need of a little bit of love and updating. But we don’t need the big, drastic changes.”

So what changes would Anne like to see made to Churchgate?

“I would like to see the canopies removed and maybe some new shop fronts. Just these alone would make an enormous difference.

“Flowers and plants can also make things look very pretty without costing a fortune.”

Anne chuckles as she talks of how the customers of today compare to those of the 1980s, and how our shopping habits have “dramatically” changed.

Anne said: “Today, people know exactly what they want, especially when it comes to home living and entertainment, compared to 38 years ago.

“Of course, you have online [shopping] which has been undercutting stores like us for a while now.

“I think that makes customers expect more nowadays, particularly when it comes to service. The only way we have managed to survive is through our personal service and being friendly to people. We would be nothing without our customers.

“The Hitchin community has been vitally important to us over the years. We have a very loyal customer base, they trust our judgement and certainly aren’t afraid of letting us know their thoughts!”

Anne says both she and her daughter took “a deep breath” after Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest budget ensured business rates would be scrapped for small businesses.

She added: “Things should become a little bit easier with that. But it’s only for a year, and we are still hoping and praying for a sensible long–term solution.”

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