William Woods has steered his family’s 122-year-old business into the 21st century without sacrificing the traditions he holds dear.
It’s Christmas time and that means a seasonal departure from a long-held tradition at one of Yorkshire’s most famous family-run businesses. The doors at Woods of Harrogate are open on Saturdays during the festive period. The rest of the year the store, which specialises in fine linens, interior design and homeware, trades 8.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday. Weekends are for window shopping only when passers-by press their faces to the glass and “ooh” and “ahh” at the exquisite displays that Woods is renowned for.
It is quite possibly the only shop of its kind in Britain that operates this policy and there are good reasons for it. “We could make more money if we opened every weekend but life’s not all about money. We make a concession for Christmas by opening on Saturdays but we would never open on a Sunday,” says William Woods, who inherited the business at the age of 17 after his parents died in a car accident.
He cites that devastating loss as one of the reasons why weekends have always been sacrosanct. He values spending time with his wife, children, grandchildren and friends and winces at the thought of the open-all-hours culture that pervades modern-day retail.
“Losing my parents definitely made me think that there is more to life than work, plus our staff appreciate our opening hours too,” he says.
Woods has an exceptional staff retention rate. Some of its longest-serving employees have clocked up more than 60 years and more than 20 years of service is quite common.
The store, which was launched in 1895 by William Woods’ grandfather, began by specialising in fine linens – and it still does – for royalty and anyone else who values quality. Its dishcloths are a bestseller, along with its glass cloths and napkins.Under William, the finest linen shop in England has diversified into interior design and homeware.
“I was all set to train as a lawyer but when my parents died I had to decide whether to take on the business. There was no pressure from my uncle, an amazing man with a heart of gold, who became my guardian. When I decided to give it a go, he suggested I get some work experience at a firm of spinners, weavers and dyers in Northern Ireland and I loved it,” he says.
He went on to train as an interior designer with Heal’s in 1960s London and has since carved out an impressive reputation for specialising in grand period houses. He is a member of the elite British Institute of Interior Design and Woods recently featured in a list of the top 20 interior design firms in Britain.
Clients include aristocrats and landed gentry but William is keen to point out that he and his daughter, Sarah, tackle everything from period to modern design. To prove it, the shop has a country house-style drawing room on the ground floor, a modern show apartment on one of the upper floors and classic contemporary room sets in the bedroom department.
Antiques, says William, are a must for “enriching a room” but his top tip is to include portraiture as, even if you don’t see why you should have other people’s long-gone relatives gracing your walls, they “add character”.
Preserving the best of the past is at the heart of the business but modernising is something that is done regularly and judiciously. There is a website and an online linens shop with customers from all over the world, including America, the Bahamas and New Zealand. Woods also has its own design range of bespoke bed linen – high thread count from Italy, of course.
Sarah, who worked for a top London interior designer before joining the family firm, has also brought her own ideas.
“I tried to dissuade her from joining because running a business means you can never really switch off. It was very tough on her when she came to work here, so much so that the staff told me I should go a bit easier on her. I haven’t told her this, but I am immensely proud of her. She is a better designer than I ever was,” says William.
Along with specialising in interior design, Sarah has taken over her father’s role as chief buyer, travelling the world sourcing beautiful and unusual fabrics, homeware and Christmas decorations. Like him, she is fond of retaining some of the old ways.
A gifted artist, she prefers to hand draw and colour her schemes for clients, rather than use graphics and computer-aided design.
“A perspective drawing, whether it’s a pair of curtains or a full room, brings a design to life and captures a mood better than a computer can. I think clients appreciate it,” she says, adding that all the soft furnishings are made in the sewing room on the top floor of Woods.
“Most designers outsource but we would never do that as you can’t guarantee the quality. Ours is second to none.”
“Old-fashioned” is a term she and her father baulk at because the business is not stuck in the past. It has embraced modernity while keeping the best traditional elements of its business, such as tip-top service, impeccable manners, its historic lift, wrapping everything beautifully – even if it’s just a dishcloth – and fabulous shop displays reminiscent of Selfridges in its Edwardian heyday.
It’s an approach that big retailers are now seeking to replicate. There is only one slight problem, as far as William is concerned. “Some people daren’t come into the shop because they think it might be too expensive. We do have expensive items but we also have ones that are modestly priced,” he says, pointing to a pillow display. There are 27 pillows with prices ranging from £350 to a democratic £25. The linen dishcloths –fit for royalty – are £5 each.
Woods of Harrogate, Prince Albert’s Row, Station Parade, woodsinteriordesign.com; woodsfinelinens.com