There were a couple of short-lived attempts at starting an ‘alternative’ boutique, which my parents called respectively ‘Quaker Girl’ then ‘Santana’ back in the early 1970s.
Then in 1972 on a wing and a prayer, my late mam (Irene Maughan) and I started the now famous Guru Boutique.
We knew nothing about business, and at that time thought we would fail like the earlier attempts had, and envisaged lasting no more than a few weeks if we were lucky.
We had no definite plan when we made that leap of faith of going self-employed to see if we could run a ‘different’ kind of shop, but just felt it was the right thing for us to do. The present Gurus (myself, Tony Smith, Colin Harrison and Kelly McWilliams), with a lot of help from our friends and customers, are here running Guru well over forty years later, and that to me is a miracle…and in my case at least, I’m still trying to get the hang of it all!
It’s all the fault of a rock band called Mother’s Lament who my husband Ray used to manage. We started going to London with the band in the late 1960s and loved nothing better than by day mooching around Kensington Market (forerunner of Camden Market), and going to music clubs and pubs such as the Marquee or Klooks Kleek at night.
Coming back to Darlington seemed like returning to another world. In those days we didn’t have the ease of communication we have now due to fast trains, the internet etc., so the culture and fashions were very different in London to those here in the North East at that time.
I loved the whole London thing, especially the music scene.
In the early 1970s after hearing my stories about what I had seen in the capital city, my mam and dad ventured down to see for themselves. On my recommendation, they went to Kensington Market and found trade suppliers who sold them some Indian clothing and gifts, and opened ‘Quaker Girl’. This little shop which was in North Road didn’t last too long, as it was probably too far out of town. Dad then went to one of the small ex-mining towns nearby and rented a lock-up to try again. I advised him to call this attempt, ‘Santana’ and at first it attracted a lot of attention. Too much attention, however, as a few weeks after it opened the shop was broken into and poor dad lost all his stock as he wasn’t insured. After that blow, he totally lost interest.
After it closed my mam came to work with me in a leather shop in Post House Wynd.I had recently taken the job of manageress of this shop, even ‘though the Leeds based owner was honest with us made us aware that it was on its uppers and he was trying to sell it. Anyway the stock dwindled, and towards the end we had hardly anything left to display in the window, so if say we happened to have a few leather skirts to dress the mannequins in, but no tops to go with them, I would bring some of my own Indian tops, or some velvet garments left over from the now-defunct Quaker Girl in to complete the outfit. This filled in the gaps ensuring that the shop window didn’t look too empty.
We soon realised that the customers were more interested in our Indian tunics, cheesecloth kurtas and velvet tops (decorated with mirror work and embroidery) than the leather skirts and jackets which the shop was supposed to sell.
SO, when the owner finally closed the leather shop and put mam and me on a small retainer wage for a few weeks, until he could find new owners to take over, we decided to fill in the idle time by trying our luck at retailing again. Within a few days, we had found a place where we could try to do that.
On a temporary basis, mam and I took this shoebox of a unit in a rather scruffy shopping mall in the town called Court Arcade. We got it for a very low rent so we took a huge chance and quickly gave our notice in at the leather shop to give them time to find new staff before it changed hands.
Immediately we opened to our surprise we attracted a LOT of interest.
Mam contacted an Indian gentleman from Bradford called Mati Mir who she had found whilst leafing through a trade magazine. We told him what we wanted to do, and he said he was prepared to give us £300 worth of goods on sale or return to stock the shop, and then take it from there…
The stock sold, and the rest is history. We were unique in our area and became one of the very first ‘ethnic’ shops in the North East.
We attracted some of the younger and/or more ‘alternative’ people of Darlington, and it was a common occurrence for a group of hippies to be found sitting around cross-legged on our tiny floor, filling the shop with the music they were playing on their guitars and flutes and drums…
We soon widened our appeal and gained a good following of all kinds of customers of varying ages and strata’s of society, who wanted something different…
The addition of quality greetings cards helped expand our clientele too.
As my mam used to say in wonderment “we get all walks”, which made me smile as she meant we attracted a good cross-section of the public to our tiny establishment.
This led to us having to move into a bigger unit in the arcade to make room to display more clothes, cards and gifts, and then take an extra unit opposite for posters and records.
We became mega busy had to take on friends to help us (the most notable being Tony Smith who has become a vital part of Guru over the years), and we eventually ended up occupying three large units linked together in Court Arcade.
The arcade became a real alternative place to go. Units set up alongside us selling records, retro and American clothing, comics, exotic pets and pet supplies, wool, jewellery and even an American-style diner.
It was great up there – even if it was cold, didn’t have facilities like hot water and functioning toilets (we used to pop over to Binns Store to satisfy the calls of nature). It was just a big shed on a concrete floor really, with a roof lined with asbestos…
The Three Squares nearby was our favourite place to go and buy sausage, egg or bacon sarnies, plus frothy coffee for a takeaway lunch, and that place is still the same lovely no-nonsense ‘greasy spoon’ café to this day, and I pray it will never change…
Eventually, the arcade began to leak, and not just a little as we had to hire an industrial machine to suck out the water every morning so that we could open for business. The local newsagents used to save us their old papers so that we could line our sodden floors. At the end of a rainy day, we used to be walking on something that resembled pulped up paper mache… We were losing too much stock to water damage, and we knew that the time had come when we reluctantly had to move.
There was a pretty little shop in Blackwellgate that mam and I had always liked. It had been standing empty for ages, and almost seemed to have been waiting for us to take it over, so that is what we did.
It was 1990 when we ended our lease with Darlington Borough Council who owned Court Arcade, and moved to our present location of 24, Blackwellgate, and it’s now over four decades since we so innocently first started out in ‘business’.
More staff was needed in the new shop, as it had four floors, so that is when our friend Colin Harrison joined Guru to look after the first-floor rock merchandise and clothing department. Then a little later (on her return to Darlington from university), Kelly Mcwilliams completed our little Guru gang.
We have also had many great Saturday people helping us in the shop, and there is even a tradition of several sets of siblings following each other into the Guru fold!
We have stumbled on down the years, mainly using our instinct to survive. We may not have become rich but we have managed to do enough to keep going, also very important to us we have been decent in our dealings with people, and in the process of that gained many valued friends who we would never have even met if we had not accidentally created Guru.
The saga continues and we will look forward to being able to deal with whatever comes next, as to us Gurus this is our shared adventure…
In these times where big businesses tend to categorise customers as consumers rather than recognise them as unique people, and depend on statistics to try to channel people’s tastes towards what they want them to buy, I think there may be more need than ever for shops like Guru, where hanging on to individuality and a more human approach are the key!
We’ve expanded onto the internet now, so we are trying to keep the same spirit that we have always had in the physical shop alive and well online.
SO much more has happened throughout the years we have been around, that if I tried to put it all into this post we’d have to turn it into a book. Therefore if you want to know more about our history and our shop, watch out for separate stories which I’ll be posting about specific things which have popped up along the way.
Like Gerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead once said, “what a long strange trip this has been” and I have to add in our case, “long may it continue”!
Beryl Maughan Hankin