Grays of Westminster, the specialist new and used Nikon retailer based in central London is celebrating its 35th anniversary. We caught up with owner and founder Gray Levett to look back on this milestone.
Congratulations – did you think 35 years ago you’d still be here, and thriving?
Thank you! Yes and no. I always had this dream of where I wanted to go and my plan was always to try and create the best camera store in the world with the very best staff, and the very best service – a store that people would tell others about.
Service has always been really important, right?
When I moved back to London from Los Angeles in the mid-80s, I started thinking about the some of the stores which had been around for a long time, and started making notes – why had they survived, what did they do that gives them such a long life? Why do people keep going back to them? Stores such as Fortnum and Mason, the tailor New and Lingwood in Jermyn St, the traditional barber George Trumper, and so on. I realised that what they all had in common was offering a friendly, high quality service and stocking the very best products. Their customers expect a high level of professionalism – these stores ensure that is what they get. You rise or fall on your reputation – it can take time to build a good one.
What were the biggest challenges at the beginning – and did you ever feel like throwing in the towel?
No, I never felt like giving up, but there were challenges. My late sister, Susie, very generously offered me a room next to her kitchen to work from. I didn’t even have a desk, so I got an old door and put it on top of two Ryman metal cabinets – I had a desk! I had about £100 if I remember rightly, and no stock (laughs). I wondered how I was going to make it work, but I had a lot of determination. I’d been employed in several retail environments and seen what worked and what hadn’t, so I thought I might as well try it. If I hadn’t tried opening Grays of Westminster, I would always have regretted it.
Did it take a while to build a relationship with Nikon?
Nikon UK was enthusiastic. They probably didn’t think a Nikon-only store would work, but kindly didn’t say so at the time… this was just my feeling, as it had not been done before. My relationship with Nikon Japan developed some years later. I was lucky to get on very well with the Nikon Japan liaison officer in UK, Mr Toru Iwaoka, who spoke perfect English – he went on to become president of Nikon US and then Nikon Europe.
We have enjoyed a long and very amicable relationship and Iwaoka-san opened a lot of doors for me. My first visit to Japan was a revelation: I turned up at the office to meet and have lunch with the president and there was a welcoming party, which I thought was for a VIP, but it was for me! The relationship has always been one of mutual trust and respect. President Ushida wrote ‘Grays of Westminster and Nikon represent a timeless partnership and I am honoured to be able to celebrate their anniversary and to be part of their journey through history.’
What achievements are you the most proud of over the last 35 years?
A number of things, really. We are still here, and we continue to try and offer a first class service that is second to none. You go into some places, and it’s like you don’t exist, as the staff are not trained… etiquette and manners have eroded in recent years. Good manners are the oil of social machinery. We really do like to look after people, and the relationships we have developed have been very useful and opened a lot of doors.
Becoming the first camera shop to be granted a Coat of Arms by Her Majesty’s College of Arms (above) was a wonderful huge shock, in a good way, publishingNikon Ownermagazine. I should also mention that winning the first ever Amateur PhotographerPlatinum award for good service and winning it four times in a row.
We’ve been able to successfully negotiate trading highs and lows through constant awareness – keeping up the successful, helpful actions and knocking out the ones that don’t work. Rather than bombarding customers with sales emails during the lockdowns, for example, we started doing live streams with Becky Danese (our general manager) over Facebook and YouTube, using our expertise to guide people through a range of photographic techniques. This has worked really well.