If you’re a regular on the High Street in Tunbridge Wells then you can’t have failed to notice the addition of Pushkin Antiques and Interiors. With its smart black and gold livery on its shop frontage and eye-catching array of vintage curios and collectables in the windows it has certainly caused quite the stir since it opened at the beginning of last month.
Located on the corner of Castle Street and the High Street, just a few doors down from the Queen’s jeweller G Collins & Sons, it occupies a prime spot on the town’s upmarket shopping area and it’s already proving to be a big hit thanks to its wealth of covetable and unique pieces, all expertly sourced by owner Alexander Pushkin.
After a vintage Louis Vuitton woven travel trunk from the 18th century? No problem, Alexander has not just one but four in store, all in excellent condition retailing at around sixteen thousand pounds. Or how about giving your lighting scheme a lift courtesy of an oversized 20th century palm tree floor lamp by Maison Jansen? Well, you’ve come to the right place – if you have a spare £15,995. But although there may well be some incredible high-end pieces chez Pushkin, Alexander says he also has more than enough to offer for those whose pockets aren’t so deep but still want something of value.
“We have plenty of investment pieces but we are also affordable too,” he tells me as we sit down to chat alongside his wife Olga in a stylish seating area of the double fronted shop. It’s made up of a vintage Chesterfield sofa, two leather art deco chairs, a huge black and white animal skin rug and a gleaming gilt edged glass top table complete with an impressive collection of paperweights and enamel cigarette cases all prettily glimmering from inside it. So far, so wow!
“These are some of our most popular items,” says Alexander gesturing towards the table and also up to the vintage James Bond framed posters hanging on the wall. “We’ve tried not to alienate people. We don’t want customers to make up their minds quickly about what we do here. There are things that will cost you £20,000 or £20. We want people to come in and pay for something and feel they have got some value and that they love it.”
During our chat the shop’s front door buzzer goes on numerous occasions with many clients popping in to browse which instantly proves that trade is brisk – even on a dreary Wednesday in September.
Alexander and Olga, who are both Russian, tell me they like to think of Pushkin as an interiors emporium and antiques gallery. So how did they get here?
“I established Pushkin in 2012. The business was mainly at Gray’s in London where we deal in mostly silver items but I also trade in interiors online. So until we opened this shop last month we had never had a customer facing business,” explains Alexander.
“We never planned anything really, it was all very spontaneous. We were living in Essex but had had enough and wanted a change. We came to Tunbridge Wells about ten years ago and we’d just had our daughter. I remember thinking it would be nice to live somewhere like this.”
Fast forward another nine years and the couple were back this time visiting the ice rink with some friends.
“Tunbridge Wells was so beautiful at that time of year so we had more of a look around. We visited The Pantiles, a few parks and the High Street and just fell in love with the place. In two weeks we had moved here!”
The couple found somewhere to live and a school for their two young children. “It was very easy to settle here,” says Olga.
“We still had a good business in London and couldn’t complain but then lockdown happened and we ended up spending more time together. We realised we wanted to be together more as a family and that it would be a lot more beneficial to have a business here in Tunbridge Wells to run,” reveals Alexander.
So the search began for a premises in which he and Olga could style up and showcase their ever growing collection of antiques and interior finds that are so popular with customers all over the world thanks to their online shop. In it you’ll find items as diverse as antique maps, Italian marble and mosaic tables and vintage children’s Bentley toy cars – some of which have made it into the couple’s bricks and mortar store here in Tunbridge Wells.
“When we looked at the High Street we thought it looked a little sad and that we could help lift it up – give it some life and excitement,” Alexander smiles.
“We couldn’t find a lot of antique shops here in Tunbridge Wells,” adds Olga. “There was one around the corner but it was always closed.”
Alexander says that he visited TV presenter and antiques expert Eric Knowles’s new venture The Hoard in the Corn Exchange and liked what he saw but again felt there was still a gap in the market.
“The Hoard deal mostly in glass and art deco but my pieces are more interior focused, specialist silver and quirkier. I mainly cater for men’s taste.”
So is Alexander saying he wanted to offer a retail venture that had a more masculine appeal to it?
“Exactly! One thing I noticed in this town is that the majority of things are aimed at women and kids. There are a lot of jewellery and clothes shops. I saw the opportunity to offer something different…”
Alexander says his specialist retail vision has paid off: “A lot of men have been just blown away by what we offer here. And this has translated very well into sales. We’ve had some very interesting people come to visit since we’ve been open. It’s a bit of a boys’ club. Some customers told me they think of the Pushkin shop as their man cave to which I replied ‘what does that make me? The caveman?’ I said OK I can live with that – I can be the caveman of Tunbridge Wells!”
And what pieces does his newfound customer base seem to favour the most?
“I think people are mainly looking for statement pieces and gifts,” says Alexander. “Yes, and a lot of James Bond vintage posters,” laughs Olga.
“I started buying the posters recently as I thought if I’m to open a gallery I need something to hang on the walls,” continues Alexander. “I’ve never dealt in vintage posters before but now I have around 30 of them so in a matter of a year I’ve cornered the market.”
And after working in the trade for many years and establishing an amazing global network of contacts plus two large warehouses in Essex and Buckinghamshire and a huge online presence which counts for around 90% of Pushkin’s business, it’s fair to say that Alexander knows exactly what he is doing.
“It’s my passion. When we started the company nearly ten years ago I had no background in the arts. I was studying graphic design and advertising. I never set out to do this but it has just grown organically by buying and selling. Our success is driven by pure hard work and my reputation which is second to none. Before the pandemic I would travel all across Europe, America, you name it I’ve gone there, I’ve bought it there.”
As we tour around the shop gliding by glittering decanters, gleaming silver decanters and a retro table football, I ask how Alexander values pieces. “Prices vary according to their rarity – I don’t just pull a price tag out of a hat. I do my research and look at auction results. I try to keep the prices the market dictates. They are not inflated at Pushkin, they are all based on research and experience. I have sold these pieces many, many times so I know the value.”
What’s most popular with customers right now?
“Anything bar related – especially on a Saturday!” chuckles Alexander. “We’re also selling a lot of soft furnishings, furniture and sculptures. We have a lot of stock online too so if it’s not here in the shop we will have it online or in one of our warehouses.”
Since opening Alexander and Olga say the feedback has been amazing. “Lots of people locally have said you’ll do very well.
It’s nice to hear as we didn’t really concentrate on retail until now. We worked with clients by appointment and with the trade.”
Did the couple do much research or go in feet first? “The latter – that’s my way. I’m a bit like a wrecking ball! I go in and then think let’s see what happens,” laughs Alexander. “He has done pretty much everything to his taste,” adds Olga. “It’s very welcoming: we wanted it to feel like home.”
Talking of which, Alexander reveals that the couple’s nine-year-old daughter has been working the door most Saturdays. “She’s been greeting families saying let mummy and daddy look around while we play table football! It is such a great experience for her and she is learning something new every Saturday. She’s learning business acumen, communication skills and growing in confidence. If I can pass that onto my kids here then this place will have paid for itself a hundred times.”
Alexander says that he buys from everywhere: “from auctions, other dealers, across the board. The main thing is condition – reputation is everything to me.”
He admits that he has been duped on occasion but not very often. “Those purchases are the painful ones and the ones you remember but we all make mistakes. As time goes on you make less and less mistakes. I now can’t remember the last time I made a big error. That stems from pure knowledge and handling thousands of these objects all the time: you eventually know what is right and what’s wrong.”
Other Pushkin services include restoration, customisation and creating a bespoke item too.
“We can make things from scratch as we work with some of the world’s finest. So if you want a gold beaker with your child’s name on it then we can do this. Our silversmiths and restorers are some of the best which is a great unique selling point for us. We can also offer part-exchange on any item and we also give valuations. I’m interested in everything but I’m not here to trick someone. I’ll say this is what it’s worth and this is what I’m prepared to give you.”
And with that there’s another buzz at the door and more customers eager to step over the threshold into the wonderful world of Pushkin…