The real Repair Shop: Jay Blades and former vendor Steve’s new restoration venture
The Repair Shop’s Jay Blades and former Big Issue vendor Steve Wyatt go way back. Now they are opening a shop together. They tell us how bringing the best out of furniture has brought the best out in each other
Jay Blades and Steve Wyatt. Photography: Mike Steven
“Restoring furniture is kind of like restoring yourself,” Jay Blades – the face of the BBC’s wholesome and beloved The Repair Shop – tells The Big Issue. The other person with us wholeheartedly agrees. After all, Steve Wyatt is the living embodiment of it.
Wyatt, 45, used to sell The Big Issue at Pero’s Bridge in Bristol for three years as he battled to overcome his drug addiction. After turning his life around to become a successful furniture restorer, he and Blades will open a new shop together in Poole, Dorset, next week – the latest step on a remarkable road to redemption. So what brought these two men from seemingly different worlds together? The love of restoring scuffed stools, chipped chairs and tatty tables back to former glories, of course.
“A massive drive for both of us is moving forward and that shared passion for furniture,” says Wyatt. Blades agrees: “For me the shared experience really came from the love of furniture and seeing that as an avenue to actually pursue and to deal with whatever complications you might have had in your life. I think that it’s underestimated in the sense that restoring furniture is kind of like restoring yourself. It gives a purpose to anybody that’s going along that journey. It’s the perfect focus.”
“The Big Issue gave me purpose”
Neither man had a straightforward route to success. Like the furniture pieces they work on, it’s taken a lot of hard work to bring the best out of themselves. Jay Blades has been vocal about his difficulties in overcoming dyslexia and told The Big Issue about his own experience of homelessness in 2015 when he briefly slept in his car after splitting up with his wife. Wyatt also knows what it’s like to be without a home. His 14-year effort to overcome addiction saw drugs rule his life. His need to find money to feed his addiction led him in and out of prison and receiving treatment in rehab.
He started to sell The Big Issue during one of his many attempts to kick the habit. Ironically, selling the magazine and the resulting money management gave him business skills he still uses to this day.
“The Big Issue gave me purpose and it kept me out of a lot of trouble. It kept me away from a lot of bad stuff because it made me productive,” says Wyatt. “It used to be raising money for drugs, buying drugs and using drugs and now it’s looking for the furniture, restoring the furniture and restoring myself. I was once told it was transferable skills.”
Wyatt has now been sober for nine years. After leaving rehab he set up a small social enterprise called Transfurniture where addicts could work on restoring furniture – a hobby he had picked up a decade earlier after trying it out in rehab. Now it’s his life.
“When you’ve got the bug, man, you know you’ve got it,” he says. “When you do something you love, it’s your passion and you interact with people. There’s no doubt in my mind that furniture has saved my life. I have something positive to get up for.”
“What can you do that’s different?”
Around 18 months after leaving rehab, Wyatt contacted Jay Blades for advice. At the time, Blades was running a charity, Out of the Dark, that trained disadvantaged people in furniture restoration techniques. The pair met for the first time in his Wolverhampton workshop. There was mutual admiration immediately. The meeting was before Blades hit the BBC big time and like many relationships that kick off before fame, it’s one that’s stuck.
“Steve came down for a day and we just had a chinwag and I spoke to him about what he’s trying to achieve and how to go about it,” says Blades. “I call it low-level mentoring so it’s not official. I kind of offer advice to people who might need that advice in the field that I’m in. My first impression of Steve was: ‘Here’s someone who wants to try to do something’. Anybody that wants to better themselves, or give themself a kind of direction, saying this is what I’m trying to achieve now, it’s a really good thing. My impression was he’s someone that’s going to go places.”
“I was inspired,” Wyatt recalls of his own first impressions. “I showed the work that I was doing, I always wanted to do it before but with my addiction I was never able to. So when I came out of treatment I’d met Jay and the first thing he said to me was: “What can you do that’s different?”
It’s fair to say standing out from the crowd is important to Blades. Sat wearing his luminous green V-neck jumper and signature flat cap while talking to The Big Issue, he says: “I told Steve ‘If you look the same as everybody else, you’re just going to blend into the background.’ And I’m never about blending into the background. I’m always about standing out in front. Yeah, just saying this is me.”
Soon after, Jay Blades would become the face of furniture restoration in the UK as his TV appearances on The Repair Shop ramped up.
But the meeting of minds was a launchpad for Wyatt too. He now runs his own repair shop, a furniture restoration business called Restored Retro in Poole. Wyatt made the most of an opportunity that sprang up two years ago when Legal & General and the Dolphin Centre in Poole were looking to revitalise the Covid-hit high street, allowing him to open his shop Restored Retro rent and rates free for two years. He’s made it a success, selling 600 furniture pieces and becoming the first UK stockists for Blades’ Jay & Co brand.
When the shop next door became empty, Wyatt knew just who to call. The new Jay & Co shop opens on March 13 and is only one of several “top-secret” projects the pair are collaborating on.
“It’s been a great journey of watching each other develop and I think it’s an opportunity that has come at the right time really,” says Wyatt. “If me and Jay would have been having a conversation and said in eight years’ time you’re going to have done this, this and this, and Steve you would have done this, this and this, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Jay agrees: “I wouldn’t believe what I was doing eight years on. It’s one of those things where you’ve got the drive and you just go for it and the next thing you know opportunities like The Repair Shop come your way. We don’t know where we’ll be but all we know is we’re just going to keep on moving forward. I knew about Steve’s addiction and him being in recovery and then coming out. He’s been able to do it from really, really humble beginnings and then, bosh, he’s going to potentially have two shops. It’s like I pushed him forward and he pushes me forward.”
A message for Big Issue vendors
Wyatt is not the only Big Issue vendor who has gone on to bigger things but his story is a lesson for us all to see the diamonds in the rough. And, with that little bit of support, care and attention, almost anything can be restored, rejuvenated and reinvented.
“Don’t give up,” says Wyatt in his message to Big Issue vendors. “I tried to get well for about 14 years and I failed over 20 times and nearly lost my life on several occasions but I didn’t give up. I kept trying and I couldn’t have done it without help. It’s engaging with those services that can help and I wouldn’t be where I am today without those key people in my life. Find what you love and focus and nurture what you love and what you have a passion for.”
The new store will open on March 13 at Kingland in The Dolphin shopping centre, Poole. Find out more at Steve’s website and Jay’s website This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.