Maltese lace and licorice torpedos: small shops take on the big chains
Geoff Burch is full of stories.
The one about his wife escaping from Cheltenham Ladies College down twisted sheets is made up, I'm sure of that.
The one about the bank call centre that won best customer service, but then was told they had cheated because they had "just given the customers what they asked for", well, that has the ring of truth to it, doesn't it.
To add another to his story larder, I teach him to make Maltese Lace.
Well, actually Chris Lane does the teaching, she runs a wonderful haberdashers in Gloucester. If Aladdin had been into embroidery, this would be his cave. Geoff is impressed, with her knowledge and her stock.
"This lady has buttons for teddy eyes, plastic dolls faces," he gushes. "Seventy types of gold yarn - fantastic!"
But he thinks Chris rather hides her lamp under a bushel.
We've come here because small shops like Chris are engaged in a mighty battle, as never before. On one front, of course, the recession, and tight-fisted shoppers. On the other, an avalanche of chain stores from the big multiples. In the last year, the west country has seen hundreds of swanky new shops opening. First Bristol's Cabot Circus, then Gloucester's new Designer Quays, and now - on Wednesday - SouthGate in Bath.
So can the independent shopkeeper survive? Geoff says yes, enthusiastically, but not if they wait for trade.
"Have you thought of popping down the Quays and offering classes?" he asks Chris, over her lace pillow. "An introduction to gold lace - it would go down a storm."
She's not sure. She likes our cameras being there, but you can tell she didn't think unsolicited business advice was part of the deal.
We get a similar story in Aunt Sally's old fashioned sweetie shop, on Westgate Street. Flanked by boarded up casualties of the retail crunch, Aunt Sally sells over 200 varieties of classic old treats, in those famous jars. Foam Bananas, Licorice Torpedos, Butter Tablet (the proper stuff, from Scotland, none of your pale imitations here).
"How about a website?" asks Geoff, sucking on a foam banana ('haven't had these since I was a lad!'). Sally's not sure. Sounds like a lot of work, and her trade is OK - at the moment.
At some point I'm sure we asked lots of hard journalistic questions. Have the Quays really increased footfall in the town, like the city fathers promised? Have the multiples sucked people out of the city centre? Is there a pattern to all these shops that have gone bust?
Trouble is, small retailers are wonderfully diverting. And we kept getting diverted. In Bath, we hit Walcot Street, a kind of Independent State of Retailing. Geoff nearly bought a new pair of boots for the Harley. I popped into big John's bike shop to get change for the meter, and came close to replacing my aging mountain bike with its annoying clunky gears.
But OK, I can hear you clamouring to know the future. Will Bath's quirky shops survive SouthGate? "Yes of course, if they are any good," Geoff soothes.
"Blindfold me and put me in any high street in the country, I'd not be able to tell where I was. But look around you" - he waves his arm at the Bath stone crescents, the Abbey steeple, the high hills around - "where else could we be but Bath! And these quirky one-off shops are what make it. Not some anodyne shopping centre out of a packet!"
It's a rather encouraging story, this. Geoff likens both the crunch and the chain store threat to a hard frost. Weak shops will, sadly but brutally, be weeded out. The strong will flourish.
"The multiples are the middle line," he declares. "Independents need to shoot above the line or below the line. If you go above, they can't touch you for service, for variety, for quality. But don't get caught in the middle."
You can catch up with all the BBC Bristol SouthGate news here. And I'll leave you with a guided tour of SouthGate courtesy of our friendly Bath reporter, Ali Vowles.