Inside leg story

At first sight it is all too reminiscent of Are You Being Served?, the television series of beloved memory. When you phone Beales of Bournemouth and ask for Mr Nigel, you are put straight through to the chairman. Then you realise this clothing emporium is far from being a joke business; indeed, it could become a minor stock market star when the shares are quoted next month.

Beales started in Bournemouth 115 years ago and now has a handful of stores in towns as far apart as Bedford, Winchester and Southport.

"Local is beautiful," says Mr Nigel (Beale), a chairman clearly far from the senile Young Mr Grace of the BBC series. "That's why we've survived and prospered during the recession. We've got a very robust trading policy. Like John Lewis we're never knowingly undersold."

The Beales formula, based on service and catering for the affluent over- 35s, is flexible enough to allow local whims to be catered for. In its Bedford store, locals of Italian descent are enormous purchasers of white gloves (for First Communions) and black tights and stockings, whereas customers at Broadbents and Boothroyds in Southport, bought a couple of years ago, seem to have a taste for formal wear - as well as long overcoats to cope with the climate.