“I found three things: a silver mirror, a silk handkerchief, and a glass flask of ointment. These items will help you on your journey, use them when need be. If you ever lose faith in yourself, the mirror will show your inner beauty. In case your reputation is stained, the handkerchief will remind you of how pure your heart is. As for the balm, it will heal your wounds, both inside and outside.” Elif Shafak 40 Rules of Love.
Our shop has been open for almost a year and it seems a good moment to reflect on what we have learned and where we are heading, what drives us forward and what obstacles have threatened to trip us up. Those moments when I’ve needed the mirror, the handkerchief and definitely the balm.
For about a year, when leaving or entering Lewes, I passed an empty shop right up at the top of Lewes High Street far from the centre of town with only a part time sandwich shop, a barber and a butcher for company. It was in a sorry state, unloved, with a sloppy paint job and uninspiring shop fittings. There was virtually no passing trade, parking was not great and it looked horribly damp. But it had moss green tiles on the wall outside and the biggest, most beautiful windows.
I was smitten.
Not wanting a shop I arranged to look around. The basement was damp with the lino floating on literally composted underlay. The woodwork was purple, the walls sky blue. The floor was covered in an acrylic carpet that gave small static electric shocks for hours after walking across it. Upstairs the shop was cold and dominated by the biggest loo I have ever seen that took up 1/3 of the shop space. There was a nasty broken kitchen at the back. There was no heating, old dusty spotlights and a penetrating smell of disuse.
I loved it.
Still not wanting a shop I set about thinking what I would do to turn it into a beautiful space. The basement would need to be totally gutted, cleared, treated, painted, re floored, rewired, plumbed for a sink and washing machine. It would need new lighting, heating and equipping for making. The shop itself needed wiring, lighting, flooring, painting and fitting. The loo had to go and a new smaller version created in a corridor, the nasty kitchen needed to be completely removed, heating installed, a new floor fitted to become a serene therapy room.
It was madness to take it on. The cost…
So having decided not to take it on, I went for another look. I lifted the grey acrylic carpet in one corner and found a solid mahogany floor. The sun streamed in and lit the walls with a light that was the very best Winter had to offer – slanting, strong and warm through those enormous windows. And then I found the hook for the awning. It was a cast iron hook on a long wooden pole, exactly the same as the ones we had at school for pulling open windows too high to reach. I went outside and pulled down the awning inserting the hook into the little metal eye. It unrolled ending with a satisfying clunk. That was it. The moment that not wanting a shop turned into seeing the potential of this space.
I bought an antique French shop door bell and then signed the contract.
My friend and builder Ray, Marcus the painter (and sculptor), Alan the electrician and a plumber set about realising the vision. It took twice as long as I anticipated and cost around £30,000. There is a clear choice I think when approaching a project like this, you can cut corners and get something pretty lovely or you can take your heart in your hands, apply the balm and go for the very best it can be. We chose that route. Every part of the process had to fit with the ethos of the brand, every decision had to be good, fair and kind. It may sound flaky but I do believe if you can suffuse a space with love, it enters the fabric of the building and radiates out.
I smashed flowers onto paper.
I wanted to use some colour in the shop and so along with Catherine Cridland (a garden designer and friend) decided to take our key plants and smash them onto paper to see what colours were revealed. The tones from ochre yellow through sage green and into pinks and purples were magical. I took the plant stained paper to a paint shop and had them made into colours. Later I had those colours incorporated into our labels so when you look at our products you’ll see they all have a thin line of colour to denote which skin type they suit best – pure plant power in the bottle and on the labels.
I commissioned…a lot.
I chose planks of oak with the bark still on and had them made into floating shelves, I knew I wanted copper but not blinging so I asked Charlie Palmer and Tom Wunsch to make a set of Apothecary drawers on wheels with a patinated copper top. I asked Charlie to make oak display boxes with patinated copper edges and then price blocks to match. We used the saw dust from the oak shelves to patinate the copper. I wanted everything to contribute to everything else.
Months went by. My car kept driving itself to the wholesale flower market.
And then quite suddenly it was finished.
We arranged therapists, hung the art of Julia White and Keith Pettit, bought an idiot proof till for me and we opened.
Lesson learned. I totally underestimated both the final cost and the ongoing costs of having a shop. It is an expensive venture and more than that, when you expand there is suddenly a huge amount more to do. Tackling the accounts in the days before the last submission date is impossible, managing online revenue streams, shop costs, stockist invoicing is hopeless even with a good accountant (and Chris Axton was the very best). After a tearful day of drowning in invoices and tax returns I employed Angie.
It was like the day I bought a dishwasher.
I remember the first day after I bought a dishwasher sitting in the chair watching it, listening to the swish of water and the clunk of who knows what, thinking to myself – that’s me washing the dishes. At the time I had 4 children (more followed) and it was the best gift from my father ever. In the same way, I watched Angie tackle the hideous backlog of account based horror with equanimity and patience and I thought – thanks to the universe for sending me this brilliant woman. And much as the dishwasher, I am grateful for Angie every. single. day.
I bought more plants. Having a shop is like having a license to buy things you love. I love plants. My daughter explained that people in the pub she worked in had asked if our shop was a florist. I had indulged my plant buying too much.
I stopped. Ok I didn’t stop I slowed down.
The shop has many functions and it works for us. It is an invitation to really see into our brand. With an online shop and stockists across Europe, Asia and the US we rarely meet our customers face to face. We can’t see their skin, advise them through discussion and observation, or even demonstrate how best to use our products. The shop has given us all of that and more.
Every day I open the door inhale joyfully and step into my world. It has given us a place, a home and somewhere to share our passion. It is a destination. We have had visitors from far and wide – people travelling to us from Washington State, France, Belgium and Italy. We welcome them with unbridled delight. They arrive puffed out from the hill not realising how far we are from the middle of town and we sit them in our comfy chairs and ply them with drinks and biscuits.
The beauty of being off the beaten track is time. We rarely have a crowd of people in the shop so every visitor has as much time as they need. There is no rush. Having therapies has also helped keep a steady flow of visitors – our facials and massages use only our products so people can effectively try before they buy and get a 10% discount on purchases that day.
In the summer we brought our flowers from the farm to dry in our beautiful windows and asked people to come in and pull the petals off our Roses and Calendula – I love the idea that within the shop we can introduce the farm. We have held workshops throughout the year from natural perfumery, to soap making, terrariums, millinery, weaving and so much more. We have really enjoyed opening up the space to our friends and will expand that next year. We want to offer really high quality, skills based workshops.
Opening the shop has been a challenge and a joy. I have needed the mirror, the handkerchief and the balm on many days. Running a business is tough, the hours are long, it can be lonely making decisions on your own that affect everyone in the team. I seem to forget as much as I remember. I am still hopeless at sums. But I have the best group of women around me, they are numerate, fun and we share a common understanding of what we are trying to achieve.
My best advice is this, if you have a vision, go for it. Take the chance no matter how old you are or how scared you feel. Get a good team around you who can both accommodate your way of working and plug your skills gap. Delegate, which can be hard but is essential. Don't fret about profit to start with but carefully manage your cash flow - good businesses fail not for lack of success but from a lack of cash. Be clear with stockists on supply terms and conditions, don't feel you have to say yes to everything, don't take knock backs personally, they are inevitable. On the few occasions when something I have worked hard for has failed to materialise, something infinitely better has come along. Reflect. Learn from your mistakes, leave your ego at the door and most of all have faith in yourself. If you don't believe passionately in what you do, why should anybody else.
So, with all that in mind, Julie, Tara, Bell, Nicky, Angie, Cammie, Lisa, Emily – thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without you all doing what you do, we would have nothing. Here’s to more Gin Mondays, adventures and another year of being us in our beautiful little shop.