‘What kind of idiot opens a shop at a time of economic turbulence and crisis on the high street and in retail?’
If you’d asked me this time last year what I thought I’d be doing twelve months on, the answer would not have been ‘owning a shop in Northampton Town Centre’, writes Julie Teckman.
I’m so risk averse I won’t even eat a yoghurt past its sell-by date, I’m well-aware of the current dismal state of high street shopping everywhere and particularly here in Northampton, and I was semi-retired from a stressful job in education. Ironic then, that during one of the hottest summers on record last year, I spent all my ‘rainy day’ savings setting up Vintage Guru, a blend of vintage emporium and a gift shop on the corner of St Giles Street and Hazelwood Road in the slightly iconic Hazelwood House, still known affectionately by many locals as The Christian Bookshop.
It was, and still is, a massive financial risk and with very little experience in retail aside from my own love of shopping and three months selling vintage clothes, I’m still not completely sure why I decided to put my savings and sanity on the line to take on such a daunting venture.
The combination of not really knowing what I was letting myself in for with an awareness of the need for a selling space for the huge numbers of creative people looking to sell stuff but unwilling or unable to take on a shop unit themselves, and teaming up with an incredibly experienced, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and hardworking partner with the vision of what we could create, propelled me to the conclusion of the project and Vintage Guru St Giles opened in August 2018 to crowds on the pavement and a ringing till!
In just five months we have grown from 50 to 80 traders housed on two floors of the shop (our beautiful ground floor and the labyrinthine basement) with an eclectic mix of vintage, upcycled, retro and new clothes, accessories, gifts, housewares, vinyl records and furniture. Stock changes every day and it can take a good hour to get around the whole shop.
We thought that our target market would be the students moving into the new Waterside University campus and accommodation but our most regular and loyal customers are the over fifties, who, contrary to the doom-laden predictions when M&S closed and despite concerns about parking, antisocial behaviour and lack of shops, are still coming into town. These customers are truly grateful for any new additions to the town’s offer and their positive comments have made the whole thing worthwhile.
With the current backlash against fast fashion and throw-away goods, vintage stores have become places to shop more responsibly and to acquire possessions with a history and a story to tell. Whether it’s an old shoe last now converted into a table lamp, old cable reels reimagined as shelving and tables, or a cape from the 1950s, buying vintage gives consumers the opportunity to shop in a more ethical and sustainable way. And the emporium model of renting space to small businesses and independent traders is a well-established practice that offers opportunity, diversity and collaboration. As we like to say, Vintage is the New New!
Coming new to retail my respect and admiration for shop-workers has grown. Like so many shops these days, we’re open seven days a week and, having made the decision to open between 11am and 7pm on weekdays, 10am and 6pm on Saturdays and 11am and 4pm on Sundays, it feels as though we are always there. We chose to open and close later than is standard to give shoppers more flexibility, and we are already seeing increasing numbers of pleasantly surprised customers taking advantage of evening opening to visit us after work. Sadly the changes to street parking in the town centre, that now mean visitors must pay to park up until 7pm, have rather ruined our other incentive of free parking after 6 but I’ve learned that it’s best not to bring up the subject of town centre parking which seems to be the biggest bugbear for visitors.
I’ve also learned that there are many really interesting people in Northampton whose visits to the shop really brighten up the day. From the ladies who invite me to look at their collections of beautiful vintage clothes and tell me the stories behind them, to the (mostly) men who march into the shop with a determined expression and browse through our extensive vinyl racks seeking out gems to add to their collections, and whose knowledge of music is staggering, I’ve met creative and fascinating people from around the globe who love hunting out treasures and who know far more about our stock than I do! It’s not always easy letting people know we’re here but social media and word of mouth are bringing in new customers every day and that is one highlight of this whole enterprise.
And there have been other highlights too in our first few months of trading. We’ve been visited by MPs, celebrities and the media. We’ve provided props for the Alan Moore film being filmed locally and jewellery for the drag queens in Kinky Boots when it came to the town, and we hosted a book signing and sale of the amazing boots with Mr Kinky Boots himself, Steve Pateman. We’ve starred in the Screen Northants Christmas film (making a movie star of our own Matthew Lewis!) and we’ve provided a location for numerous student films and photoshoots.
But, perhaps the biggest highlights of our time so far are being voted runners up by the public in last year’s Independent Retailer of the Year competition and winning first prize in The Northampton Town Centre BID Christmas Windows competition for both the Cultural Quarter and Overall. We dreamed of rivalling Selfridges for our beautiful window displays and, thanks to Matthew’s amazing skills in visual merchandising, we’re well on our way!
However, I think it’s fair to say that there are times when I am so far out of my comfort zone that my head rings and panic is never far away. Setting up and running a new business, dealing with the legal and financial side of taking on premises, particularly an old building like Hazelwood House, was scary and complicated. Trying to decorate and equip the shop in just six weeks, ready for opening in August, was exhausting. Supporting the staff in the shop and the traders who have put their trust in us to sell their goods requires patience, organisation and diplomacy at times. Making sure we stay aware of, and compliant with, all the legislation and rules that apply to places like us that deal with the public can be overwhelming, expensive and time-consuming, and constantly looking for new ways to promote the business requires creativity and confidence. Footfall in the town centre still needs to improve to keep us and other independent stores thriving and confident of long-term existence and there’s only so much you can do as a small business. There are certainly times when I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew!
But then a customer tells me that they’ve just found the item they’ve been unsuccessfully searching for online, or I hear a customer delightedly showing their grandchild an object that they used in their youth which is now on sale as an antique, or I’m able to tell the young woman trying on the vintage dress about its provenance, and I know that there’s nowhere else I’d rather be working. And knowing that on Christmas morning many local people woke up to presents bought from Vintage Guru was humbling and exciting. I am so grateful to the people who have helped us get up and running, the customers who have visited us already and those yet to come through our doors, and the traders whose amazing products bring our shop alive.
If you haven’t visited yet, or, if you think you might like to join as a trader, come in and see us. And if nothing else, you’ll get to discover what kind of idiot opens a shop at a time of economic turbulence and crisis on the high street and in retail!
You can find us on Facebook and Instagram as Vintagegurustgiles and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.