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Shop At the Old Fire Station, Oxford

By Kate Marsden

Another shop profile for you this week, and one which has been on my list of places to visit for a while! So the next time I go to Oxford, I’ll be popping into The Old Fire Station – a fabulous looking arts centre with a rather lovely shop. Here the Shop Coordinator Harriet tells us more and shares her thoughts on the Just A Card campaign.

Tell us a little about you. What do you do? 

My name is Harriet and I work as the Shop Coordinator here at Shop at the Old Fire Station in Oxford.

What does a typical day involve?

My job covers most aspects of the shop - I do the buying, ordering, visual merchandising and also look after the marketing. Pretty much everything other than the customer service stuff! So a typical day would involve answering some emails, checking in new stock that’s arrived and getting it out and looking lovely on the shop floor, usually a lot of faffing about taking pictures for Instagram… all sorts!

Where do you work? What is your shop like? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?

Our Shop is part of a wider arts centre called Arts at the Old Fire Station. We have a theatre, dance studio, loft space, gallery and artist studios - there’s always lots going on! We also share our building with the homelessness charity Crisis, who have a training centre here, which includes a café and lots of learning opportunities. We work with Crisis on a range of projects, including our biannual Hidden Spire theatre production and various exhibitions in our gallery. Our shop has a range of work by independent UK designer-makers, and we try to stock work that is that little bit different - handcrafted but with a modern edge.

When I’m not working, I enjoy learning new crafts - I’m currently obsessed with calligraphy and spend a lot of my spare time hunched over a notepad trying to get it to a standard I’m happy with! I also enjoy cooking and baking, and I do love a wander around somewhere new hunting out their indie shops - I had a lovely time last weekend in Leamington Spa visiting Berylune and seeing all the gorgeous work they had there.

What do you consider to be the main challenges facing shop/gallery owners at the moment?

It’s definitely competitive out there - we know people are spending less on the high street nowadays and more on experiences such as eating out or day trips. That’s why it’s so important that we get across why you should buy handmade, rather than something mass produced - it’s about demonstrating the extra value and the people behind the brand. It’s difficult but something I’m always working on!

What ambitions do you have for the business over the next few years?

Following on from the previous question, I’d really love to have a strong programme of workshops on modern craft techniques. There are so many great resources out there on learning how to do it yourself,  but nothing beats a hands-on workshop for me - it’s so helpful to have someone there in person, plus they are always a good opportunity to catch up with friends and take some time out. I’d also like for us to have some more formal professional development programmes in place - we do lots of ad hoc work with early career makers about various things but it would be nice to have something more structured and informative. And I guess just to keep people coming back for more… I love it when repeat customers visit.

Do you have any tips for fellow small business owners and designer/makers who are reading this and may be just starting out? 

I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve got a pretty great support structure here in the wider arts centre - I know I’d struggle a lot more if I was running a shop on my own (although that’s still the dream for the future!)  The main thing I would say is that you have to love what you do- running a business is hard work and to keep going you need to be passionate. Likewise, when things go well it’s the best feeling that all your hard work has paid off.

Had you realised the Just A Card campaign message suggests cards as an example of a small purchase - we're about encouraging all sales as they keep businesses afloat?  

Yes, I think cards are a great suggestion because they’re an easy pick-up purchase and don’t cost a lot - but the idea is equally applicable to other small items such as a notebook or magazine. Most of our purchases are around the £10 mark - it’s easy to spend that much on a takeaway lunch and coffee, but they all add up to support the work we do as an arts centre and with Crisis.

How important is the Just A Card campaign message to you and your business?

I think people often feel a little intimidated by independent shops. They can seem difficult to browse without feeling like the shopkeeper is watching you, but in truth we’re always happy to see someone who is interested in what we have, and especially happy if they buy something, whether that’s a card or a £200 necklace! All purchases and customers are important to us and how we grow as a business.

Where did you hear about the campaign and which Social Media platforms do you use most frequently? 

I’ve been aware of the campaign for quite a while now - I think I first heard about it either on Twitter or in Mollie Makes. Instagram is the platform I use the most, although I’m fairly new to it and am still trying to improve my photography.

What do you think people can do to support Just A Card, and how will you be doing so?

I try and shout about the campaign on social media as much as possible, and just try to keep the message in mind when I’m doing any marketing. I’ve recently started sharing my trips to other independent businesses on the Shop Instagram, which has had a great response. We’re also very lucky that we have a great resource here called Independent Oxford, an online directory of independent businesses in the city. They run Instameets, markets and meet-ups, which are a great opportunity to meet with other business owners and to promote each other on our social media.

Kate MarsdenComment