Real Impression : Ideas on Paper
I've been keen to start a project telling stories of fellow creatives and artists since the start of the year. I'm fascinated by how we arrive at where we are now, what routes we take and what decisions we've made. As ever though, one thing or another crops up and it seems to tumble down the ever growing pile of to-dos.
Recently though it seemed I needed to prioritise it after many conversations about the apparent glamour of working for yourself, it seems the perception of being freelance is all pyjamas and jaunts abroad, from the outside I hasten to add. From the inside though, it's mostly hours and hours of screen time, a sizeable pinch of isolation and unrelenting lists of tasks. For me, having these starkly contrasting chats called for a little reality, and support for those on the inside.
And so, here start-eth a monthly series combining portraits capturing person and craft, alongside interview style chats about the realities of starting something from the ground up. From the perspective of artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and the like, 'Real Impressions' aims to be authentic, create community and give insight and support for those during the daily grind.
If you would like to be involved, have any questions or you'd just like to say hello I'd love to chat, send a quick quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me here.
First up is Alex, a retail entrepreneur who owns and runs Ideas on Paper, an independent magazine and book shop in Cobden Chambers, Nottingham. He is a wonderful human with a penchant for extremely lovely paper goods and great conversation.
So, how did you get to where you are now?
Brief...! I'm 46! Right, okay, so growing up in Nottingham I always used to find the independent shops around Hockley really exciting. I used to visit them and think one day I’d like to do this - to own my own shop. When I told my parents that, they told me “you don’t know the first thing about how to run your own shop!” And so I went to London and did the training course in Harrods and lived and worked down there for many many years - also working in places like Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Mulberry. I built a whole array of experience, kind of making my own training scheme, so that I could open a shop on my own. A few years ago I was listening to one of my favourite magazine's, Monocle, radio station on a Saturday morning, to a programme called ‘The Stack’ where they talk about Independent Magazines. It was really interesting because there were people on there talking about magazines they’d started or magazines they’d found interesting or ideas they had - but no-one was talking about selling magazines, except to say they couldn’t really cope with doing business in big multiples because of the time it takes to get paid and that they’d only get paid for the ones that had been sold. After listening to that I felt like there was an opportunity to do something a bit different. I could combine my experience in the fashion industry with a love of books - and to do it in a slightly different way, to create an environment that feels more like a home than a shop, to sell books and magazines whilst being mindful they’re beautiful in their own right. That’s the shop I decided to open. I opened almost four years ago now in Cobden Chambers, Nottingham. Overtime I needed a bit more space, and so I moved into where I am now and…here I am!
Why did you take the initial jump to start your shop?
I came back to Nottingham in 2012 because of the London Olympics as I had to move out of where I was living. My landlord wanted several thousand pounds extra for the flat I was living in at the time for that month. So that was a nice catalyst, I always knew I would leave London and return to home to Nottingham. I got a job working in a clothes shop on Bridlesmiths Gate as a ‘meanwhile’ thing until I decided what it was I was going to do and then it was just really lucky that whilst listening to Monocle radio I discovered the independent magazine niche. Then, Nottingham City Council ran a competition called the ‘Inspiring Retail Competition’ where you had to come up with a business idea and then pitch that to a dragons den style panel of people. It was launched at the time because there was concern about the number of vacant shop units in the city centre and so this was devised as a scheme to stimulate interest in retail. The prize was £10,000 in cash plus some support from organisations such as legal back up to register your business and help from a web company to develop your website. It’s one of those slightly cliched stories in that I didn’t win, but I thought I’d do it anyway! I got to that stage where I believed in the idea so strongly, was bored out of my skull working at a large chain and just thought it’d be more interesting to have a bookshop. If it didn’t work out I’d still be here, I could just do something else. I took the leap of faith and…so far so good!
How did you make ends meet financially?
I paid myself from the beginning, not much I hasten to add…but then I don’t have an extravagant lifestyle! So I just managed to get the thing rolling to start off with and then things have grown from there. Whilst I was still working with said large chain, I was selling copies of Monocle out of the drawer, so it started there. Soon after that the CQ did a pop up shop at what had been Dwell and I had a little table there with some magazines like Another Escape, Hot Rum Cow and Cereal Magazine. I found they sold so I thought “right okay, there’s something in this so why not”. Cobden Chambers came up as a great opportunity to rent some space without over exposing oneself to a long and expensive lease. The whole rolling, easy-in-easy-out contract that Cobden Chambers tend to operate on made it viable for somebody to begin a micro business.
What were your biggest hurdles?
I’ve been preparing for this for 25 years - I have made a lot of mistakes but on other peoples time, and at other peoples expense! So I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt in retail management to doing this myself. By starting it out really small and growing organically you get to experiment with things and you learn from the things you do without them being huge mistakes. You just kind of discover things as you go along. You get a feel for different titles and what’s going to be popular with customers - even down to the level of looking at a cover, now I get a pretty good idea about whether it’s going to sell well or not just from that. I’ve developed over the months and years stocking more books, I had a really small collection of books when I first started and now the balance is about 60% magazines and 40% books.
What was your main goal and aim in starting this venture?
My goal was not to have a goal, because you can only have a general idea about what you want to do. I suppose my general idea, my mission, was to bring ideas to Nottingham that hadn’t been here before. Because the independent magazines that I intended to stock were a new thing and weren’t well represented in Nottingham. My mission was to change that. Things like the Brownbook, a fantastic magazine, about the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa). If you walked into a shop in Shoreditch you could quite easily find this and you wouldn’t be surprised to find it - but you’re much less likely to find it in Nottingham. I thought well, the people of Nottingham should have access to that because it is really good, it’s not expensive and it’s worth selling. Which then touches on one of the other things I’m happy about. Which is that I sell a product that is very accessible to everybody, you know most people can afford to spend £10 on a magazine. Say you’ve got your day off and you’ve got £20 you can blow on something you feel like spending that money on. So if you buy a magazine and you sit and read it in Wired Cafe Bar, buy yourself a piece of cake and a cup of coffee that’s the best version of that experience you can get. If you are a Russian oligarch with trillions of pounds in the bank, you can’t get a better version of it because that’s still a flat white and that’s still a copy of the Brownbook. That’s what I really like, the fact that anybody can have that. What I always felt uncomfortable with in the fashion industry was that people wanted things because not everybody could have them, you know the whole exclusive thing. I find that a bit distasteful. It’s good to sell stuff because it’s good, not just because other people can’t afford it. That’s something that’s really positive about books. If you think, what else could you spend a tenner on that genuinely could change your life.
What do you know now that you could pass on to those a few steps behind you?
Well, I don’t necessarily know anything more now than I knew when I started. Except it’s just more time has passed and so you know things with a greater richness. I mean life is like making a good pasta sauce, you keep adding ingredients, you keep stirring and things reduce down, you add in more wine and garlic and it just keeps on going. So, I don’t know if I know anything more now especially. I think there’s value in starting something, no matter how small because a lot of people don’t want to begin something because they haven’t finalised all of the details. The thing is you never will finalise all of the details in a meaningful and useful way. Because in the first week, or month, from starting a business you’ll have thrown a business plan in the bin or started a new one. We don’t live in that kind of world, where everything is predictable or planned. It’s much better to do things in such a way that you can fine tune it and develop it as you go along. Like, I’m stocking more books than I initially intended to, I’m in a bigger space than I started in originally. These are all things that I’ve adapted to the circumstances I’ve found myself in and adjusted as I’ve gone on. Part of the initial business plan was have a cafe, but I quickly realised I only had two hands. It would be a bit much to do coffee and all the books as well. That’s something I’d quite like to do in the future, but I might do it in a different way. So if I had a bigger retail space, I might collaborate with someone else who could do the coffee.
It sounds like your emphasis is on organic growth, organic learning and working with what you’ve got, is that right?
My emphasis is on having a nice time. I don’t even really want to grow that much, it’s just that I like doing things and I love having interesting conversations and that’s something that the shop brings. I like doing interesting things and I want to have a positive impact on the city. Which then means, I think about what else could I be doing? How could I adapt what I’m doing to encompass a few different elements? It would be nice to have space in the shop to do events, but at the moment that isn’t possible. So many people write so many books about ‘this is what you need to know if you want to be an entrepreneur' and ‘this is what you need to know if you want to be successful’ and a lot of the time it’s unpredictable and it’s random. One of my favourite authors, Nassim Taleb, wrote a book called 'Fooled by Randomness' in which he points out that people like to take ownership of their success but they blame failure on bad luck, but success is also due to luck as well and I’ve definitely had a lot of luck and I consider myself to be very fortunate in that sense. So if I was to try and do the whole thing again then it might have a different result. Therefore, it’s really difficult, probably pointless, to try and boil things down to just say ‘if you want to launch a successful project then do this’. It’s more about having a mindset that’s adaptable and flexible and doesn’t start out being too grandiose. Just do things in such a way that if they don’t work out it’s not going to cause you a level of pain you can’t cope with.