The quirks of running a creative business in the middle of a small village

The Tall Yarns Studio is located in the centre of Grayshott, a small village on the border between Surrey and Hampshire. Since both Andrea and I live in Grayshott, lots of villagers know us. When we moved into the studio a little over a year ago, we were not looking for a shop. We trade online and at shows and needed both storage and studio space. We design and sample garments on site, manage stock and a website, send out web and telephone orders, do our business admin and develop, prepare and manage our show stand here. However, the building we moved into has both curb-presence as well as curb-appeal, so we were lured by the idea of opening the studio part-time to passing trade. It took us 6 months to realise that the nature of our work causes fellow villagers to treat us like a friendly neighbour rather than a business. It was becoming more difficult to run the business without being rude to all and sundry dropping in for a natter and a cup of tea and balancing this with the fact that we were also confusing people by only opening part-time. Although we clearly communicated this with a sign on the door, plenty of people assume that "a shop is a shop, so it will be open between 10 and 5 at least".....not paying any attention to the signs and proceeding to slam into a locked door....

So last Summer we changed course and put a permanent sign next to the door that reads "visit by appointment" followed by our phone number and a wide band of frosted glass vinyl across the windows to help emphasise that they aren't meant to look like shop windows. 9 months on and we still have people ringing the door bell asking for all and sundry, assuming that they are welcome because they have spotted one of us in the building. It's bizarre.....
I've had to grow a much thicker skin as I regularly have to send such callers away. Their requests range from bra-extenders (!?) to borrowing our photo copier to the sewing on of a pom-pom that has fallen off the crown of a knitted hat....... Interestingly enough, our serious customers got the message without a hitch, ALWAYS calling in advance and really appreciating the time and privacy they get from us when they do come here on appointment.

This week we added another extraordinary event to our growing list of head-scratchers..... a local lady called at the front door to specifically see Andrea and return one of our Tabards that she had bought from us last Summer. She was not interested in dealing with me (why? I think I worked it out - read on). She has worn and washed it a number of times since she bought it but concluded that she doesn't really want it anymore, so..... she came to give it back! She proclaimed that she didn't want any money for it and that she hoped we could put it to some good use and left very happy, stating that she felt better for having returned it....
Can you imagine buying a dress at any high street shop, wearing and washing it for a while then returning it next year, explaining that you've decided it's not really you after all? Situations like this leave me lost for words. Reflecting on it now though, the only explanation I can come up with is the fact that we are a creative business. I cannot imagine anyone tapping on a window when seeing a business meeting at, say, an accountants' office and, after motioning us to unlock and open the door, asking if we can do some photo copying while the printing service next door is closed for lunch....

Do not get me wrong, it is all very sweet; and supportive. Every time we load our trailer with stand material and stock, a concerned villager will accost us asking in a worried voice whether we are moving out (we're never open, it looks like a mess inside, how can an obscure business like this be a success, right?) My mistake is that I keep comparing us to business as I (used to) know it. I need to stop doing that. We are different, in fact, quite radically so. Our product offer, our route to market, our ethos. We hug and kiss our customers at the shows. In fact, there are some that specifically come to see us at the start and end of their day out, for a hug, a chat, to proudly show their purchases and then for a big wave goodbye. The sense of community is immense. Yet it alienates me when the villagers around us do a little bit of that too, in their own way. I am reminded of the tv series Lark Rise to Candleford, which is set in 19th century Oxfordshire. Many things have changed in the 100+ years that have passed, but if you scrub away the cars, the mobile phones and the computers, there is an under-current of care and respect. There is a hankering to keep hold of tradition and ingrained ways of doing things. Familiar patterns make you feel safe, right? That series more than any other I can think of also very nicely portrays the struggles with letting go of some of the familiar patterns, and embracing new ones. Fast-forward to the here and now and the new groove that we are trying to cut with Tall Yarns. Our villagers look at us in action; bemused, confused and guessing at what on earth we're doing here. They guess, sometimes get it wrong and I bristle, like the conservative shop-keepers in the tv series. And in one fell swoop degrade myself from being a trail-blazer to one of the most conservative ones....

It's about time I start behaving as supportive towards those around us as they are towards our endeavours. I get it wrong too, that is clear. So if I believe I'm cutting a new groove, and sewing different seeds, then I need to be open to different reactions to the plants that grow. A different business model; comparing us to an accountants' office is as inappropriate as comparing one of our Layercake Smocks to a tunic from M&S. Of course our local lady wouldn't return a tunic to M&S. But she did return her Smock to us. And instead of bristling, I should be thankful. She recognises how different we are. She appreciates it. She embraced it, spent money to try one of our garments. She properly tried it, a number of times. And as much as she liked the idea of being part of it, it did not feel like part of her. And she valued us highly enough to come and tell us that. Wow. I might see her later, on my daily trek of dropping off parcels at the post office. Must remember to express my gratitude, let her know I get it now. And give her a hug, because I can tailor-make that to fit and there is no charge.....


2 Comments

Carole Hughes
Carole Hughes

May 09, 2016

My first layer cake purchase was one of the very early smocks. Since then I have added smocks, a tabard, a coat and several mini tabards so I can mix and match colours. I’m a UK 20/22 so wear your size 2 and I love the way I feel wearing them all. What is more they are so distinctive that we can instantly recognise fellow Layercake wearers who wear them with equal enthusiasm!

Skein Queen
Skein Queen

March 11, 2015

Reading and nodding. Oh yes. Very familiar.

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