WANDER around any of Edinburgh’s “village” high streets, from Bruntsfield to Portobello, the West End to Stockbridge, Morningside to the Canongate and without doubt the array of small, boutique businesses offering their own brand of specialised goods cannot fail to impress.
At a time when the national economy is slowly recovering from recession it feels as though it’s never been a better time to open a shop, brand a business and throw yourself into the retail fray. Competition might be fierce, but if you can give customers what they want you’ve got a fighting chance. It’s perhaps why the British have long been described as a nation of shopkeepers.
And tomorrow is Small Business Saturday, a national day established to raise the profile of such stores and to offer support to the shopkeepers in our communities. But there are countless other businesses running without premises in Edinburgh – keeping the shelves of some of those independent stores stocked. These are the makers and the producers of the things we might want to spend our hard-earned money on.
Sitting in their homes, or getting together in studios, they produce jewellery, art, ceramics, photography . . . beautiful things which, although they may not qualify as essentials, can bring a little light into people’s lives.
“People don’t think of artists as business people but they are,” says Sarah Young of Coburg House Studios, a converted granary, in Leith. “They are creative, but they want to sell their work as well. We have 50 studios and around 80 artists working from them. It’s all very collaborative – the ceramicists got together to buy their kilns – and they all support each other.
“We give them a base to work and to create – and they go from there to sell. The vibe is so good, and the whole thing is self-sustaining, there’s no funding at all, they are real small businesses and they want to make a real go of it.
“We have textile designers, ceramicists, weavers, 3D artists . . . some of them sell through Etsy or they have their own web pages, or sell through Edinburgh shops. This weekend though, to coincide with Small Business Saturday, we’re having an open studio so people can come down and meet the artists and see the work, and of course, buy it.”
Two of the designers working there are making big names for themselves already. Catherine Aitken designs Harris tweed bags which are then made up by sewing ladies in Portobello or Coatbridge and her work is stocked in Jenners in town and at Edinburgh Airport. Similarly Hannah Louise Lamb, who goes by the business name itchyfingers, creates bespoke jewellery, some of which is now sold through the massively popular website Notonthehighstreet.com. In particular her coast rings – a duo of rings which are intricately engraved with a coastline – have proven to be bestsellers.
Sarah adds: “Business is not how people think about art but the two sit very well together and can be very exciting.
“But because they don’t have permanent high street presence they don’t get to get that message out very often. This is the first time we have decided to really push what’s going on here.
“There’s so much variety, so many success stories, all these small businesses just add to the great mix of what’s happening in Edinburgh.”
Of course not every designer can afford to rent studio space, so they work from home. How then can they get people to know about their businesses, apart from having an online presence? The answer is markets.
Weekends in Edinburgh have become synonymous with market stalls from Castle Terrace to the Grassmarket, Stockbridge to Portobello. And these are the only outlet some of the tiniest businesses around have to drum up custom. According to Beth Derry, who runs the Stockbridge Market on Sundays and the Grassmarket Market on Saturdays for the Grassmarket BID organisation, 90 per cent of her members are small independent businesses. “Small Business Saturday is the very essence of what we’re about every weekend,” she says. “Our stallholders either make what they’re selling, or they know exactly where it comes from and they are all passionate about it. There’s nothing there you would buy in a cash and carry.
“The whole point about markets are that they support small businesses and that they offer an experience you wouldn’t get in a supermarket. You can discuss the products with the people who make them and that is worth a great deal.”
One of the stallholders, who will be showing her wares in the Grassmarket this Saturday, is Aldona Juska, a self-taught jewellery designer whose studio is in her Comely Bank home. “I started learning to weld at Telford College so I knew I liked working with metal, and I started to make smaller and smaller things and then I thought silversmithing was the thing to do.
“I’ve been making jewellery since 2002, working with silver and copper and right now I’ve been doing Christmas decorations, mistletoe with tartan ribbon trim, that kind of thing.
“It does take time to build a business, I trade under the name All Fired Up and now have a website, but if you go to markets then people can see what you do, and gallery owners may well spot it and you can get business that way.
“The markets are great because you have to relate to people and from then you get an idea of what you should be making, so you’re not going off at tangents doing your own thing. That where you have to be business-minded.”
She adds: “I am a small business, but I’ve never wanted to open a shop as I think it would eat into my time to actually make my designs, which is the thing that I enjoy.
“But I’m good for the economy all the same – I need to buy silver, wires, materials, paper, boxes for packaging . . . I’m always at the post office, and when I’ve sold and made money, then I go back to the market and spend it. It’s like a chain.”
Record store proves to be a real hit
NEVER judge a book by its cover – never presume that your doctor doesn’t run a record store on the side.
Darren Yeats is the owner of Voxbox Music in Stockbridge’s St Stephen Street, and you’ll see him there at weekends. Through the week, however, he’s a specialist geriatrics doctor, working as a locum so he also has the time to fit in his love of music.
And this vinyl addict, whose hobby of collecting second- hand records has become a thriving business, is also helping the city’s producers of music find an audience. As well as classic albums, he stocks releases by Edinburgh-based music labels – thereby helping other small businesses – and he’s just launched his own label Voxbox Records, to give Edinburgh musicians another outlet to get their music to their audience.
It’s a perfect musical, business circle.
“We opened three years ago, and originally there were two of us. My friend George Robertson had been a collector for years and sold at record fairs, so we pooled our resources and opened the store. At the start it was only part-time but demand got so much that we had to open more often. George is now retired so I employ Andy Barbour who’s a local musician and art graduate. He plays with The Holy Ghosts and we’re possibly going to release their new record on our label.
“We’re launching a Christmas cassette tape too with eight local bands, called Not For Charity. I like to think that by branching out into supporting musicians – musicians who are mostly already our customers – we’re giving something back. For the same reason we have a local releases section which supports other music labels.”
He adds: “It might seem odd to open a vinyl record store at a time when everyone is downloading music, but there has been a revival in the last seven years or so and now there are a lot of current bands and musicians who are putting out new releases on vinyl, so we’ve started stocking some of them too. To be honest we could do with a bigger store because we’re running out of shelf space.
“There is a lot of demand, and we get a lot of regular customers. However, because we’re down in Stockbridge, unless people know about us, they’re not necessarily going to find us or look us out. Who would walk down from Princes Street without knowing what’s there? I do think Stockbridge as a whole could do with more promotion. There are lots of excellent small, independent businesses here.
“It’s hard to make a profit with records – and new releases especially, when you can get them for next to nothing on Amazon. That’s why it makes sense for us to support individual local labels, because then we are one of the few stockists so we can make money that way. And of course we need to keep refreshing the stock which is what keeps customers coming back.
“On the whole, it’s a lot more fun than my other job,” he laughs.