A new, temporary shop will start trading on Shaftesbury’s High Street tomorrow (Thursday). The short-term store will offer vintage and pre-owned women’s’ clothing and home furnishings.
It will trade for a fortnight in the former Fork and Flowers shop. This same unit was used to sell the work of two local, 19-year-old artists, last week. And once again, Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce has acted as a bridge between the landlord and traders, enabling this latest ‘pop-up’ shop venture.
“What’s the point of having a Chamber of Commerce if it’s not constantly looking at how to help the High Street?” asked Virginia Edwyn-Jones. The issue of empty shops is close to Virginia – literally. She’s an executive member of the Chamber committee but she also works from first floor offices above this currently vacant ground floor High Street premises.
“I absolutely love this building. It is one of the prettiest shopfronts in Shaftesbury. It’s double fronted and it just has so much charm. It breaks my heart to see it empty,” Virginia said.
When the last occupants left, Virginia asked the Yorkshire-based freeholders if they’d consider a pop-up shop occupancy. “I have a very good relationship with the freeholder of the building and he said ‘oh, go on then – as long as you keep an eye on things.’ I do know it’s not ideal. They want to have long-term leases, but it can be so helpful to new businesses,” Virginia explained.
A ‘for lease’ sign will soon be placed within the shop window. Virginia believes that most passers-by would recognise that this is a temporary store. Nevertheless, she’s convinced of the value in ensuring that the shop is occupied.
“I know this may sound a little fanciful but this says that the shop is part of the community and it is loved. Even though it may be empty, people are thinking about it and coming up with ways to use it and include it in the community. I didn’t have to, but I cleaned the windows so it looked cared for. People can see how pretty it looks with everything inside it, because it is such a characterful shop. It benefits the High Street and the freeholder,” Virginia said.
Mrs Edwyn-Jones says that she understands why people have expressed concern over the appearance of empty units in Shaftesbury High Street. “People tend to panic when they see shops empty. The knee-jerk reaction is that an empty shop means that the business has failed, people haven’t shopped there, not enough people are coming through and the problem will escalate to a chaos scenario. That’s not the case,” Virginia said. “So often people leave because of ill health, because their family situation has changed or their partner gets a job elsewhere and they can’t commute. Sometimes the lease can come to an end and it’s a natural point for them to move on and do something else. There are many reasons why shops become empty. In Shaftesbury, shops really don’t stay empty for that long.”
And for the next two weeks, Sara Cheng and Joanna Jacobs will be shopkeepers, running their own, as yet un-named, store. “I’ve been a hoarder of vintage clothes and I’ve got to the point where I’ve had enough of keeping all this stuff,” said Joanna, during a break from lugging cardboard boxes filled with colourful clothes from the boot of her car to the shop unit. “Recently, we had to clear my mum’s flat. She had beautiful things that she had kept for years. Some of these dresses are Mexican and I’ve had them since my early teens. They are so difficult to find now,” she said.
I asked Joanna how she thought she’d feel about people buying clothes she once chose and loved. “I’ll be delighted to see the back of them,” Joanna laughed. “I’ve got to the point where I just cannot see the point in having them. What am I going to do with them? My son is not a cross dresser! He won’t want them in the future. If I pop my clogs he’d probably put them in the charity shop, so I might as well put them to good use.”
Joanna says she hadn’t thought about starting a shop before the unit became available. “I thought that if I could inspire Sara to do this with me, we could borrow the shop for a couple of weeks.”
Joanna is a collaborating on the pop-up shop project with Sara, who is an upholsterer. Sara’s home furnishings are on display in the unit. “There’s fabrics, cushions, Ercol daybeds,” Sara said.
Sara currently rents a unit in a Dorchester antiques centre but she says that business there can be very slow. “It’s interesting to try out other areas. I shared a shop space in Southbourne quite a while ago. It was a shared space. Collective shop spaces work well because you’re not so bound,” Sara offered.
I asked the women to share how they viewed the Shaftesbury retail market. Sara thinks there’s a slightly alternative and creative edge to the town. Joanna, who lives near Tisbury, knows Shaftesbury better and she has formed a more detailed impression.
“It’s quite alternative, with lots of wealthy people as well,” Joanna said. “There is certainly more money here than in Southbourne and places like that. It’s a really sweet town. It’s busy but there are a few too many card and gift shops, I’d say. It’s getting a few things that are on every high street, which is disappointing. I guess it’s because rents are so expensive. It would be a shame if it lost its character to bulk standard gift shops,” she said.
As we chatted, two women pressed their faces up against the shop door glass, trying to catch Joanna’s eye. One of the women waved and walked on, the other woman poked her tongue out and then walked away laughing. “I have lots of friends here, this is my town,” laughed Joanna. “I’m a guardian to a boy who is just about to start at Shaftesbury School and my sons attended there. I have been a foster carer for years. This is the place where the kids usually need dropping off to see their friends.”
So are the women assessing the potential for a more permanent Shaftesbury shop? “If we had this for a real bargain then I’d love to stay. But we just don’t know. We’re just trying it out,” said Joanna.
Currently, the only guarantee is that their business will be operating for the next two weeks. “The last day will be Saturday the 15th September, unless there is something happening in Shaftesbury on the Sunday,” said Joanna.
And that raises questions over what happens next with this unit and the few empty shop spaces elsewhere in town. There are issues to address. Virginia says that the paperwork involved in setting up a tenancy, even for a short term let, can be significant.
“The hassle of the legal work, the surveyor, the lawyer. There are costs involved. The easier we can make it for freeholders to do short lets and pop-ups, the more likely they are to happen. That’s part of what we are here to achieve. I understand freeholders’ reticence but at the Shaftesbury Chamber of Commerce we are talking about what initiatives we can do in order to help freeholders with pop-ups, such as organise a legal package that could take the stress out of it,” Virginia said.
Virginia hopes that the Chamber will investigate some potential solutions. Watch this space.
And what about the vacancy at 37 High Street? Whether it’s a short-term, pop-up shop or a longer-term tenant, Virginia appears determined that the unit won’t be empty for long. “The last pop-up went well. Undoubtedly this one will go well. I’m very happy to help the freeholder manage that. They are very pleased for it to be used until such time as they have a full-time tenant.”