New Arts, Crafts and Design Enterprise Transforms Empty Shaftesbury Shop

Shaftesbury now offers even more for shoppers who love unique art and craft items. This morning, Cath Henson and Anita Horak opened their second Kit and Kaboodle shop in the former Superbooks on Shaftesbury’s High Street.

This ground floor retail space is around three-and-a-half times the size of their existing shop unit next door. But, as Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred learned, the women intend taking the business to another level.

Cath Henson and Anita Horak’s strong business partnership grew out of a chance encounter. The two women were given adjacent tables at a craft fair in Sturminster Newton and, at first, neither of the women was happy about it. “We were put next to each other and we didn’t like it because we both did fabric,” Anita explained. “And here we are, four years later, in business together.”

Anita Horak (left) and Cath Henson

The women laugh about their first meeting now. For a year and half they’ve worked closely together to establish Kit and Kaboodle. “I think it’s a good combination. There are some things that we really clash on and there are some things that we definitely agree on,” said Cath. “When you work with somebody else, it’s not always easy, but it’s give and take. We’re really good at that. I think we work together very well.”

Today’s opening marks the start of a new and exciting chapter in their business. After a week of frenzied activity preparing the new shop, the newspapers that lined the shop windows have been removed, revealing a space filled with fashion, furnishings and colourful cushions, many decorated with African animal themes. The elephants, giraffes and zebras reference Anita’s earlier life in South Africa.

A steady stream of customers have ventured into the bright colourful space on this dreary, grey February day. “Today we’ve had a lot of locals come in and say ‘Best of luck’, ‘Wishing you well’ and ‘Great to see it all open now’. And we’ve had quite a few people in buying things but it’s been a lot of support this morning,” said Anita.

We were chatting behind a large counter at the far end of the shop. The worktop was set around twelve feet in front of the back wall. The women intend to use this sizeable workspace to create their handcrafted items as customers browse. “Anita and I both sew and we’re both into textiles. We can make and create from here. We couldn’t from the smaller shop,” said Cath. “I make bags and children’s clothes. Cath makes cushions and bunting. We both make lots of different things,” Anita said.

This workspace allows the women to be productive on quieter winter days. “We’re really excited about this part of the business. You can buy fashion, you can buy goods, but now this is a bespoke part of the business. You can come in and you can have curtains made, cushions, textiles, anything like that,” said Cath. Customers can bring in their own fabrics if they want. “They might want a lamp shade made or something like that,” Cath continued.

The women are retaining their smaller shop next door for now. They want to use it to showcase local artists. “I think there’s a huge amount of people that make and create in the area. Swan’s Yard is a wonderful space and obviously that’s well supported but there’s a lot of local talent out there. It’s good for us as well,” Cath continued. “It makes us very different. Rather than trawl through trade shows, we can actually support local people. A lot of people come in and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this. I have never seen this jewellery made’. We’re not actually fighting for the same things to sell as everybody else on the High Street.”

Cath says she has sometimes found artists following conversations with customers. “A lot of people say, ‘I make the odd piece of jewellery or I do this or I do that’. A lot of ladies and men are doing lots of creative things and they’re just looking for an outlet. So for us, it’s an ideal opportunity to support local,” said Cath.

“No names mentioned,” confided Anita, “but I’ve already had somebody come in this morning to ask whether we could look at their stuff.”

The women will make a decision of whether they renew the lease on their original unit, which will be used as a showcase of Shaftesbury art and design, in October. “We don’t think we can sustain both forever but we’ll have to wait and see towards the end of the year what happens,” Anita said.

I was heartened to hear that there has been some interest in whether the unit may be available. There are still plenty of potential Shaftesbury shopkeepers out there. We’re often told that landlords are greedy and that’s not helping England’s high streets.

Anita said they have had to be bold in overcoming the challenge of long leases and huge rent. “We had to negotiate very hard to get a more reasonable rent and rates,” she said. “They want ten year leases and they want an astronomical rent. But when you’re a one-man show, or in this case a two-man show, it’s very difficult to afford that. So yes, we had to do a bit of hard discussions.”

Anita has a message for other would-be entrepreneurs. “Just stick to your guns. That’s what you can afford and that’s what you can work towards. And then just try and persuade. Landlords don’t want to see empty shops either, so there can be a bit of negotiating and sort of meet halfway.”

The two shops side-by-side

In the new, larger shop unit the women are keen to promote the unique designs and creations of artists from all over the UK, who are starting out. “A lot of our gifts come from UK-based start-up businesses and that’s really important for us,” said Cath. The women find many of them online. “Instagram. Facebook. Word of mouth. We get a lot of referrals or people actually contact us,” Anita added.

This former bookshop proved extra attractive because of the first floor, that the women want to use for teaching creative skills. It’s a new element to the business that couldn’t have been offered in the restricted space of their first shop. “We’re envisaging doing workshops, whether we do them or whether people come in to do the workshops,” said Anita.

There is quite a lot of craft and local art on offer throughout the town, from Swan’s Yards to Decor by Georgie on Salisbury Street. And the women believe the Shaftesbury ‘niche’ could be crafts, arts and soft furnishings. “Exclusivity is what people like. Handmade things. People like ‘one of a kind’. They like to know it’s a niche market,” said Anita.

Cath says that she didn’t want to use another town as an example, but believes Frome is inspirational. “If you look at somewhere like Frome, it’s really worked well for them. It is a ‘boho’ place. It could be the same for Shaftesbury. I think there’s a huge amount of people working behind the scenes doing incredible things in Shaftesbury,” said Cath. “Quirkiness is what it is all about,” added Anita.

The women are also planning to develop their website. “We want to do a bit of online selling as well. I think to have both is really important,” Cath said. “It would be selected items,” Anita added.

But it’s unlikely that Kit and Kaboodle will expand into seven-day trading, unless there’s an event on in town which draws in the crowds. “I think we would go with the flow on a Sunday, when there’s something going on in town,” said Anita. “If there are events we always open on Sunday,” said Cath.

“We have found trading on a Sunday is not very good,” added Anita. “It’s all or nothing really. You’ve all got to do it,” Cath mused, adding, “The Fringe brought a phenomenal amount of people into town. We did amazingly next door with the Fringe. We had a fantastic two days for that.”

The women have big plans but they have learned from their experience of the last 18 months. Anita and Cath will develop each strand of the business when time permits. And Cath offers this advice to anyone intending to branch out with his or her own retail business. “Don’t expect things to happen all at once,” she said. Although you could argue that Anita and Cath’s expansion into a two-shop business in under two years shows they certainly don’t hang around.