One of the things I love to do when I’m visiting another city is to have potter around little boutiques and coffee shops. I actively search out the little independent places, run by locals. It’s just the most boring thing when cites are full of the same generic chains.
As a shop owner, I obviously have a vested interest in encouraging people to ‘shop local’ or ‘shop small’. But I do genuinely believe that the choices we make as a society and as individuals today affect what our community will look like in the years ahead.
In Belfast, we have a lot to thank the Victorians for, in terms of heritage. As well as architecturally significant buildings such as Queen’s University and The Ulster Hall etc, they left us with the legacy of many incredible tree-lined streets. These tree-lined streets weren’t for their benefit, but for future generations, like us, to enjoy years later.
The recent fire at Bank Buildings upset so many of us. We were shocked at the damage wrought to such an architecturally significant building in our City. This was undoubtedly a very physical manifestation of something worthy of preservation being destroyed. It has made me think a lot about other things that are worthy of preservation and how many of us are complicit in their erosion.
In the last five years in Belfast, we have seen a flurry of incredible, independent coffee shops opening. A couple of mornings a week, I stop at 5a in Stranmillis. My son goes to school around the corner and so I stop at 5a on my way to work. I can’t tell you how much I love this place. It does a great coffee (and incredible cinnamon buns if you visit on a Friday). But what I REALLY love about it is the sense of community. There is rarely a time when I visit 5a and I don’t bump into to someone I know (and a lot of the time I know them from being customers together in 5a).
I also now know the folks in the greengrocer and the newsagent beside 5a as well. This is a thriving little strip - and you know what, I don’t care if I pay 4p more for an apple in the grocer’s. I’d rather Sean and Delia have my money than Tesco, because I want future Belfast to be an interesting vibrant place with great little shops all over the place. Somewhere with a soul.
It’s the same with eating out, or in fact anything we do. Where possible, I’d much rather give my money to a locally owned place than one of the chains. We have so many amazing things happening locally, but again, if we don’t use them, we lose them. We are all part of this, we all have our part to play in preserving the heritage of this city.
What will the future of our cities look like if we try to pinch pennies by shopping only with the ‘big boys’ and buying in the frenzied manner in which so many people do these days. Clothes ‘hauls’, buying ‘dupes’, Black Friday, Cyber Monday etc, etc. This is all too much. It’s not sustainable. We have to change our approaches to buying.
We go to Denmark regularly on buying trips for the shop. I am always struck by how an appreciation for quality and design seems to be almost part of the Danes’ DNA. On a recent trip, we were talking to one of our suppliers who told us a story about her parents. When they got married, they didn’t have much money, but decided to save for a Wishbone chair. When they got their first one, they then saved for their second and so on, until they had a set of 6. They gave them to their daughter (who we were talking to) who in turn, plans to give them to her own son. I can guarantee if they’d ran out and bought 6 cheapo chairs in a Black Friday sale when they got married, they wouldn’t have become the heirlooms that those 6 chairs have become. I was struck by this story. They weren’t wealthy by any means, but just saw no point in buying something for the sake of it. They wanted to wait until they had just the right thing.
At Maven, we have been working on an interesting project that has been ongoing for about 18 months or so. We started calling it the Irish Project and that kind of stuck. Our clients asked us to furnish their home solely in products made in Ireland. Some things didn’t 100% stick to the brief like the dining chairs that came from St Anne’s Cathedral (which I’m not sure were made in Ireland) or saucepans that we bought from an English foundry, but everything else was made in Ireland. From coat hangers, to cutlery, to beds and everything in between. Along the course of my research into who was doing what in Ireland, I was blown away by the products that are being made here. I work in the industry and am fairly clued up on Irish makers, but I was so excited to discover so many new makers. We have so much talent and we need to support it before it dies completely.
People inevitably say that is it expensive to buy like this. I would reply to that by asking what you are comparing it to. Buying a stool from a maker working in his or her workshop, pouring their heart and soul into their craft, or from a company who spend time and money investing in incredible designers and materials is not the same as buying from the likes of Sostrene Green who routinely copy other designers and mass produce low quality goods by the shed load in an Asian sweat shop. We are simply not comparing like with like. And when things are cheaper, we don’t buy less, the evidence shows that we just buy more.
It is important that we are mindful that our buying habits contribute to our, sometimes invisible, shared heritage. Be that by supporting local shops and restaurants or by treasuring modern heirloom pieces like a chair that your mum owned or a woollen blanket that you received as a wedding gift. We need to think of the gifts we can leave to the next generation.
A customer recently told us that she was buying her sofa from us because although she had been able to find it cheaper online, our team had helped her with her configuration, pricing different options and choosing her fabric etc, where the online shop couldn’t do that. Obviously, they can do it cheaper because they don’t have the overheads of a physical shop nor the staff who are there to help out on a practical level. But they can’t lend you a coffee table or stool for the weekend to see how it works in your room, and they can’t give you the one-to-one service (or make you a cup of coffee) that a physical shop can. That customer also told us she bought it from us because she didn’t want us to ever close. I can’t tell you how much that means to us. It’s the same for all of you who visit Maven. We appreciate your custom more than you will never know. We have loved getting to know you and your families over the five years we’ve been open. The community around this shop has been one of the best things to happen to us and we are grateful for every single penny you decide to spend with us and will never take it for granted.
A big thank you from us to you.