We spoke to manager Harriet Peacock to hear more about the store, its values and the importance of supporting independent makers…
When and why did the shop at the Old Fire Station open?
The Old Fire Station has been on Gloucester Green, in different incarnations, for years – and in 2011 it re-opened in its current form.
It’s a unique building which houses two organisations: Arts at the Old Fire Station (the Theatre, Gallery, Studios and Shop) and Crisis Skylight, who help people facing tough times to move away from homelessness for good with support with housing, work and education.
What makes the OFS different is that the two charities work closely together, so people experiencing homelessness actually help to run the arts centre. In doing so, they can shake off the label of being ‘homeless’ and become audience, volunteers, artists, staff and trustees. Crisis Skylight Oxford is the only Crisis centre in the UK which shares its premises with another organisation, and the unique way we work together is making Oxford a better place.
The Old Fire Station proudly works with artists and supports people in need too – can you tell us a little about the charity’s work?
A central part of our work as an arts centre is supporting artists across the spectrum with a range of advice, networks and promotion. The shop was set up to provide a platform for UK based indie designer-makers to sell their products as part of that same artist support.
There are also lots of other ways we support artists of all disciplines. For example, we might provide discounted rehearsal space to a local theatre company, advice for a visual artist around displaying and curating their work for an exhibition, or help with a funding application to the Arts Council.
As well as all that (and the day-to-day running of an arts centre!) we work collaboratively with our Crisis colleagues on projects throughout the year. Our latest one was the ICON photography project, where Crisis clients worked alongside professional photographer Rory Carnegie to recreate iconic British photographs.
Crisis clients can also do a range of training placements with us to gain experience in all the different ways an arts centre is run – finance, bookings, marketing, theatre lighting and sound, or customer service as part of front of house. It’s this work with artists and Crisis that makes the building really special and a wonderful place to work. All the profits we make in the shop go back into helping us continue to work in this interesting and distinctive way.
That’s brilliant! How would you describe the interior style of the store?
We’ve spent a lot of time refitting out the shop the last few years and it’s finally in a place where I’m very happy with it! We’ve gone for a clean, modern look with lots of white and birch ply, to best show off our bright and colourful products. Sometimes too much white can look a bit cold, so we’ve added some splashes of colour with our orange stationery wall and branding elements throughout.
We run our box office from the shop so we have quite a large desk to give us plenty of space to serve shop customers and process tickets for our theatre customers. My favourite area is our painted entrance-way – I wanted something that made a real impact as you walked in and I think it really lifts the space and draws your eye in from outside.
What is the neighbourhood like? Do you have a community of independent stores around you?
We are located on Gloucester Green, a square with a few other indie restaurants and a brilliant board game café. There is also a market which runs Tuesday to Saturday, which has delicious street food and a great selection of vintage clothing, homewares and knick-knacks. We’re very lucky here locally that we have Independent Oxford, a directory of local businesses that promotes the joy of shopping small to the public. They’ve also created a very friendly community where small businesses can receive support, meet and collaborate together.
You’re passionate about selling quality goods designed by makers – why is this so important?
It’s always been a key part of the shop’s purpose to support UK indie designers and makers by selling their work. When we first opened, Oxford had a few other shops selling similar work but we are the last one left now. I think it’s really important to have a space in a town or city where customers can come and find something different. Especially in the current retail climate, customers are looking for that experience and story behind the products they buy. The passion and care that our makers have poured into their products is so important and I love knowing that through our shop we can contribute to their ‘happy dance’!
Personally, I also love that we are helping makers on their self-employed journey – a lot of our makers are women and running their own business gives them the flexibility and freedom to work around their family lives, or just to work in a way that suits them best.
How do you source your wares?
We find our suppliers through a few different avenues- we try to visit the Top Drawer trade show twice a year because it’s been really valuable for us to find small businesses who have more of a design focus rather than strictly handmade. It’s also nice and manageable to do in one day unlike some of the other bigger shows! I also go to craft fairs such as Crafty Fox Market because they’re a great place to discover new talent.
Instagram is also an invaluable tool and I’ve often found a brand through having a nosey at the feeds of other independent shops I love!
Do you create anything in-house?
We haven’t done much of this in the past but it’s something we’re investigating following success with a recent range of merchandise for the ICON exhibition. We’re currently working on developing a product with one of our suppliers ARK Colour Design, who produce cheeky (and often rude!) colourful leather accessories with a small family run manufacturer in Scotland. Our ultimate ambition is to develop an exclusive range of original Oxford souvenirs in collaboration with our makers.
Which item is your bestseller?
Our Katie Abey range has been so popular since we introduced it back in 2018 – she’s the perfect fit for us, as her products are colourful, cheeky and feature lots of puns and positive messages. Her Harry Potter socks were last year’s bestseller – socks are such an easy gift and who doesn’t love Harry Potter or a cute animal pun?
What do you enjoy most about being manager at the Old Fire Station?
I must admit, I do love products – especially when we’ve found something new and exciting for our customers which they love. I’m a little like a child on Christmas morning when we receive a delivery! I also love meeting our wonderful suppliers at trade shows or networking events, they’re an amazing bunch and it’s so lovely to chat in person after lots of emails. Being able to contribute to this incredible charity as well whilst doing something I enjoy – it’s a pretty hard combo to beat!
What has been your career highlight (so far!)?
This is a pretty boring answer but I think it would have to be when we surpassed our income target at Christmas in 2018. It was only the second Christmas I had done on my own (my manager who had set the shop up had left in 2016) and the first I had thoroughly planned and started work on in May of that year. It was such a great feeling when all that hard work and planning paid off. Christmas is such a vital time for indie businesses, we often take a third or even half of our yearly takings in December, so smashing those targets gave us a great foundation for the rest of the financial year, and it was a great confidence boost for me.
Photography by Jo Hounsome