The contemporary eco lifestyle stores are owned by Beck Prior (a maker herself). We caught up with Beck to hear about how she became a shopkeeper almost accidentally, the importance of creating a sustainable business, and get her tips for others thinking of opening a pop-up shop…
Hi Beck! When and why did you decide to open PRIOR Shop?
I opened PRIOR, (a not-for-profit retail and workshop space) in 2019. In September 2021 , we super-sized and opened an enormous sister pop-up shop (of the same name) right in the heart of Bristol’s central retail district. We showcase around 150 wonderful independent brands who all make their work as responsibly as possible. I curate the space carefully so it is a beautiful and calming shopping experience. The funny thing about it all is my original intention wasn’t to open a retail shop at all!
I had been designing and making my own sustainable homeware and jewellery products for over 10 years and had shared a fabrication workshop space with multiple designers. As my business grew, I was looking for a bigger space. I was looking at industrial units but a friend (founder of the Bristol Upholstery Collective) mentioned they were moving out of their little retail unit into somewhere bigger. The seed was sown and the landlord agreed for me to use it as a studio space too. I could relocate my entire wood workshop and also sell my sustainable homewares through a window display! I was so excited and thought it couldn’t be a better situation.
Of course, being me, I wouldn’t keep it simple. After the first visit to the unit I got carried away and decided there and then I was going to open a full-on shop that showcased as many responsible designers as I could squeeze into it. I carefully designed the space so I could contain my dusty workshop at the back and still have a small shop space at the front. I thought it would be easy to tinker away out the back whilst also running a shop at the same time…. how I laugh now at my naivety!
As a maker myself, I’d met so many wonderful, responsible product designers over the last 10 years that creating a shop that showcased a collection of consciously made homewares, accessories, jewellery and skincare came easily. My plan was to curate a beautiful space full of exceptional craftsmanship. I wanted to sell sustainable products that I could confidently vouch for. I wanted the whole shop to be the ‘eco-collection’ and not just a small range of products in the corner.
What had you done before? Did any of these skills help?
Ah, when I’m asked this question I always feel it would be easier to say what I haven’t done before! Like many creatives, I had various jobs and creative side hustles until it became my main career. Although every single job and experience I’ve had has fed into where I am now. I’ve only recently been able to appreciate the connection of it all.
I’ve worked really hard since I was 16 in public-facing roles which evidently gave me so many interpersonal skills. I am a qualified hairdresser and youth worker, and also worked in many pubs. I find people and behaviours (including my own) fascinating. My creative career has gone through so many outlets from hairdressing, art college and teaching art and design. I’ve worked as a prop, set and puppet designer for years and also led engagement programmes in galleries. I have created many public art installations and also now experienced in product design and retail. All of these roles have overlapped and still do so to this day. Each element of my creative career has a degree of project management which is ultimately what a retail shop is.
How did you decide on the name?
Ha. Well, it’s my surname. I’m always worried that people think I chose it because I wanted some kind of glory of my name above the door! In all honestly, it was easy to choose as a business name because of the meaning of PRIOR: ‘existing or coming before in time’. It is so suited to my business ethos of making products using recycled, repurposed and low impact materials. I wish it wasn’t my surname!
The new super-sized store brings together 150+ sustainable designers under one roof. Why do you feel sustainability is so important?
Nothing we sell is necessary. I know that is bold to say as a retail shop owner but it’s true, isn’t it? We sell functional and beautiful products and gifts which, of course, contributes to our wellbeing, but we don’t need these things. It is deeply important to me that these human-made products are not adding unnecessary damage to the fragility of our environment. There is so much waste and lack of responsibility in fabrication and construction. Every product on the market starts with the designer and I believe that new products, from conception must be created to be long-lasting, repairable, with low impact materials and with very little/zero waste.
I’ve always been committed to sustainable design both on an environmental level and also because I love the history and story-telling of using materials with a ‘previous life’. My wooden jewellery for example is what first started my business. I salvage wood that has an interesting provenance and include the story in my packaging. For example, I have earrings currently made using wood from an old bowling alley, a 1700 ship and a Victorian pier.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people also want guilt-free shopping and we’re finding that people are proud to show off their eco-conscious purchases. We have so many customers asking for the ‘eco-credentials’ of the product to go in the box with the gift. It’s not a novelty anymore, people really want to know.
Customers want to make better choices and are craving transparency to make up their own minds about things. This isn’t just about ‘environmentally friendly’ anymore; we all want to be awake in all aspects of our lives and want to stop making unconscious, damaging decisions. We are desperate for new, real experiences, and unique, locally purchased, one-of-a-kind products that we can connect with.
How would you describe the interior style of PRIOR Shop?
Beautiful and calm. I can’t tell you how it makes me feel on a daily basis. I suppose when you have a shop full of products that have been created by hand, with so much attention, care and skill, it radiates into the space. Everything is so deeply precious and you can feel it when you walk in. It is a completely different shopping experience and customers tell us all of the time. It smells divine in here too with all of the organic skincare, wood and natural fabrics.
I wanted to make sure that with so many brands in one place, the pop-up store didn’t look like a market place or pop-up. It was important to me to curate a space that honours the products. I have a specific colour palette and aesthetic and choose the work we stock accordingly. I want the space to flow from one designer to the next, making it seamless as if all designed by the same person.
My main aim is to challenge the perception of ‘eco’ products. I think so many people assume that products made with the environment in mind are of lower quality. I want to bring exceptional contemporary design to high street and show that the products we stock are better than what you can get from a luxury department store selling mass produced goods.
Tell us about the range of products you stock…
In our homewares section you’ll find unique and contemporary lighting, statement plant hangers and original artworks. Our wellbeing collection consists of skincare using 100% organic ingredients, aromatherapy blends, everyday products and home spa treats. Our jewellery includes eco silver and fair-mined gold, zero waste collections and even a recycling service. We also stock rich organic textiles comprising of clothing, rugs, cushions and blankets; some dyed with natural pigments. We have an enormous collection of bags too and more greeting cards than we know what to do with! Oh and craft kits…. I could go on and on!
As well as curating the store, you create your own Priormade products, can you tell us more?
Mainly this is colourful birch plywood sculptural homewares and home accessories. I also make wooden jewellery with interesting wood and lightweight inner tube earrings.
What does a ‘normal’ day look like?
Ha – any sort of normal is impossible at the moment as all hours of the days and nights are all dedicated to work! I’m still learning and adapting how I manage a shop of this size. My plan when things settle are to spend half of the week in my studio and original shop, creating my Priormade products, then the other half of the week at the larger shop completing management tasks. I love being on the shop floor but in reality, the reigns need holding of a shop as big as the pop up. A normal day for me at the moment is answering hundreds of emails, ordering stock, materials and supplies, paying invoices, working on the website and making sure staff are OK. I have an incredible team of people working at the shop and as things ease and we find our rhythm, I will have a better balance again.
You stock work from 150+ sustainable designers. How do you choose your stockists?
I ask each artist/designer to fill out a form for transparency that they have been as responsible as they can from idea to product production. It has questions about the material, packaging, suppliers and design and fabrication process. Deciding if a product is sustainable is very difficult as there are many, many factors. Ultimately it is down to opinion. We want to promote a circular economy so we only showcase products that are made using recycled and low impact sustainable materials, are made with such high quality craftsmanship that they last a very long time, and finally when reaching the end of their life they are repairable, reusable or recyclable.
Which item is your bestseller? Why do you think that is?
Without fail it is Lima Lima jewellery! The designs are timeless; mixing simple lines and clean fluid shapes with contemporary and ancient icons! It’s absolute treasure.
I’m so happy because Rhi (founder of Lima Lima) is also my very hard-working friend so I love that we are selling so much work for her.
What items are your personal can’t-live-without?
Oh good question! I have two things right now: My Efa jacket from Mahika Kala which I have worn every day since buying it. Also my Tanaka Detoxifying soap. Oh and my Bohobo Aromatherapies face oil. I would literally turn my car around if I’d forgotten any of these three things if going on a trip!
What do you enjoy most about running PRIOR Shop?
Seeing customers reactions when we tell them everything in the shop is handmade and sustainably made! People’s faces are a picture! They just can’t believe it. I also love letting the designers know when their work has sold out – it’s such a joy telling people that are so emotionally connected to the things they make that other people love them too!
What has been your career highlight (so far!)?
Opening this pop-up, right in the centre of a main shopping district, next door to Oliver Bonas and opposite Ted Baker! Honestly. I keep pinching myself. I employ ten local people and support 150 independent designers. I have worked so hard and have put every ounce of my energy into this. To be surrounded by happy staff, happy customers and happy designers is literally a dream. I have goosebumps all the time!
What is the neighbourhood like around the new store? Do you have a community of independent stores around you?
So many independent businesses have made use of the empty retail spaces on the high street. Near the PRIOR pop-up is also the fabulous Mila Plants and Fig 1. A short walk away is also KC Concepts which is a pop-up dedicated to showcasing black British designers, and also the Bristol Etsy pop-up Christmas shop! I think so many high street ‘take overs’ are happening and city centres are becoming a place to shop locally again!
Before we let you go, do you have any advice for those looking to start a pop-up store?
My advice for starting a pop-up is to speak to as many businesses as you can about their experiences. It also requires an enormous amount of energy and a bit of a personal financial gamble. Setting up a beautiful shop as fast as you can is a whirlwind and it’s important you plan as much as you can before you launch into it. It is a fantastic way to trial run your business growth but I would make sure you choose the best time of year to reduce the risk. Also, if you are not a maker yourself, I can’t tell you how important it is to treat your stockists (and their work) as your number one priority. Without incredible independent brands on board, you do not have an independent shop.
Photography by Dan Bird