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April 16, 2021 —

Shopkeeper Spotlight: Frank & Vita Stores

With a creative eye and a keen focus on sustainability, Mary Claire Smith runs two stylish and innovative businesses in Whitstable: art gallery and shop, Frank, and kitchen and food emporium, Vita Stores.
Sine Fleet - contributingeditor of 91 Magazine
Sine Fleet
91 Magazine contributing editor,
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Hi Mary Claire, how would you introduce Frank and Vita Stores?
Both our projects are focused on sustainability. Vita is in an eighteenth-century fisherman’s cottage and is based around the kitchen – with store cupboard refills, bottled food and drinks, and kitchenalia that is useful, beautiful and sustainable. Frank is our hybrid shop/gallery space next door to Vita. Frank opened in 2006 and focusses on working with small batch makers, whether it be a local ceramicist or a textile designer weaving naturally dyed fabrics.

Frank and Vita - independent stores in Whitstable, UK
Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Who is the team behind Frank and Vita Stores?
It’s me and my business/life partner Rob, plus Oy Wah Chung – she is the main person I worked with setting up Vita Stores and she more or less runs the shop, although she says she’s not the manager!

What’s the story behind the names?
The name Frank has several significant meanings to us – it refers to being honest and straightforward, a printing process called ‘franking’ (as we sell prints) and an old friend. Vita Stores is a reference to Vita Sackville-West, who created the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst in Kent, amongst other talents and qualities we admire – and it’s also a reference to the Latin word for life.

What did you do before setting up Frank and Vita Stores?
I was an illustrator, a printmaker and an art teacher. But not all at once!

Vita Stores - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins

How did you first discover your love for what you do?
I have always been interested in environmental issues, which are now more pressing than ever, and as a printmaker my education and interests are in the arts. So I guess the two projects are a mix up of these passions, in the hope that others feel likewise and want to play a part.

What inspired the idea of setting up your business?
Coming from an arts background, I felt I had an understanding of the creative process and the value of an individual’s vision and their personal language. My partner Rob and I began sourcing craft, design and artworks by makers based in the UK. Since then, it has broadened out to encompass Europe and fair-trade products. We have always enjoyed working with individuals rather than companies.

Frank - Photo: Caroline Rowland
Frank – Photo: Caroline Rowland
Frank - Photo: Caroline Rowland
Frank – Photo: Caroline Rowland

What are the values behind your businesses?
Frank opened first, 15 years ago, and Vita Stores opened next door last year, in February 2020. For both these stores, the real focus is on sustainability – whether it’s a blanket woven in a Welsh mill using traditional methods, or a refilled bag of organic oats from Hodmedod’s British farming project.

Vita Stores is a kitchen and food emporium that endeavours to be plastic-free, or low-waste. It focuses on sourcing local or UK-based food and drink, to reduce food miles. We are passionate about reducing the UK single-plastic usage, which is the highest in Europe, and we are keen to support and promote organic and regenerative farming initiatives in the UK and Europe. Another project that we love is the New Dawn Traders – this is a food project that ships artisan and fair-trade foods across the globe by sailing boats, so they truly are carbon-neutral.

We also value making partnerships with creative individuals in any way we can, whenever we can, and put on exhibitions, workshops, launches and book-signings to bring unique work to Frank.

Frank - Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank – Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank - Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank – Photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank - Photo: Caroline Rowland
Frank – Photo: Caroline Rowland

Describe a typical working day…
Too much screen time generally – if I’m in the shop I prefer to be doing physical tasks, such as moving products around, making the spaces look good and feel fresh, and then of course serving customers, in a cheery, helpful manner!

Where do you find creative inspiration?
When I’m not involved with shop work I am drawing and making prints. My inspiration for these can be found on a coastal walk or an idea in a book I’m reading, a photograph… inspiration comes from many diverse sources.

Frank - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Frank – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Could you tell us about your curation process?
I have a magpie habit of looking around for things that interest me. Online or on holiday – wherever I am – ideas for new products are on my mind. It’s become part of the way I think generally, and sometimes ideas come from very unusual sources. I also love simply finding things, maybe on a beach walk, that I use to decorate the store and window displays. Sometimes I work with local people that I get to know or even customers. It’s nice to work on collaborations with folk, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of my shop life.

Our collection reflects our passion for the handmade and the artisanal with a focus on individual creatives – contemporary crafters, artists and printmakers – working sustainably and using ethical means of production. We are particularly passionate about the local creative scene on the north Kent coast.

How did you approach the design of your spaces at Frank and Vita Stores ?
With both stores we worked with local architects Meme; Sonya and Mark played such an important part in setting up Vita Stores and creating the special feel of the space. They also designed all the beautiful ply shelves and units in Frank. I recently met with them at Vita Stores to discuss new bespoke fittings… new additions to the shop which hopefully will be coming soon.

Vita Stores - Photo: Caroline Rowland
Vita Stores – Photo: Caroline Rowland
Vita Stores - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores - Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Vita Stores – Photo: Andrew Hayes-Watkins

Tell us about your businesses’ location…
Our businesses sit side-by-side on Harbour Street, Whitstable, very close to the town’s beautiful harbour. Whitstable and the surrounding area have a strong creative community, and there are some wonderful independent shops and businesses locally.

What does your ideal day off look like?

I draw. I worked as a printmaker and illustrator for many years, and since setting up Frank and Vita I have continued drawing, printmaking, painting, and looking.

Find Frank at www.frankworks.eu and @frankwhitstable

Find Vita at www.vitastores.co.uk and @vitastoreswhitstable

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