Take a former model and knitwear designer for John Galliano and an entrepreneur running three shops between them. Add a pandemic and several weeks of lockdown and what do you get? Three businesses that come out the other side: bigger, better and with great plans moving forward that’s what.
Gail Middleton and Marianne Su-Yin are friends and business cohorts and run a second hand bookshop, Mrs Middleton’s Books, a lifestyle shop Whistle and Hound and a joint venture, teashop and chocolaterie The Rabbit Hole in a small terrace of shops on Freshwater high street on the Isle of Wight. The teashop had in fact just opened before lockdown struck and they were faced, like so many other businesses with some tough decisions. “Lockdown gave us much needed time to sit down and regroup and think what we were going to do”, says Gail “And we realised that the one of the strengths of small businesses are their adaptability and so we asked ourselves how did we want to take things forward. We then had a godsend in the shape of Rishi Sunak and his small business grants and that lit the touch paper for all of our ideas to make the shops viable”.
Both Gail and Marianne had been literally running themselves ragged trying to run all three shops between them at the beginning of the year and so with the aid of the grants and the new apprenticeship scheme from the government, found that they could actually afford to adapt them and eventually take on extra staff. “We knew that we’d have to put the grants to the best possible use and that the money wasn’t there just to pay our rent and fixed costs but to reinvest, so we began by doing chocolate deliveries throughout the whole of lockdown which was a lovely way to bring a little bit of luxury into people’s lives,” remembers Marianne. She also added an e commerce arm to Whistle and Hound so that she could sell her homewares and skin products online.
Once lockdown had been lifted and shops could reopen, they took on manager and baker Jo to work in and run the tearoom. She had been furloughed from her job in marketing but had always dreamt of being a baker. “It’s been great to see people supporting local retailers and tentatively coming back out who were nervous about being out and about,” she says. “ We’re lucky to have this open space and our outside tables so customers feel that they’re in a safe environment to enjoy some afternoon tea and cake. I’ve always dreamt about having my own tea and coffee shop and being able to do lots of baking, so this has been the perfect opportunity to be part of an independent shop and have full creativity.”
Two doors up in the bookshop is the apprentice that Gail has taken on. “I’ve always wanted to train up an apprentice but there wasn’t a scheme for book apprenticeship but now there is, and it’s fully funded. Roly arrived as if by magic and he’s already got me a shop up and running on Etsy, he cares about what he’s doing, and it makes me feel great to be able to give him this opportunity.” Roly is an actor and composer and with all of the theatres closed, has no work and so this has been a wonderful chance for him to learn something new. “It’s been a great way for me to get back on my feet after I lost my job and haven’t had any work due to the pandemic. I’m learning new skills and it’s got me out of the house and doing things I hadn’t thought about before, retail and an insight into books, and it’ll give me real transferrable career options when I eventually return to London.”
Moving forward Marianne and Gail have great plans which will also have been boosted by their grants. “We realised how much we’ve learned, and this has made us decide to branch out into consultancy for start-ups,” explains Marianne. “My expertise is creating and delivering the concept and project managing it; we know how to run an online business, we know how to run a retail business, hospitality and we know how easy it is for small businesses to pivot and change. We have a huge skillset that we’ve delivered through these three shops and more and more people are realising that you can start a business in the worst of times.” Over the last year there have been six new businesses in Freshwater all of which are independents and it’s actually bucking the trend of the country and the high street even with Covid which is a great positive story. “We have a flexible mentality here on the Island and during lockdown this came to the fore with so many businesses including our own adapting accordingly,” says Marianne. “Everyone was going out and doing what was necessary. We are also enabling and strongly creative and people are turning that into an actionable business, and this is the way that we feel that we can give back something of what we’ve gained in the last few months. We’ve managed to support each other because although we have separate businesses, they are complimentary so we’re not competing, and so it’s about small businesses working together to not just survive but to push forward and improve.
The energy that positively exudes from these two is infectious and you feel that they can do whatever they might put their minds to. Using their unexpected windfall to not just promote themselves but to enable others as well. Girl power in the time of Covid? Most certainly.