THE ARTISANS OF the New England region in northern inland New South Wales recently rallied to defend ourselves against the myth that we weren’t worth one local shopkeeper’s time.
It was a cultural cringe-worthy episode, because our experience at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, has been the polar opposite: the artisanal economy of New England is thriving.
When we opened in 2018, my husband Richard Moon was ready to take his jewellery making business onto the high street. His first workspace had been the laundry at our outer Brisbane home. We’d traded at markets and festivals with his handmade designs for long enough to realise how market customers view your business as a little itinerant.
“We’ll be here next month,” was our constant reassurance while selling under canvas, but nothing says permanence and reliability quite the same way as bricks and mortar.
The Makers Shed is a smallish corrugated iron shop at the very southern end of the Glen Innes town centre, at the furthest reach of the council banners and the Christmas lights. Buying the place stretched our resources to the limit, so we did almost all the renovation on a place that had been a pet shop, church and a beloved secondhand shop.
It was my job to plan and launch our website and see to all marketing and social media. I thought it would be a cinch, but the work required to map out what our operation would actually do was huge. This process meant I’d unwittingly spent more than a month creating our business strategy.
Richard’s commitment to the place was to staff it religiously Wednesdays to Saturdays. He’d spent years running cafés and knew what a killer inconsistency can be on your customer base; but we knew we needed to ensure his significant time commitment had a concrete outcome, and that forged the idea of an open studio.
With a clientele garnered from years doing markets in Brisbane and across the New England region, Richard simply started commuting to the shed from our home at Deepwater to work on his constant list of commissions.
That he was able to staff our handmade gallery and independent bookshop at the same time was simply a bonus. Working on his pieces in front of customers also embedded the message that The Makers Shed is the destination to confidently buy genuinely handmade products.
Artisans in business
I was pessimistic that a small rural town would have space in its economy for an artisanal business, but shoppers began to come through our red doors almost immediately. To date, we’ve traded on despite the varied challenges of two Covid lockdowns, drought, mouse plague and bushfires.
We didn’t invent the open studio model, but we’ve certainly proven its merits. Business expanded when we started stocking the work of other local artisans in addition to our own. Customers expect a bit of a treasure trove they can disappear into. If your shop is too sterile, they can feel under pressure, so we started by taking work on consignment. Now we purchase almost all our stock wholesale from artisans in business in New England.
Such creatives are not dabblers or dilettantes, they are actually extremely rare, highly motivated and reliant on sales, so they bend over backwards to make great product customers are drawn to. We’ve also had a sales rep for mass-produced wares through the doors, swearing we’ll break our handmade standards and stock his stuff. When he came back six months later with his cheap, imported trinkets, we were still doing very well in the locally handmade economy. He’s never returned.
The challenge is that an artisan in residence needs time to work in addition to maintaining good customer service. We’ve had to become masters at this delicate art, since we have bills to pay like everyone else, and conversations in shops need to be managed, particularly if someone is waiting to be served.
After a few months’ trading, Richard came home agitated about having his work flow interrupted. Commissions are important too, they serve customers who have found us on social media and may never come to Glen Innes. So I suggested that he learn to assertively return to his work after engaging in the conversation for a short time. Forging metal can be loud, so only the really determined will talk over it.
We joke about my husband being a bit of a counsellor at times, but in many ways it’s true. Shopkeepers serve a critical purpose, particularly in country towns, and particularly in creative businesses. They come face-to-face with the dreams and hopes of people who seek ways to realise their own creativity. Many times Richard has encountered people on the verge of tears, experiencing a blend of admiration and frustration at not having the time or resources to pursue their creative dreams.
He listens because he knows that heartbreaking state; then he picks up a hammer and gets back to tapping away at the anvil, showing that it is possible to just make stuff. Without that fundamental act of creation, nothing can happen for artisans.
When they attain a business flow, artisans are local manufacturers in a nation that has given up on making just about everything. In country towns, we trade side-by-side with primary producers, and we have much in common. We all get our hands dirty, and while they feed the body, we feed the mind and soul.
So I want to send a message to anyone inspired by the new year to start their creative business. You might need to begin in the laundry, but one day it could be the right time to take on a fantastic shop on a rural high street.
When it comes, trust that your creative abilities can make not just your product, but also your business plan; and when you meet other artisans, don’t hide. If they’re serious about what they create, they may provide the new energy you need to keep going.
If they’re coming in for reassurance, gently show them how to just keep making.