FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH:

Ideas on Paper

Reading Time: 11 minutes
Venture into Cobden Chambers and you may find yourself in local retail entrepreneur Alex Smith’s Aladdin’s cave of independent magazines, journals, books and stationery, an oasis for lovers of the printed page. We talk traversing the world of luxury fashion, escaping the smog of London and coming home to Nottingham, and the world of independent print.
Photos and words by Vika Serstobitova. Intro by Mitch Proctor.

So tell me about where you grew up.

I grew up here in Nottingham. And it was that, that made me have my own shop, because I liked to go around all the independent shops in Hockley. In the 80’s, when I was growing up, there were lots of clothes shops there, which were very interesting and from an early age I thought: “This is what I want to do, I want to have my own shop.” So I told my parents I wanted to have my own shop and they said: “You don’t know the first thing about running a shop, what are you talking about?” So as well as applying to university, I also applied to work at Harrods and do a managers training course, which I got onto, so I went and did that. That’s my growing up bit.

Did you see yourself doing what you do now when you were younger?

Yes. Well, I’ve always loved the idea of being a merchant. I think it’s really great to source terrific product, whatever it is, from somewhere else then bring it to the market and present it in such a way that people want to buy it. Whether that’s hundreds years ago, people finding exotic spices from the east, or whether it’s clothes or, in my case, my real passion is books. So I found an opportunity to do that.

 

 

What other jobs did you do before you opened Ideas on Paper?

Pretty much everything that’s related to retail management. I mentioned the management training course at Harrods. After I worked there for a couple of years I went on to a Mulberry concession at Harvey Nichols, I also worked in Selfridges for Mulberry. Then I decided I didn’t like working full time and thought, “how could I escape from working”? So I went to university.

After I graduated my business degree, I worked in the head office of Laura Ashley in the buying office and later moved over to the marketing bit. I like to jump around, I’ve never done one job for that many years, partly because I’m really curious about things and I wanted to learn everything I needed to learn to run my own shop. I kind of built my own training program, if you like.

 

“I’m the kind of person who would have about eight books on my bedside table”

 

Okay, that’s clever. Was there anything in specific that finally pushed you to open your own shop?

Well I always talk about Monocle magazine, everyone knows I’m a big fan of it, and on their radio station they have a program called The Stack, where they talk about independent magazines.

I remember when I first heard it, there were all these people talking about the magazines that they are starting. There would be creatives, there would be photographers, illustrators… you know, people like Jodie and Rachel, who started Another Escape, because they wanted a creative project. But none of these people ever talked about the commercial side of it and selling their stuff, so I thought to myself, there’s a perfect opportunity because I’m a curator, not a creator, that’s where I come in.

Although I’ve always wanted to open my own shop, in the back of my mind there was kind of a nagging doubt about the fashion business. I found it a bit vacuous and boring. I’ve always loved books and reading, I’m the kind of person who would have about eight books on my bedside table, because I’m hopping from one thing to another. So books and independently published magazines are just a terrific coming together of my background in fashion industry and love for reading.

 

 

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken?

Well, it’s always a risk when you give up your regular monthly salary. No matter how tedious it is working for an established fashion brand, it’s a risk going out on your own. I just took the view, there’s a thing about reasonable risk, you know, if I decided I wanted to fly and jumped off the nearest ten-storey building, we’d both know how that’s going to end. But if I start a shop and it doesn’t work out, then I’ve still got two arms and two legs and I can do something else.

That’s a good point. So can you tell me a little about your store, what have you got in here?

Well, the store came about because I had this idea of launching this shop around the time when Nottingham City Council had a competition called Inspiring Retail. They invited people to do a business plan and then pitch to a Dragon’s Den-type panel their concept. So I entered that. I was one of the finalists, I didn’t win it, but I thought it was a great idea and I wanted to do it anyway because I become so enthusiastic about the concept. For things to work you need some luck, you need things to come together at the right time and not for any particular reason. It’s fortunate if those things do come together.

So, around that time, in the Inspiring Retail competition, the whole Cobden Chambers development took place and buildings were renovated with a view to renting out the shop units to small, micro businesses or start-ups and that just created a fantastic opportunity for people to test their concepts. In the three years that it’s all been running, people have tested and found that some things don’t really hold water, so they’re not here anymore. Others have been here since the beginning. I was at 1 Cobden Chambers, then I needed a bit more space, so I moved along. But it was really all down to the fact that things happened at a certain time that made it possible to open the shop here in Cobden Chambers.

 

“I’m a curator, not a creator, that’s where I come in”

 

If not independent print, what would it be?

Well, I’ve always had an appetite for something that’s a little bit different. For example, I worked in a furniture store in Hockley, called Nash Interiors, for a couple of years. They specialised in really beautiful furniture, but really kind of mixed up styles. They would have a traditional French farmer house table with some Philippe Starck chairs around it and then a really ethnic type rug next to it. I like things that are a bit exotic, I like things that are cool, and everything here should be a beautiful object to be allowed in the shop.

But when I say things that are different, I don’t mean grungy or weird for the sake of it, I do still have a bit of a taste for luxury, somewhere in the back of my mind. So if it wasn’t books, then it could well be household accessories or it could even be furniture or any kind of product that I felt people would want to buy if it was available. The problem with many city centres is that the range of products available is quite limited and if you can spot things, that people would buy if they were available to purchase, that creates exciting possibilities.

 

 

What are your favourite reads?

My favourite reads? Well, one of the key ideas of the shop is bringing ideas to Nottingham that weren’t here before. I want people to think. I want to inspire people to have ideas of their own. I do like Monocle magazine because of its international perspective and the way that it champions the artisanal producer and the small retailer. But I also like things which are heavier weight reads and I have been selling more books to do with philosophy and economics, in the last year or so. I kind of added to my range of things that I stock, things that I have read myself and enjoyed and have been interested in, like Nassim Taleb’s “Antifragile”, for example.

Another favourite is Open House magazine, which is done by some people in Barcelona, I think. They focus on the relationship between the commercial and the domestic, so it will feature people who have hosted little art galleries in their apartments, or done pop-up restaurants at home and stuff like that. I like that because when I was conceiving design for the shop, I wanted it to be a bit like a graphic designer’s apartment, I didn’t want it to feel too much like a traditional retail space, so I think that’s good. Sidetracked is fantastic, adventures and great photography, you can read about people swimming in icy water in Antarctica, or climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Great adventure, which you might not want to do yourself, but you could read about it in the comfort of your own sofa, I like it and it’s quite popular. Little White Lies is terrific for illustration. Timba Smits, their creative director, came to speak at Raw Print really early on, so that’s another good one. I like everything here for all sorts of different reasons, Frame is a terrific one for architecture and culture and design, it takes you into the philosophy of the subject rather than just “here’s the building and here’s a diagram of it” and I find that very interesting.

You’ve got a lot of favourites.

A: Yes, there’s quite a few.

Apart from reading, what else do you enjoy doing?

A: Talking.

Of course.

A: Drinking coffee, drinking wine. That’s all there is to do, isn’t there?

 

“Make your mistake of working for somebody else for twenty five years and then open a shop.”

 

Can you tell me a little about Raw Print?

A: So a friend of mine is a tutor at NTU, he’s interested in magazines from an academic perspective, it fits in with his teaching. Matt comes from a graphic design background and he teaches fashion communication and promotion, so it’s very relevant to his work, and I’m interested in magazines because of what I sell. It makes sense for us to do Raw Print together and it’s a way to stimulate the conversation about magazines in Nottingham. I invite the people who make the magazines I sell to come to Nottingham and talk about them and Matt tells his students that they’ll only get a first if they attend, so it kind of works really well.

 

Image from formfiftyfive.com

 

That’s a great plan. Why did you choose Nottingham? London is pretty big on independent print.

A: I lived in London for a long time, it’s a fantastic place, but I always knew that I wasn’t going to stay there. Although I feel at home in London, I grew up in Nottingham and ultimately Nottingham is home for me. I wanted to start a business here, partly because there’s a lot to be said for doing something in a smaller space, in a second tier city so I could have more of an impact on the local market. I wanted to make a positive contribution to the city I grew up in and tried to be a bit of a catalyst for the place. You know, it’s easy to criticize but I think it’s important to actually do something positive and that’s what I’m trying to do with the shop.

Do you get enough of creativity in this city?

A: There are a lot of creative people in this city. There’s loads of creative agencies and designers based here, there are 70 000 students and there’s also a healthy appetite for reading, Nottingham is a UNESCO city of literature, you know, so there’s that aspect to it as well. I mean, the average person coming out of Primark isn’t interested in what I do, but there are enough people in Nottingham who are interested to make it worthwhile.

 

 

What advice would you give to a young person starting out?

Depends on what they want to do and who they are. There was a group of students brought around the other day, and somebody said they would like to have their own shop one day. They asked me what I’d recommend they do, I said: “Make your mistake of working for somebody else for twenty-five years and then open a shop.” She was a bit deflated after that, she was probably only nineteen, the poor girl.

My advice for somebody who’s starting out… well, the word sustainable gets mentioned quite a lot these days, and it means a lot of things and people just like to use it as a buzz word, but essentially, if you open a shop, you need to able to make a profit so you’ll be here next year and the year after that. Also, it’s important to do something that you find meaning in yourself, because if you’re doing something just for the sake of making money, then it’s not as rewarding as if you’re doing it for the fact, that you are genuinely interested in it. When I told a friend of mine I was opening a shop, she said fantastic, you could open a pound shop and make loads of money because that’s a really great market, but I thought, I don’t want to make loads of money with a pound shop, I just want to make enough money with a book shop. So whatever the project and whoever you are, it has to be something that has a chance of actually working in the long term. Anybody can open a shop, I could open a shop selling diamond-encrusted decanters, but nobody’s going to buy them here in Nottingham, you might sell one or two if you’re in Knightsbridge. So you have to do something that is likely to have a chance of working and something you genuinely find interesting.

And what legacy would you like to leave?

A: I don’t care. When I’m dead, I’m dead.

 

 

If you had one wish, what would you wish for?

A: For more people to be interested in thinking. And, if I could extend that, for them to express themselves coherently.

Visit ideasonpapernottingham.co.uk or pay them a visit on the first floor, Unit 4b in Cobden Chambers on Pelham Street.

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