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A little help from your friends

A little help from your friends
Written by   05/07/2012

So how exactly do you go from being a manager in dentist practice to being an artist running your own shop in Birds Yard - one of Leeds' finest vintage and craft emporiums? According to Chloe McGenn it's a mixture of happy coincidence, determination and a cast of fabulous friends.

"When I tell people what I did before I owned a shop, they're usually surprised and often don't believe me. Until 2008, I was a manager of a dental practice, with no tattoos, normal hair and smart clothes. Whilst I loved working with the public, the other staff, and even my boss (God love him) it all became too much for me, and I was signed off with stress.

I took little steps along the road that eventually led me to being part of Birds Yard and having my own shop. There are a few people who really helped me along the way and are an important part of my journey.

1.    My online community
I started painting when I was getting my medication sorted, and my hands were twitching to be busy. I painted a dragonfly for my online friend, who loved it, and showed everyone. The people I knew online at this time in my life were the only people I had any interaction with, so their opinion of what I was doing was vital. They all clubbed together and sent me to Amsterdam for a long weekend, and it helped my confidence to fly, and spend time away from home.

2.    Claudia, my neighbour
Fast forward to March 2009 and I'd been doing so much painting I had no room left in my house to store the final pieces, so I started doing craft fairs to try and get rid of them. I'd often take along Claudia for company, and we had a fine old time chatting and meeting other creative people. I soon realised that I could connect with lots of people with my artwork, and began trying to make art my career, for which I was told I'd need an art degree. Luckily for me Claudia is also a library assistant in an art college. I visited her at work, fell in love with the library, and she encouraged me to apply for an access course.

3.    Gary, my tutor
At the end of my first year of the access course, I was told if I wanted to do an art degree I'd have to pay thousands of pounds which I just didn't have. I felt so strongly that I wanted to be an artist and burst into tears at not being able to imagine another life. To Gary's credit he told me I was so determined, that I didn't even really need to finish my access course, let alone get an art degree.

4.    My business link advisor

I started looking for more opportunities to sell my work. During my access course, I'd enjoyed making jewellery from my little sculptures, so I began taking jewellery along to craft fairs as well as greeting cards with my paintings printed on them, and started selling more each time I went somewhere. I decided it was time for a permanent base for my items. I called my Business Link advisor, and explained I wanted somewhere to sell my own handmade items as well as other peoples’. I was initially gutted when he told me he'd had a meeting with someone called Michelle about exactly the same thing, but he suggested that I get in touch with her, and see if I could display my work in her shop instead as she was much further on in her plans.

5.    Michelle Walton (aka Bird)
I found Bird through Facebook, chatted on the phone, and we arranged a meeting on 20th July 2010 – I can be so exact because here is the diary entry from the day after.

“So I went to this new shop yesterday. It is ace. I am so bloody excited. The shop itself is a bit like Affleck's Palace in Manchester, or the Corn Exchange. There are booths downstairs, and then little units set out upstairs. I WANT A UNIT SO BADLY, but they've all been rented out. I wish I'd got there in time for the one with a fireplace.

I got a little space just for me, and the woman is also very business-minded - she chose the position because it's outside the Megabus bus stop, and she's planning on advertising us as a sort of last minute gift and card shop at first, for people who arrive in Leeds and need an unusual gift etc for the people they're visiting, or a last minute dress for a big night out etc.

I've got a 3 month contract, and if that goes well, I'm definitely renting a unit - it's only * a week including business rates, and is MASSIVE - she even said we can stock things from other people, so I may well be able to stock handmade stuff from my online friends.”

The shop opened on 31st July, but because I was on holiday, I put my stuff in on the 28th, whilst the rest of the shop was still being painted.

6.    My customers
I'd already met customers at craft fairs, but luckily a big part of being in Bird's Yard is working in the shop. It's the thing I'm most thankful for because it gave me so much confidence to work in a shop, chatting to people, seeing what they're looking for and helping them to find it. I was asked to work for only 3 hours, but instead I'd usually go in 3 or 4 times a week.

7.    People I shared shop space with
After three months, the lady who ran a furniture shop on the first floor asked if I'd share the room with her, so we agreed to share the shop, and the hours working in it. I put my stuff for sale on top of her furniture, and we both worked three days in the shop. Unfortunately, she became ill and had to leave which meant that I had to take on looking after the space although being thrown in at the deep end actually gave me the confidence to manage my own shop. I still enjoyed sharing space with other people though - each time I shared with different pop-up shops, I learnt new things. One of them taught me about displaying and branding, whilst another, helped me a lot with pricing and valuing myself.

8.    Myself
Eventually, a smaller shop became available, and it was the one with the fireplace. It just seemed like kizmet. I'd become a more rounded person through all these other people, but finally it was my faith in myself which caused me to take the plunge and move into the shop I am now in. I have about 20 suppliers to my room, two members of staff, and I feel like everything has fallen into place.

So there is hope! People will tell you that you can't do what you want to do, but you have to believe that things will work in the long run. If you find the right opportunity, and seize it so hard you never let go, the rewards you reap will be worth the bruises on your hands."

Catch up with Chloe and Birds Yard on twitter @PeskyChloe and @BirdsYard
Image: Betty Lawless

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