Shopkeeper Spotlight: The Old Haberdashery

This month we talk flea markets and vintage finds with Sonia Boriczewski, the creative force behind The Old Haberdashery, in Ticehurst, East Sussex.

How would you describe the essence of The Old Haberdashery?

A shop of ideas that plays with texture and colour; nostalgia and practicality. Everything we sell at the shop is useful and curated in a way that people still have to search for their own treasure. We also pride ourselves on remaining affordable.

Can you tell us some more about how The Old Haberdashery came about?

My background is in Textile Design and a few years ago I had a small studio space producing knitted paper yarn accessories, some of which are held in The Crafts Council permanent collection. I then left the UK and spent some time living in China - where I taught a course on Textile and Fashion history - and Spain. When I came back to the UK nine years later, with two children in tow, I really felt the need to reassert my creativity in some shape or form, but with childcare to think about I had to start small, so I started selling vintage homewares at local fairs. That went well so I rented a space in a vintage shop, but soon realised that I needed my own space in which to create and curate my vision.

The turning point was when a local businessman who had a tiny shop up for rent in the East Sussex village of Ticehurst approached me. It was just the push I needed. I knew I'd regret it if I didn't give it a try. 

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The Old Haberdashery specialises in vintage pieces - how do you go about sourcing wares for the shop?

The process of sourcing for the shop has changed over time. A lot of my regular haunts just don’t have the stock anymore, so I tend to keep quiet about the ones I really rely on - apologies for not sharing any insider secrets there! Ardingly Antiques Fair and Malvern Flea are excellent places to find new stock, and I never miss a boot fair.

Any tips on buying at flea markets?

Get rummaging - sometimes those tatty old cardboard boxes lined up in rows bear the best treasure. Build-up a rapport with traders; many will often keep particular things aside for you or keep an eye out for things you buy frequently. And finally, politeness and a smile still go a long way when negotiating a good price.

Do you have a personal favourite era in terms of homewares?

Absolutely. I’m a 1920s/30s girl. I love the shapes and colours of China from that era and the emergence of modernism in textile design. On my days off you will find me visiting places like nearby Charleston Farmhouse for inspiration from that period.

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Do you find yourself keeping some of your stock for your own home? Or are you quite disciplined about buying for the shop only?

I have trained myself well! If it is something I know I will never find again then occasionally an item may come home with me. Basically, you have to be business minded; those extra special things will keep people coming back to your shop.

Ticehurst is a beautiful spot – how did you come to find it? Do you find the setting influences what you stock?

It sort of chose me. I was looking at a shop in a neighbouring village but it didn’t work out and my current space was offered to me. I’m incredibly lucky in that we have a very creative element in the village and local businesses that are all about supporting one another. It boasts an award winning pub, contemporary gallery and artisan bakery.

I was always very single minded in what I was going to stock and my 'visual voice'. I feel that even in a rural village you should also be able to buy things that you could find in London, for example. I love it when people come in and find things and announce that I have just saved them a trip into the local town. 

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Any top tips for a day in Ticehurst and East Sussex?

You may need a long weekend! In which case, come and stay in one of the lodges at The Bell and use it as a base to discover the surrounding countryside. Pop for tea and cake at King Johns Nursery down the road and then get The Lighthouse bakery in the village to make you a delicious sandwich to take on a picnic. Pick up some contemporary Art at The Artichoke gallery.

Locally, head to Batemans, Sissinghurst Castle, and Great Dixter for your cultural fix. We are 25 minutes from the coast so I'd recommend Hastings Old Town and Norman Road in St. Leonards. There are some great shops like Butlers Emporium, Made in Hastings and Roberts Rummage in the Old Town and Wayward and SHOP, down the road in St. Leonards. And if you have time, pop to Rye; an antique and vintage lovers’ paradise with a great smattering of independents. You’ll find Merchant and Mills, McCully and Crane and Pale & Interesting among others. Take a walk too. We have some beautiful countryside in East Sussex. Combine a trip to Charleston farmhouse with a walk on The Downs. The list is endless!

How did you go about designing the shop? Did you have a particular aesthetic in mind when pulling it all together? 

The shop has come together organically; all the shop fittings are found objects, I just couldn’t have anything ‘new’ as its bones. My favourite shop prop is the workbench found at the local tip and snapped up for a fiver.

I knew I wanted a very blank canvas to set everything off so I painted the walls and floor white. It just makes the colours and textures pop. We have a lot crammed in so the white helps to keep the shop looking calm. Wabi Sabi rules here!

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You’ve been open for five years – what have been the highlights?

Interestingly five years is a real landmark. It really does take that long to establish your business, to get yourself known, to be recognised. So that in itself is a highlight, reaching that point. Appearing in an article in Country Living and designing cards and a haberdashery range for Liberty are up there, but on a personal level finding myself working with a group of like-minded people and creatives has been the best thing. I’ve definitely found my ‘gang’.

Can you talk us through your buying process?

So, I split my buying up into areas now and even seasons. I have a very different buying pattern for Christmas for example, much more structured. Vintage is split into textiles, homewares and haberdashery. Over time I have found products that I can buy wholesale to compliment the vintage; normally bought from small UK businesses. The joy of ferreting around for old stuff though is you really never know what you will find so the shopping list often gets thrown out the window. I have learnt to buy when I see things though.

What are your current bestsellers, and do you have any personal favourites?

I have just sold out of pale pink Woods Ware NHS mugs. I bought a haul of 85 and because of the colour and mid-century design they sold like hot cakes. Current favourites? Love the colours and designs of the Cambridge Imprint wrapping paper and I will never tire of rusty metal things. I’m also slightly obsessed with old keys at the moment.

To what extent are you influenced by trends?

Like most people I probably take a lot in through osmosis. I will normally try and attend a trends presentation at one of the trade fairs like Top Drawer because even though a lot of my products are vintage, I am still trying to present them in a way that works in a modern setting. It’s always good to know what’s coming up.

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What are the challenges, and best bits of running an independent store?

Having to be a jack-of-all-trades. The bigger the skills set you have the better. But also know when you need help. I do all my own photography, which saves me a lot of money, but I recently got myself an accountant as I was finding the stress of submitting my tax returns a little too much. Never get to the point where you feel overwhelmed. Play to your strengths and get help with anything else. I needed to be in charge of everything when I first started and it’s learning to let go a bit, which has been the hardest challenge. The best bits are the freedom, the creativity and the shopping!

What’s your approach to marketing? How easy is it to get the Old Haberdashery name out there?

Instagram is my marketing tool of choice. We have more people who come through our door and say hello at fairs because of it. It’s so easily accessible for people and they can see immediately if it's somewhere they would like to visit.

We may be rural but people plan road trips around shops they want to check out. The best piece of advice I was given was ‘Don’t sit there and expect people to find you’. I travel to fairs, use social media and network with people to let them know where we are. Five years on, people are still discovering us.

What are the key elements to running a successful independent store?

Perseverance. Hard graft. Self-belief. A good network of fellow business buddies to sound off to (big shout out to Sarah at Goose Home and Garden and Rose at Butlers Emporium!). Patience. Telling a visual story with your merchandising. As a keen photographer when styling the shop I bear this in mind by creating vignettes, which in turn becomes very useful when photographing the shop for our Instagram feed. And above all engage with your customers.

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Any advice for aspiring indie shop owners?

Be prepared to work very hard. You will use every skill from every job you have ever done. If you love what you do it will show. As a shopkeeper you are constantly front of house; even on a bad day it’s important to smile and engage with people.

Offer people that something which is a little bit different. Customers love a bit of retail theatre. They should enter your establishment and feel removed from the everyday world for a bit. Have a go! And remember there is nothing wrong with starting small.

What’s next on the horizon for The Old Haberdashery?

Watch this space! I’m entering a new phase and not quite sure where that will take me. But then that’s what keeps it interesting…

Old Haberdashery, 33A High Street, Ticehurst, East Sussex, TN5 7AS