The Trials and the Joys of Space at 61: Director and Small Business Champion Shona Chambers
Occasionally you meet a woman on Instagram who you find truly inspirational. I discovered Space at 61 when I attended a yesmumMoonClub women's dinner there. I remember thinking - what a useful space! Then I "got to know" Shona on Instagram, and found myself commenting on every single one of her posts.
It gives me such joy and pleasure to feature her as a guest blogger, telling her story of Space at 61.
Space at 61 is very much an example of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Its Plan B. Its When Life Gives you Lemons. It has stretched me further than I ever dreamed, and it has been amazing.
To explain in clearer terms, Space at 61 was never my intended business. I started that in 2011 with a year of painstaking scrutiny, projected income, break even points, banks, selling our family home to fund the renovations of a derelict unit, & finally in May 2012 opening the Cafe/Deli of my dreams ' The Dish & the Spoon'
The whole concept of The Dish and the Spoon was to open a community cafe with a strong focus on family, in an area which had nothing at all to offer the average family. The business premises is in a very residential area, where the council have let 90% of the existing old shops be turned into residential properties. There is only my place & a handful of others. No high street to speak of. The Cafe did well, the locals loved it, and we were full of happy families with children enjoying the toy corner, and Mum & Dad trying out different meats & cheese for lunch from our deli offering. The first year running we won 'Londons Top Toddler Friendly Cafe' & I was so proud. Of my team & of the fact I'd brought my dream to life off the page so to speak. Sadly in the same way for many independents we struggled like crazy to keep afloat.
Quiet periods where all our customers seemed to be on holiday at once, unhelpful schemes from the local council where they decided to make just 3 parking spaces on our street restricted for 1 hour only, right outside my property which really affected the parents who wanted to park outside and offload a baby and a toddler. Little by little it became harder to keep going. Funds ran low. In 2014 towards the end of the summer we started to notice water appearing in strange places around the premises. And it just got worse. Long story short we had a pinprick sized leak in an underfloor pipe that no body could see, and it ended up causing us to close for 6 months whilst we were dried out by commercial grade dehumidifiers. In March 2015 we reopened, and I limped on for another year and a bit before accepting that the trade had moved on, the magic had gone, & my only real choice was to close the cafe for good.
At this point, having pumped an obscene amount of my family's money into the business, I tried to look at selling the business & its lease. The amount I would have received was so low, I was almost at the point of walking away with nothing. And handing back a beautifully renovated property to my landlord (who is lovely by the way, no offence to him in any of that intended) But still. What would you do? Shortly before we closed I remember having a conversation about it all with one of my amazing regulars Hannah Read- Baldrey, who is a local author and stylist. She took one look at the place and said:
'Shona, you could do anything with this place, anyone would love to use it for photoshoots, pop ups, anything like that.'
To be honest I was very skeptical, but I really appreciated her suggestion and gave it a lot of thought. She even put me in touch with a local business coach who I saw for a session.
Then very uncharacteristically for me, I decided, sod it, I will have a go at keeping the place. I will try and find enough people to rent it out for their own projects, to make the rent each month at least whilst I think what to do next. We took down the sign for the Dish and the Spoon, turned it around & my arty husband made us a new sign with Space at 61 on it, and put it up, and that was that! We didn't ever really close, but stepped from the Cafe to the Space in a matter of days. August of 2016 was pretty scary. My 7 year old son was on his school holidays, & my daughter was then 1. So I was juggling taking care of both of them & trying to figure out how to find new clients for my new venture. I spent hours online trying to get a handle on the world of Pop Ups, & approached lots of people locally, but I wasnt really sure of my patter, & found it difficult trying to explain what I had on offer.
My first real customers were a fantastic Mexican themed Supperclub who were just getting started in East Dulwich and wanted a bit more space than their flat would allow. And then shortly after that a lovely Tapas pop up followed, and they became regulars serving up amazing food to the local community several days per month. I discovered several online platforms to list the business on, and enquiries started to increase that way as more people heard of it. I treated it really at that point as a rental, finding clients & leaving them to it.
The tipping point only really came well into 2017 when I realised that 'I' wanted to choose who came into the place, 'I' wanted to make it an amazing place too. And at that point I really started to push my way out into local networking groups and events, with a view that by telling lots of people what I was trying to do, they would at the very least spead the word for me, and maybe they'd even want to use it themselves. More and more I was hearing that we are an unusual offering, in that we allow people to rent the space from 1 hour upwards. We dont charge the earth, as the idea for me has always been to help people to get going, to take an idea they are passionate about and just have a go. With rents going through the roof, and gentrification pushing the creative types further and further out of the area, I felt that I could at least help people to begin in their business. And that is pretty much what has happened.
We have got busier and busier: to illustrate in April 2017 I had 34 enquiries for use of the space. We have just ended this month at 116! And I currently have 39 active clients. In the last few months I have even been asked to advise on how to set up a community space by a firm of Architects working on two projects in the South London area, & helped another contact with information for her community space tender process in North London. So there are lots of other Spaces on the horizon which is great for the communities around them.
We dont really have a typical week, but if I look at the calendar for this one I have got:
- an Artist who uses the space as her studio booked in for painting time
- a children's after school art class led by a local Dulwich Picture Gallery tutor
- a Women Only Supper club
- two networking events, (one is run in house & another for a London group)
- a children's music group
- a vegan American Brunch
- a first aid training course
- two children's birthday parties!
If you'd asked me 6 years ago if I'd be doing this, I'd have laughed, but I am, and its brilliant. Thanks so much for reading my story.