A Day in the Life of a Shopkeeper: Eastern Biological

At Trouva, we are inspired by our boutique owners and the bricks-and-mortar businesses they have built from the ground up. If you’ve ever wondered what a day in the life of a shopkeeper looks like, then look no further.

Owner of Alf Addis outside his shop, Eastern Biological in Hackney
Alf, the owner of Eastern Biological

East London’s Hackney Road has long been home to a creative community but it’s only in the last year we’ve noticed a collection of interesting independents starting to appear. The one that caught our attention from the get-go was Eastern Biological, a space like no other.

Alf Addis, founded the company in 2014 whilst studying a MA in creative writing. Inspired by a curious shop he stumbled upon during a trip to Japan, Alf returned with the mission to build a boutique that reflected his love of natural history. After successfully growing the brand online and via pop-ups, six months ago he decided to open his very own shop; a meticulously designed space to reflect the layers of the Galapagos islands, a historically significant place in the study of natural history. As well as an array of eclectic but always design-led products, Eastern Biological is also home to the shop’s resident chameleon, named Murloc.

Shelves stocked with products at Eastern Biological shop
Interior of Eastern Biological

We spent the day with shopkeeper Alf to understand more about running Eastern Biological and how the concept of the shop was born.

A shopkeeper sitting at the shop counter with his chameleon on his arm
Alf and his chameleon, Murloc

Tell us a bit about your background.

I get asked this quite a lot as customers often assume I have a science background being so enthusiastic about the subject of the shop, which I don’t. I have an English background, studying at Goldsmith’s whilst developing the idea for Eastern Biological. The two subjects I work with (English and natural history) aren’t really connected, but reading in general makes one more knowledgeable and it would have been in my first year at uni I started to read a lot of popular science books by Richard Dawkins, which contributed to my obsession with natural history, thus leading me to this point. I have a slightly obsessive personality, certain ideas and people I read about just cling with me forever, it’s never a phase.

A green shop interior
Murloc’s home in the store

How did your boutique come about?

The idea stemmed from a curiosity shop in Tokyo that I stumbled into in 2012; it was dedicated to the natural sciences and Darwinism. It was filled with curiosities beautifully arranged: taxidermy from toucans to a zebra, mounted insects in frames, replica animal skulls, fossils, magnifying glasses, maps and more. I had never been in a shop like it, and since then, I still haven’t encountered such a space. It was a café too stocking a good amount of books, and wasn’t afraid to appear intellectual – natural history was a clearly a deep passion.

I, as a natural history enthusiast, was thrilled. So, three years later when I was ready to start a business (always a pipe dream of mine), I kept thinking about this shop. It was my intention to build a British version of this place, in the process discovering that there was no independent natural history gift shop in London. Though, Eastern Biological isn’t a replica of this place in any way. I’ve always wanted the shop to feel modern, design-led and to focus more on products, contemporary illustration, stocking less curiosities, and no taxidermy or mounted insects at all.

We started building the brand via the online store, but it was never a desire to stay solely online. I like the retail environment, and enjoy interacting with interesting people (which running a natural history gift shop inevitably brings), so we did pop-up shops in east London. A space then appeared next to Conservatory Archives on Hackney Road last year, which looked like it was too good to be true. The landlord liked the concept: building the brand firstly online and doing the pop-up shops, which were all successful, certainly helped with attaining the space.

A day with Alf the shopkeeper of Eastern Biological
Alf arranging a shelf display

What do you think makes your shop unique?

It’s one thing just selling unusual gifts and stationery, but my aim is to try and provide a more enriching experience than you’d come to expect in a gift shop.

Since opening Eastern Biological I’ve learnt that there is no other natural history gift shop in London outside of the museum gift shop, so I don’t think it is comparable to anything, especially with the creative approach I’ve chosen. I’m so used to going into shops in general, I’m rarely taken aback when I walk into somewhere new. It’s quite common to see other businesses selling the same kind of products and then say they’re not ‘trend driven’, but as an outsider observer, it’s easy to spot that most shops do actually subscribe to trends.

Hopefully it’s obvious that we care about the environment and the way we live, but we don’t overuse popular phrases such as ‘sustainably sourced’, ‘ethical’, ‘handmade’. Although these things are important, I don’t want to come across as appearing to have double standards as we sell many different things, so my aim first and foremost is to inspire an appreciation for the natural world, and to promote science, through product curation and a good selection of books.

Sea life dinner plates as part of a display
Ceramics inspired by sea creatures

Who are your customers?

I like to think that my customers are all science-minded folk, but retail is random, so that’s not the case. We are by definition a niche shop, which means that the majority of people may not get the concept straight-away. It’s a haven for natural history enthusiasts, but, we do need to explain the concept of the shop to people not so much interested in science. That’s part of the parcel and we enjoy explaining.

I think the customers who spend time a great deal of time in the shop are curious people who love to learn, and are enthused by unusual facts. Natural history enthusiasts who really understand are overwhelmed with a child-like curiosity as they wander around. The shop brings out the inner-child in a lot of people, and a common thing I hear is that “it’s like a toy shop for adults.”

I make the effort to ensure the shop is accessible: whether it’s an educational toy, I make sure it’s easy to understand, and the instructions aren’t convoluted. Or whether it’s something that simply looks nice like a glass planter for the #plantstagram and #urbanjunglebloggers customer. Or whether it’s non-fiction books for the ‘serious’ customer – I make sure that they are accessible books and aren’t clunky textbooks. The fact it’s a niche shop doesn’t mean that it’s inaccessible, and we don’t sell anything like taxidermy and dead things in jars.

Pelle gem soap stones
Handcrafted soap stones in a rainbow of colours

What tasks you do love doing and what do like to delegate?

The other 20% of sourcing my products involves trying to produce my own products. To make Eastern Biological a creative endeavour, and to maintain a distinct identity: I love commissioning screen prints and notebooks myself. I go for quality over quantity, and if you read the descriptions in each print online – there is an interesting idea, or story behind each one. I won’t for example commission an illustrator to draw a simple illustration of an animal, as I would find that intellectually unfulfilling. The perk of the job for me is commissioning artists, as I love learning new facts, but I have no skills, so when I feel like I have a good idea for a print, it’s thrilling working with an illustrator and printer to make the idea come alive.

What is your advice to anyone wanting to open an independent boutique?

It feels a bit premature to start giving advice being relatively new on the block – but I’d say it’s very important to be self-aware and not give into clichés. My advice would be to try to think in original ways, rather than working hard on something that might not have any longevity. It’s important to research what makes your idea unique, and what it can be compared to, and work to avoid comparisons. Staying focused on the idea and its purpose, and further understanding your core target market will help greatly.

All business is risky, but I made sure the risk-factor was low as possible by starting off online and doing pop-up shops. I had no grand desire for the shop to be in a ‘fancy’ part of London. I knew my area very well already (I was born in Whitechapel), and I was confident in my concept right from the very beginning. Once the shop was a physical manifestation, I understood my target market more, and everything was reaffirmed by the amount of interesting people I’ve since been meeting, who are not only interested in natural history, but design and illustration as well.

Alf holding his pet chameleon Murloc
Murloc, the shop’s resident chameleon

What’s your perfect day off?

I’d like to say reconnecting with nature by gallivanting in a field of wheat, but that would involve travelling out of the inner-city. Before I was a bricks-and-mortar shopkeeper and working virtually seven days a week, I had a flexible diary and more days off. My favourite days off involved carrying a pile of books to the Southbank Centre and sitting in the members area on the top floor and reading and writing the whole day, regularly looking upwards to watch the barges on the Thames float pass.

What are your favourite shops?

Epic bookshops are my favourite places in the world. So I was overjoyed to see Libreria open on Hanbury Street last year. It’s great because it’s a bookshop that celebrates curation. Arguably all bookshops are curated, but their catalogue is original and thematically organised, for example, enlightenment, dark times, wanderlust, which makes for an interesting browsing experience. It’s also a beautifully designed space: warm yellow hues welcoming you in, and with plenty of comfy reading nooks, I never want to leave. I also enjoy the fact that using phones is forbidden in here, which comes as a breath of fresh air in this social-media-obsessed world we live in.

Plants and greenery fill the space at Conservatory Archives
Alf visiting his neighbours Conservatory Archives

What do you predict for the future of retail?

I think online shopping is here to stay, and will only rise. But there will be more emphasis on curation, not just with products but ideas as well, and there will be more niche bricks and mortar shops to counteract the increase in online shopping. Being able to provide a genuinely different physical shopping experience is the future. There are only so many ways a shop can sell and display products – it’s not just about curating objects and arranging everything nicely; a shop with good ideas and perhaps an underlying social message will prosper and hopefully determine the future of the shopping experience.

Trouva sticker on display at Eastern Biological
Trouva sticker on display at Eastern Biological

Discover and shop Eastern Biological on Trouva.

Ruby Hall

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