Not your average shopkeeper, Susan Doherty, the founder of concept store Life Story in Edinburgh, is first and foremost an entrepreneur. She founded her first business Hula, a juice bar on Victoria Street, in 2007. Not content with running one business, Susan opened her shop Life Story in 2014, realising a life-long dream of opening Edinburgh’s first concept store.
We spent the day with Susan to understand and document what a day in her life is like. We meet her at Hula, where Susan typically starts her day, to sample their renowned breakfast and revitalising juices. With the Fringe about to start, it’s full of locals and tourists yet Susan’s team are effortlessly serving customers and making juices.
With breakfast just about digested, we head to Susan’s favourite coffee shop, Fortitude, for some mid-morning sustenance in the form of a coffee and croissant. In a serendipitous turn of events, the croissants are served on speckled House Doctor plates supplied by Life Story.
After a quick catch up, we moved on to Life Story. Typically when the shop is closed (Monday to Wednesday) Susan spends the time as a shopkeeper catching up on emails, creating beautiful new displays and packaging up her Trouva orders to be shipped off to customers around the world. If there’s time, she’ll dedicate an hour to researching new brands and designers for the shop or planning the social media content for Life Story and Hula. There’s a lot more to being a successful shopkeeper than serving customers.
On the day of our visit we stole Susan for a short time to ask her all about her journey from a digital marketer to a shopkeeper and business owner.
Tell us a bit about your background.
The idea of working for myself has always been appealing to me and I’ve been entrepreneurial since a very young age, however it’s not been a direct path. I’ve now been self-employed for 11 years and while most people who meet me in Life Story assume I have a design background, it was law that I studied, completing two degrees in the University of Galway before moving to Edinburgh. My first ‘career’ was in web and digital media, in the early days of that sector and I went on to complete a Diploma in Direct & Digital Marketing at night via Napier University. I opened my first business, Hula Juice Bar in 2007, which is still the biggest part of my day-job, followed by Life Story in 2014.
How did Life Story come about?
I’ve been interested in interior design for as long as I can remember. I love Scandinavian style, the culture and the coffee industry there. My coffee obsession began when I lived in Melbourne a decade ago and has been reinforced by visiting cities like Copenhagen and eventually moving to Edinburgh, which is the UK’s second best city for coffee after London.
Concept/lifestyle stores are not hard to find in cities like London, Melbourne and Copenhagen and quite simply I wanted the same for Edinburgh. My inspiration was to establish that kind of ‘destination’ store that I seek out when abroad; an inspiring place where coffee and design sit side by side. A space where you feel as at home with a flat white flicking through a magazine, as you do shopping for a unique gift. I became quite obsessed with this idea so one day I wrote a one-page business plan and once more took the entrepreneurial leap of faith. Fortunately, the store already existed as a retail space, the owners, a couple who are both designers, wanted to sell it on and we got talking. It fit so well with my concept that I was able see my vision realised over the last two and half years since we launched.
What do you think makes your shop unique?
It’s an incredible cavernous space that looks deceptively small from the exterior; many visitors are surprised by the vastness of the space. Ultimately, the unique quality of Life Story, as with all shops of this kind, lies with the owner’s relationship with the products, with the space itself and with their customers.
Who are your customers?
I have a lot of regular customers who love design and interiors and who tend to stay in touch on social media. More recently I have been working on collaborations, including one for Grand Designs 2017, and supplying trade customers with accessories and products for their clients. New visitors drop in because they’ve perhaps taken a different path to work that day or design tourists following recommendations from the Cereal or Wallpaper guides. We are lucky in Edinburgh that independent retail seems to be ingrained into the consciousness of the residents, and Broughton Street itself is a hub of independents, from the shops and bars, to the restaurants and traditional butchers and fishmongers.
What tasks you do love doing and what do like to delegate?
I love curating collections, I treat the store areas as a canvas of sorts. I feel lucky to be in a position to work with diverse suppliers and makers whose work I love. When visual merchandising, I enjoy juxtaposing smaller artists with larger design houses e.g. Copper&Solder with HAY. The displays, as well as the coffee bar, are always evolving and as a buyer I follow my instincts. I know what I love and am very lucky to have a following that shares my appreciation of this aesthetic.
There is not much that’s delegated as it’s a small business but I am lucky to get a lot of help from my partner Tom on the web side of things. I’ve learned over time to outsource some tasks that I am not skilled at and don’t enjoy, such as bookkeeping.
What is your advice to anyone wanting to open an independent boutique?
Let your business reflect your personality, be true to your initial vision and don’t listen to anybody who says it’s impossible. It’s commonplace, especially in the age of Instagram, to get caught up with what others are doing but remember any moment spent looking at your competitor is a moment lost forever for your own business.
You need to understand and be able to read your figures from day one, but don’t waste time doing accountancy unless you are an accountant!
What’s your perfect day off?
Life is hectic so I try to get some sleep. My partner Tom and I usually take a walk with our dog Rufus. Our route either takes us to Portobello Beach where we now live, or down through Broughton St to Stockbridge. I never tire of the visual experience of walking through Edinburgh so if the afternoon is free, a walk around the Old Town, appreciating the architecture and independent stores is always a treat.
I know the restaurant scene really well through owning Hula and love to try out all the new launches as well as going to my old favourites. On my wish list is Seasons on Broughton Street and Norn in Leith, both are Nordic style so I know I’ll be the one caught checking out the stamps on the bottom of the gorgeous plates and dishes.
What are your favourite shops or places to visit in Edinburgh?
My favourite restaurants and cafes are Timberyard, Norn, The Chop House, Fortitude, The Counter, The Bearded Barista (a pop-up). My favourite shops are Hannah Zakari, Godiva and all my neighbours on Broughton Street. My favourite areas are Victoria Street, St Stephen’s Street, Broughton St, The Botanics, Portobello and North Berwick (out of town).
What do you predict for the future of retail?
Neighbourhoods and local businesses are becoming more, not less important. They’re also becoming more interesting. Social media, social networking and social listening is, and will remain, very important for retail as it allows independents to differentiate themselves and showcase the added value of shopping in an independent shop. The consultative factor in retail is interesting and facilitates differentiation – customers need more than a product off a shelf and when I’m in the store I find myself providing a much wider range of services to customers.
I’ve long been an advocate of the Small Giants philosophy (Bo Burlington – do read the book) and a firm believer that small is not only beautiful, but is mighty. Small and great is a viable business strategy and we see this in the continued successes of pop-ups and collaborations not only as a way of entering the market but as a business model in itself.
What makes Edinburgh such a hub of independent retail?
Edinburgh has a lovely culture of collaboration, it’s not unusual to discover an event that incorporates a number of independent shops or makers that complement one another. All of the independents support each other and being the festival centre of the world means there is always something going on here. Edinburgh is popular as a tourist destination with many visitors looking to experience the areas of the city that are slightly off-the-beaten track.