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The Shopkeepers Interview with Clare Priestley

Clare Priestley’s shop, The King & I, is a small, but beautifully formed antique and homewares shop that opened in June this year. Clare’s shop is situated in a charming, bespoke wooden structure, nestling under trees in a pub garden, in the picturesque village of Tillington, West Sussex, UK.

What genre is it? I sell interior accessories, decorative antiques, plants and textiles.

Why did you want to open it? I wasn’t allowed to take an art GCSE course at school, and was told to replace it with the ‘more intelligent subjects’, but somehow you work your way back to where you want to be! We have four children and my husband and I kept buying and renovating houses so that we were able to afford enough bedrooms for all of us, and somewhere along the way I fell in love with interiors. I call the shop my mid-life crisis, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to build and create it.

Who designed the shop? I did. I drew it on a napkin for Ben Law who is an incredible local eco-builder, as we talked over a pint in The Horse Guards Inn a year ago, and he went on to create something fantastic. It was Ben’s idea to add in the arched sedum roof, and I had to fight for my corrugated porch! Where the sedum roof meets the corrugated porch on the shed is my favourite part of the building. I named the shop after my husband, Elvis, because together we are a great team.

What are you best known for selling? That’s a difficult one because the shop is definitely a treasure trove, so I suppose it’s known for something special, something unique, something you didn’t know you wanted, or in my case ‘needed’ until you walked in! The shop is set up like an elegant drawing room, yet it’s in a shed, it’s pretty special, and I love watching customer’s reactions when they walk in.

Where do you source your product? I source the fabrics and textiles from artisans and makers around the world. The antiques are sourced from markets mainly in Europe, and the occasional treasure trove from a car boot sale. I love buying, and once I drove for two days to spend four hours at an annual antiques fair held in a tiny village, south of Toulouse. Not the best business plan I know, but I loved every moment of it!

What makes your shop unique? It’s a shed in the garden of The Horse Guards Inn, but it’s a very opulent shed! I think it’s the perfect location for a shop, but some people walk in and ask me, “Why on earth have you opened a shop in a pub garden?” I love it when that happens, as it proves it’s different! The Horse Guards Inn is a very special place run by Sam & Misha, it feels like a home away from home and there was only one pub that I wanted to have my shop in. I still can’t believe they said ‘yes’, I feel very lucky to be pushing my way into the ‘Horse Guards family’!

Who are your customers? Locals, Instagram followers, couples renovating their first home together, artists, interior designers and aspiring interior designers like me. People are now starting to come from further afield to see the shop, which is amazing and really humbling. Oh and children…the shop is a magnet for children, they think it’s really magical!

Who inspires you? My family and so many others, but in terms of interiors I’d say Abigail Ahern is one of my favourite designers, and I love the luxurious dark rooms she creates. I get a lot of inspiration and confidence in my ideas from my fellow shopkeepers and aspiring designers on social media, there is a great supportive community online at the moment. English Eccentric, by Ros Byam Shaw, is one of my favourite books, and closer to home, Misha, one of the owners of the pub is amazing with interiors. She has great attention to detail, the pub is so warming and welcoming, every nook and cranny filled with antiques, dried flowers and foliage, it’s really beautiful.

What inspires you? I have a long list! The countryside, industrial and Modernist architecture, Georgian architecture, Scandinavia, East London, 18th and 19th century France, South America and strong women! I want to try and push the boundaries with the shop and merge styles together that on the outset you think might not work, in the shop I have an old, distressed corrugated wall, and next to it hangs a French crystal chandelier, they look amazing next to each other.

Before I was a shopkeeper, I was… a Line Producer/Production Manager working in live sport and commercials. I loved my job, but it became impossible to juggle the hours of the job and be the mum I wanted to be.

The hardest lesson learned in starting a business? Follow your instincts.

What tasks do you like to delegate? It’s just me doing everything! I like to work with a team though, so one day, when it grows…!

The best lesson you have learned opening a shop? Not to get too carried away buying stock, which is an easy thing to do. I have had to train myself to be a bit more sensible on buying trips, and this is definitely still a work in progress. I definitely have a wandering eye for antiques, and at one stage we had about 16 antiques chairs to be upholstered in the house, which the family couldn’t sit on! I think it’s also important to stick with what you know and are passionate about.

What would be your advice for anyone wanting to open a shop? I was inspired to finally go for it by the owners of a shop near me called The Bottom Stable, in Lurgashall. When I finally plucked up the courage to say I would love to open a shop like theirs, they were so encouraging, even though it was going to be just down the road from them. They told me to go for it, and were such empowering and supportive women – I am so glad I walked into their shop. I’d also say be honest with who you are – when I asked Sam and Misha about opening a shop in their pub, I said, “I have no experience, but I think I would be really good at it”. Have the confidence to stick with your own brand, don’t get caught up with what everyone else is doing.

Which famous person would you like to visit your shop? The shop has a really small porch, so maybe a musician could come up and sit in the hammock and play some tunes.

If you weren’t a shopkeeper you would be… A florist.

What is your perfect day off? Breakfast with the family, followed by a walk around an antiques fair, then a ramble around Frensham Ponds in Surrey with the children after school, followed by a ‘date night’ at home with my husband Elvis, sat by the fire with a nice glass of red wine and maybe a game of scrabble, and, if I’m really pushing it, a foot massage!

Can you share your five favourite shops? Jane Bourvis on Golbourne Rd, London, is a haven of lace, theatre costumes and antiques. Jane made my wedding dress out of vintage French lace. The Cloth Shop, Portobello Rd, London, I go there to get ideas for my upholstery projects, its a gorgeous family run business. Columbia Road Flower Market, London, is the best place to be in London on a Sunday morning. Wells Reclamation Yard, in Somerset, The Reformation for the one time a year I am out of my trainers or flip flops!

What are your favourite neighbourhood coffee shop and restaurant? That’s a hard one, can I bend the rules and have a few? One of my favourites is back in Stoke Newington, London, where we used to live when the twins were born, its called Mouse & de Lotz. It’s a gorgeous, cozy neighbourhood café, with amazing cakes and great coffee, which helped me survive those first few months breast-feeding! On the ‘difficult’ days I would go in 3-4 times, and have one of their ‘whoopee cakes’! It goes without saying that the Horse Guards Inn, Tillington is on the list – the food never disappoints. We have also turned our back garden into a bit of a café for our family, breakfast outside in the summer together is the best start to the day.

I wish I could… Pull my children out of school for a year and educate them by showing them the world.

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