Small World was the name of the doll’s house shop on the corner of York Street in Broadstairs, and it must have felt like a fortuitously small world for Ashleigh Millward, who – months after moving into a house just around the corner from it – and already the owner of an online-only traditional children’s toy shop, found that the business was up for sale, as owner Bee returned home to Thailand.
Ashleigh, who is 26 year old and already a wife, a mother and a business owner is pretty (as you can see), smart, focussed and doesn’t shy away from something in between a giggle and a full blown laughter. I popped into the shop, where she was hard at work transforming it into a lighter, brighter space for her traditional toys, to find out more about her:
You are fairly new to the town of Broadstairs? So what brings here?
I had lived in Thanet (Margate) years ago and then moved out. Having lived primarily in Margate and Ramsgate, I never really got a chance to live in Broadstairs but I always wanted to. So when we finally decided to look for a new house, Broadstairs became a focal point. That’s how we ended up in Broadstairs.
How did the idea of a toy shop come about?
Well, soon after Sebastian, my three and half year old was born, I started running an online toy shop. It is called the Canterbury Toy Shop and it specialises in traditional and wooden toys for preschool children. Not very long after moving down to Broadstairs, our next door neighbour informed us about this neighbourhood collectible shop going on sale. He knew I was already running an online toy shop and so he started throwing ideas about what could the space be used for. We then came up with an idea of opening a new toy shop in here between the all of us.
Is it difficult setting up your first business?
As mentioned, we were meant to take over this place in partnership with our neighbours. But when we looked into the finances and the state of the shop, we realised that it was never going to work and that there was too much risk involved. Our neighbour finally decided that they lack experience and wouldn’t want to take the risk. We revisited the shop again just before Christmas and had talks between us, ultimately deciding to go ahead with the project alone. Having said that we couldn’t get around the problem that the lady from the previous shop would only give the lease on the shop to somebody who would also take her entire stock. So now unfortunately we are stuck with £1,000 worth of doll houses, which I will try and sell online. But now atleast we’ve got a deal where we have all the stock (so be it) but at a price that we think is far more reasonable given the huge risks involved.
How is your shop different from the Doll’s House and if their finances were bad, why do you think your idea will do better?
Theirs was more for an collector’s market for adult collectors – which I believe pretty strongly is an online market. I don’t think serious collectors, or many of them, are wandering around the High Street to stumble upon your shop. Most of them are buying online unless they don’t have internet.
We are going to carry on doing what we have always done, which is targeting preschool children with really good quality toys. We will be working predominantly with British companies, having quite an environmentally friendly head on our shoulders by making sure that the wood for any wooden toys that we sell are sourced from renewable forests, also that painted toys for example use water based paints and not chemical based etc. So we are going to take that kind of eco-friendly stance.
Also, one of the reasons why we think we would succeed is because we don’t have any direct competition. In the entire Isle of Thanet there are shops selling toys but there is not a single independent toy-only shop. The only other shop that does toys is Smiths at Westwood Cross but that is an altogether different kind of shop compared to ours. We do not do figurines, electronic toys , Barbies, Disney toys etc and we are never going to go that route. Also, they don’t sell wooden railway sets whereas we are going to have big wooden railway sets. I don’t really consider them competition.
What about the name? Are you going to change the name and when do you plan to open the shop?
We will keep the original name of the shop, Small World, because it has been there for a long time. We will make changes to the name of our website to go along with the shop name. We were going to open it by the Easter holidays but then there is a lot of work to do, we need first to work on the building itself before we even set up a shop. But we are still aiming for the 10th of May. It is not set in stone, obviously no one can predict what is going to happen between now and then . But we are trying our best to open it by the first week of May, 2014.
You mentioned there is a lot of work to do? If I am not wrong you have been discovering some interesting history about this place since the repair work started?
We were told quite early on by a neighbour that she remembered the shop as a butchers in the 60’s. My favourite anecdote has been that a dog living all of the way out on Dumpton Park Drive used to get out of his house every morning and safely make the journey down to the butcher’s where he’d wait on the corner for a bone to take home! When we took some of the plaster board down from the walls we discovered several receipts hidden behind, one from the butchers themselves, which appeared to be for someone’s Christmas meat but we can’t quite read the date, and another from a company in Brighton who provided the butcher’s with tripe. They were “professional tripe dressers” though, and I doubt that that company still exists!
When pulling back layers of shop we’ve now uncovered the tiled walls that would have been there when the shop was used by the butcher. I had hoped to keep at least a few of these up, to honour the shop’s heritage, but unfortunately after seeking some advice from local tilers we’ve been told that the tiling wouldn’t be safe, so it has to come down. When we pulled the top off of the window displays that had been used by the doll’s house shop we also found the tiled counters from the butchers shop. Unfortunately these are no good to us, as they’re sloping, to display meat to passers by – not that handy for toys though! Just this week we’ve been pulling up various layers of flooring to uncover the shop’s original floorboards, and have uncovered several rolled up local newspapers from 1976, the adverts alone are an interesting insight in to 1970’s Thanet!
Local people have been brilliant about coming forward with their memories of the shop, so far we know that after the butcher’s closed the shop has closed and reopened as a second hand shop, a ladies dress shop, a computer repair shop, a furniture shop, a fishing tackle shop, and of course, the dolls house shop, (not necessarily in that order!) Many people also reminisce about the house opposite our shop, which apparently had a huge number of budgies in the basement, flying about beneath the grills that were set in the footpath. It would seem that peering through the grill at the subterranean birds was a genuine and regular day out for many Thanet children!
How do you keep your focus on your aspiration without being distracted by your family life? What would be your word of advice to all the readers or aspiring business owners out there?
Well, it is easy to lose focus. Definitely! But I have always made an effort to surround myself with people, who might not have the same ambitions but people who are doing something. I think although not necessarily from a competitive point of view but just being around such people inspires you to do your work better. I mean most of my friends are mothers but they are all doing their own thing, and I have always been drawn to such people. So for example, even when I am at a mummy group, I find myself chatting with a parent who is doing something interesting.
It’s all about making that effort. You might not even like everybody you meet, but it is good for business networking. But you might meet one interesting, inspiring person out of twenty who might become your friend. It can be tedious but it is all worth it in the end.
It is very easy to just do house work, send the kids to school, shut the door behind you and that’s the end. But in a small place like Broadstairs, there is a community out there if you find one. There is so much to get involved in, that if you do go out you will find people who are doing interesting things or have interesting ideas.
How do you balance work, home and parenthood?
I wouldn’t be able to do it without having childcare. So when the shop is up and running, Seb will have to go to nursery five days a week. For some people that’s not how they want to bring up their kids and that’s absolutely fine. Some people just don’t have the luxury to afford it and I sympathise with that. Childcare is expensive!
As a working mother, do you think you miss out on any quality time with your son?
No. Well, Seb started nursery twice a week since he was 7 months old and then gradually we built that up to 3 days a week and as I was saying come Easter he will be doing 5 days a week. I don’t think I have missed out because, when we are together at home, it is quality time we have together and we make the most of it. It works for us!
March celebrates International Womens’ Day, but it isn’t all well for so many women out there. What do you think is the biggest problem women are facing today?
In the UK, I would probably say it is finding that work-life balance for those people who want one as opposed to people who don’t. I have friends who have pumped themselves into a very domestic life and they absolutely love it. And that’s their calling and it great if they are happy with that.
But for those who really want to work I think, being able to find work- life balance when you take in to account the cost of child care when their children start school is crippling for some people.
There are huge number of women in the UK who are bringing up children on their own and for them obviously the idea of being able to dedicate themselves to something maybe as much as I have towards the shop whilst affording childcare and being around for their children is difficult.
So yes being able to get support for a decent work -life balance is very difficult because of lack of childcare (for some it simply doesn’t exist), within companies being able to get flexible hours etc. There is a lack of encouragement I think.
I don’t want to be all gloom and doom but I think a lot of womens’ issues are being recognised. I mean there are a lot of countries that do worse than us and some do better. So there is always scope for improvement. I think we are getting there!
When I met Ashleigh today, a lot of visitors popped in to say hello and asked the same sort of question as to when is the shop opening etc to which she joked and said, “I did think of a poster on the window explaining the most frequently asked questions.” I hope some of the answers to so many curious questions can be found in this interview. Good luck Ashleigh, we shall all look forward to your toy shop.