QUESTION. Which York shop opened on a Wednesday, only to close the very next day, but could yet run for a year?
The answer is Gerard Hobson Printmaker, in the old Bulmers building just beyond the corner where Monk Bar turns into Lord Mayor’s Walk.
Linocut artist Gerard was rudely interrupted by Lockdown 2’s killjoy claw tapping on his shoulder, but the lights illuminating his lampshades are still on: a beacon to the boxing hares in this former zoologist’s beautifully decorated window display and the walls beyond with their abundant bursts of wildlife and nature in myriad forms: prints; cut-outs; mugs; tea towels; cushions; cards and more.
“Having planned to open on November 4, before the new measures were then announced, I had to put all my efforts into opening for one day before lockdown,” says Gerard, a regular participant in York Open Studios at his Clifton home studio.
“Over the next month, I’m using the shop [frontage] as a means of getting myself known to a wider audience in York and continuing to sell my art and products online.
“We’re operating a click-and-collect service where people can email me with enquiries or orders and they can either pick up from the shop on a certain day – probably Saturdays – or we’re doing free deliveries on orders over £15 in a ten-mile radius from York.”
Bringing the outdoors inside, Gerard’s work is full of joy: a joyfulness that permeates his decision to go ahead with his shop launch. “Although the timing in these matters was not perfect, I decided to open a shop in York against the tide of shop closures,” he says.
“I had a fantastic day on the Wednesday opening and am very positive about what this next month might bring.”
So much so that in the city with the highest net loss of chain-stores outlets in the UK in the first half of 2020 (55 in total), Gerard ponders: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if empty shops could be used by independent businesses for this period up to Christmas to run their businesses out of.
“York could become alive with shop-window displays offering click and collect or home deliveries.”
Here Gerard Hobson answers Charles Hutchinson’s questions on opening shops in Covid times, window shopping, York’s city-centre future and his plans for 2021.
What prompted your decision to go against the tide by opening a shop at this difficult time, Gerard?
“York is a very small place and I happen to know the landlord of the old Bulmers building. He hadn’t any plans for the shops and asked me if I would like to use one of them to sell my art for a couple of months leading up to Christmas; with the idea that if it was a success, I could continue the lease into the new year.
“I had never thought of opening a shop before but thought it seemed like a great opportunity; especially with lots of shops closing in York, I thought I would buck the trend.”
How did you go about designing the shop and how does it contrast with your Open Studios and Christmas shows at your home and on a grand scale in the gallery, grounds and gardens of Beningbrough Hall earlier this year?
“When I first looked at the shop, a lot of work still needed doing to it. It hadn’t even got a floor. I liked the fact the back wall was just breeze blocks, which gave it a more industrial feel, which would work well as my work space. I didn’t want it to feel too polished or formal.
“I measured it up and then sourced pre-loved pieces of furniture in and around York. The exception was the shop counter. I know a chap who sells large slabs of wood, so I bought a piece of elm from him and made the counter base out of a large pallet.
“As an artist, it’s fantastic when someone says you can do what you like with the space – the perfect blank canvas!”
What did your learn from mounting the Winter Wildlife In Print exhibition at Beningbrough Hall? Was it a perfect union of location, theme and artform? Discuss...
“Working at Beningbrough was a huge learning curve for me. The National Trust were amazing at allowing me free rein to use the grounds as I wished to install the exhibition.
“There are times when you really doubt what you are doing and think the whole thing just isn’t going to work. So, it’s a huge relief when it eventually comes together and all the risks are worth it!”
You have been stoical about the Lockdown fates playing their hand. How will the shop operate through lockdown?
“The announcement of the second lockdown was quite sudden but opening for just one day was great. Lots of my regular customers and friends dropped in on the day and it went much better than I had anticipated.
“This year has been so uncertain, especially for the arts, so I didn’t get down about it closing. I thought, ‘I have this shop window; what a great opportunity to advertise my art’, so I’ve put a notice in the window to allow people to window shop and buy through my website.”
How long into the new year do you envisage running the shop? Is it a pop-up shop or might it turn into a longer-term enterprise?
“My brother-in-law, Robert Feather, had a jewellery shop on Gillygate for many years, so he’s been very helpful in giving advice. My plans are to run the shop for a year so that I can look at the bigger picture and work out the ebbs and flows of retail (of which I’m sure there are many!).”
How would you improve the city-centre streets of York?
“I find on the whole that York’s city centre has become a very sad shopping experience. When you go to other European countries, their towns and cities are full of interesting and diverse independent shops. Yet York has such great potential.
“Wouldn’t it be great to see lots of small independent shops, rather than lots of empty ones? It seems such a shame that high rental prices and business rates stop small businesses from setting up.”
What’s coming up for you in 2021?
“2021 looks like it could be a very exciting year for me. As well as running the shop, I’ll be taking part in York Open Studios in April, which is always an exciting event to be part of.
“I’m running a couple of linocut courses at the RHS Harlow Carr gardens in Harrogate, as well as several classes throughout the year from my house.
“I’ll be working on more indoor installations and artworks for Little Green Rascals Organic Day Nurseries in York. I’ve known the owner, Vanessa [Warn], for many years and we share the same passion that a child’s space, where they learn and grow, should be nurturing and have a homely feel about it.”
Busy, busy! Anything else?!
“I’m also planning an exhibition at York Hospital.”
And finally, putting on your salesman’s hat, sum up what can be bought from the shop…
“Everything for sale in the shop has my designs on it. Limited-edition hand-coloured prints; bird, animal, tree and mushroom cut-outs; cards; mugs; cushions; coasters; chopping boards; lampshades; tea towels; notepads and wrapping paper.
“There are even some handmade candles made locally. I didn’t make them but I did the logo on the box. Something for everyone, I hope.”