Text by Natalie Whittle. Main photograph by Paul Reich
Most evenings when I close The Outwith Agency, there is a little street fight.
It happens between me, small woman, and three shop shutters. Though a nudge is enough to send these heavy steel blinds rolling magically upwards when unlocked in the mornings, they sit grumpily and stiffly in their spring-loaded coil when, eight hours later, I try to catch them back down. Long minutes go by as I jump and swipe at them with my wooden shutter hook, one of the only things that came free with the lease at 14 Albert Road.
Unlike the postman, the passers-by and the agency’s customers, the shutters bring no novelty to the day and have not become my friends. But they do their job, and in their steely steadfast way, they have successfully outlived many businesses at this address. The question is: will they outlive mine?
Starting a new venture is hard, and when the venture is open to the street, the risk feels vivid. Failures are public. One door along from The Outwith Agency, there is a monument to abandoned retail, a permanently shuttered shopfront with the words ‘Cheap Shop’ flaking away into tatters on the wooden fascia. Shutters are protection from the unpredictable things that can happen overnight in Glasgow, and nothing more. I arrived one morning to find them sprayed with the tag ‘ELB’ – a not-outrageous graffito that still had to be pressure-hosed off by the council, shooting the greasy paint into the creases of the shutters and adding an extra layer of difficulty to the business of getting them open and shut.
In recent memory, at my spot on 14 Albert Road, the shutters rolled up for Pangia Unique, the hair salon that preceded me, leaving behind a row of very handy plug sockets for hairdryers, now used for laptops. Before that, the shutters served Abacus Accountants & Tax Advisers, who did well enough to move into bigger premises across the street. But before Abacus, there was a succession of businesses that flat-out didn’t work, and still attract a cautionary brown paper envelope trail from HMRC.
Though this site isn’t perfect, it took me months to find it, and I associate it with hopefulness.
The circuit I had found myself on when looking for a commercial lease was dispiriting for lots of reasons, pushing my mood ever downwards as I toured rooms that variously were crumbling, freezing, very dark, too tiny, vast, expensive, or palpably strange. (I’m talking about you, creepy brick basement in the Merchant City.) Perhaps the most off-putting thing that all these empty places had in common was the assortment of unopened utility bills stamped with the increasing threat-colours of increasingly unpaid bills, usually collected into a damp, mottled stack by the door. They were like angry letters sent to the deceased. They worried me.
But when it comes to businesses that live on the street, you have to ignore the near-inevitability of failure in order to get anywhere at all. Or better yet, make your street-level thing just one part of a spinning wheel that also turns through the bigger world of the internet, and does business there. This is the strategy applied by my neighbour Jim, another door up from the ghosts at Cheap Shop.
Jim is a former Londoner. He wears a flat cap and well made shirts under braces printed with fishing flies and mallard ducks. He has remained crisply dressed throughout the renovation of his shop, climbing ladders to paint the fascia a thick, glossy green, and climbing down at lunchtime to sit on a deckchair and read his book, when the weather has been good enough. Trading under the name Henry Adams, he has an online sales arm, but his Albert Road workshop will be a showcase for his silversmithing, keeping alive a trade that has been in his family since the early 1900s. In the window Jim has placed a threadbare stuffed hare next to a felt vitrine bust wearing a pretty gemstone necklace. This week he put the final touch in place, a sculpture of a silver hare that now perches alertly above the street on a little wooden shelf, as if ready to sprint across the rooftops.
The other day, as I wrestled my way through the shutter pantomime, Jim stopped to offer help. He diagnosed a lack of oil in the shutter coil, and also alerted me to the risk of a snapped spring bringing the shutters down and cutting off a finger, a thought that has stayed with me. ‘Did it make a difference?” he asked me today, having explained that he’d oiled the shutters for me.
I had to admit, they were as stubborn as ever. But the fact that he tried, and that he is also trying to make a business on the same street, gives me courage. Perhaps we can both aspire one day to the smooth motorised hum I hear in the mornings as the popular steak restaurant opens its automatic shutters over on the main drag of Victoria Road. Long live struggle of the side street. Here’s to making it work – without losing a finger.