Cate Gilpin opened her Brisbane retail space, Brown’s General Store, in August 2017 but she had been dreaming of it for a long time.
“I have always loved the experience of good quality retail, and I feel when it’s done well it’s an artistic/gallery experience,” she said. “[Gilpin’s husband] Nick and I lived in New York in 2012-2013 and I loved the beautiful, bespoke shops there, and then we travelled through Europe and found such glorious little havens of prettiness in Barcelona, Paris and Milan, it inspired me to do the same.”
Brown’s, which is a reference to Gilpin’s maiden name, has quite an understated fitout with lots of wood and greenery, leaving space for the beautiful pieces on show to star as the main attractions. This includes handmade clay jewellery from Emily Green, Marcello Neckwear men’s socks, Nylund leatherwear, Kindling clothing and Will and Bear hats.
Alongside the fashion and accessories ranges are prints from Elizabeth Barnett, Studio Enti and Brush and Wheel ceramics, and Halcyon Nights babywear. Despite the diverse range, one thing the products all have in common is they fit with Gilpin’s belief that retail isn’t just about selling product, but about connecting people to well-made objects.
“We view the business as being about us making a living by supporting others to make a living, and doing this in an ethical, fair and locally-focused way,” she said. “We believe that retail should be a pleasurable experience, and isn’t just about more ‘stuff’ but about connection to unique, well-made things that are not based on other people’s oppression.”
This ‘conscious consumption’ approach to retailing means Gilpin only stocks items she feels passionately about, resulting in a product range that fits together effortlessly. “These are brands I loved on Instagram, or that friends recommended to me, and then I’d look into the ethics of each brand and see if they were a good fit for us, and go from there.”
Using simple wooden tables and shelves to display her products, Gilpin takes an instinctive approach to visual merchandising. “My fundamental belief is that beautiful, well-crafted items look good with other beautiful, well-crafted items.
“I can’t really articulate my approach. It is simply I choose beautiful pieces [to stock] and I find that when you choose special things of good quality, they just work together.”
A background in the arts sector has equipped Gilpin with many skills she can use in her new venture, and she envisions Brown’s as not just a store but as a gallery and community space.
Brown’s also offers extra services aimed to make customers’ lives easier and mimic the convenience of online. This includes a gift box service, where for $10 Gilpin will beautifully wrap an item and include a handwritten card. “Rather than do pre-packaged gift boxes we thought that this allowed our clients more choice,” she said.
She also works with customers to develop a ‘gift list’ for the year. Shoppers pay upfront and Gilpin then organises and sends their gifts for the next 12 months, meaning they don’t need to worry about forgetting a birthday or celebration again.
Then there’s the speed racer pick up service, which was born out of a problem many of her friends with children were facing. “A big issue that lots of my mum friends in particular have is they need to buy a gift, but they don’t need it delivered, but they find it impossible to get out of the car to go into the shop to pick up the gift because they have three kids strapped in the car and can’t get them all out.
“Therefore, I’m happy for people to either order online and select ‘in-store pickup’ or ask me to put together a gift, and then they call when they’re pulling up outside and I’ll run the purchase out to the car for them—speed racer style.”
Although she has lots of knowledge to draw on, and a husband with over ten years’ experience running an IT consulting company working alongside her, there will always be a learning curve when starting a business, not to mention unexpected surprises that pop up along the way.
In fact the biggest challenge hasn’t actually been opening the shop, but the work-life juggle that comes with being the parents of a small child and running a business. “[Since opening] I have been sick a couple of times and my son, who is three, has been sick a couple of times. That’s hard; we are in a bit of a bind with a business this small when we are sick.”
The lessons they have learnt so far include ones every retailer can relate to. “Stay on top of the stock; stock management is the key. And social media is essential—good social media—reflective of your brand and who you are.”
At the time of writing Brown’s is about five months old and Gilpin is really enjoying the early days. “Opening Brown’s has been a long-held dream of mine… I love being here, I love the beautiful stock, I love the space, I love meeting people, I love the flexibility of it, I love our stockists—I’m just absolutely enamoured with it all.”