Ten years and counting …
Maisie & Mac, the contemporary gift shop and gallery underneath the Burgh Chambers in Cupar, has celebrated its 10th birthday. We caught up with owner, Alison Strachan, to find out more …
When the ‘To Let’ sign went up on the building in late 2010, it caught Alison’s eye. She explains: “As a local artist and designer, I had been thinking for some time about giving up my part time employment with a local authority to concentrate full time on an art career.”
Alison had been a social worker for over 20 years, working in child protection training latterly and combined it with making artwork. She adds: “I had years of experience as an exhibitor in other people’s galleries and at trade fairs alongside fabulously talented makers from all over the UK. And as the originator and, at that time, one of the organisers of the annual Open Studios North Fife event, I had lots of contacts and knew that the local area was home to many professional artists and makers.”
Alison saw the opportunity: “Cupar had excellent jewellers and a couple of shops that sold gifts, but there was no gallery or shop dedicated to British Contemporary Craft in the area.” She adds: “The building has seven deep window sills facing two main thoroughfares and was crying out to be used in a way that would maximise their potential – and so the idea for Maisie & Mac was born!”
Follow your heart
She did her research and believed there was a market for the kind of products she wanted to sell. She had the vision to turn the place into a destination for those interested in individually-made and quirky things with a back story. The decision to leave a well paid and secure job was also partly influenced by a free ‘Introduction to a Coaching’ course that year: “Many of the exercises we did forced me to consider what was holding me back from trying something new and from following my heart!”
The gallery and award winning shop was set up in 2011 across the ground and basement floors at 1-3 St Catherine Street.
Alison has delivered on her vision – focusing on sourcing art & contemporary craft from artists and makers from all over the UK, concentrating on stocking work not available elsewhere in the local area. She explains: “The range of paintings, prints, textiles, ceramics, glass, jewellery, metal & woodwork is complemented by ethically sourced quirky gifts and beautiful homeware from larger UK companies and social enterprises & artisans abroad.”
Customers from over the last decade have grown to love and rely on the shop for all manner of fab gifts – from handmade soaps, candles and mugs, to scarves, bags, lamps, throws, mirrors and clocks. They sit in eclectic but coherent and carefully curated display – alongside changing exhibitions of artwork.
Alison says: “Many thought it was madness to open such a specialised business, in a recession, in a small market town in what is a largely rural area!” However, the prime spot on the A91 – visible to those travelling to and from St Andrews and Dundee – has become a destination for those who live or work in the town and those who make a special trip from elsewhere in Fife, Edinburgh and beyond.
What she didn’t foresee was the heartfelt concern customers have expressed for the success of the business, not just under Covid restrictions, but previously when trade was interrupted by substantial pavement works – and when the building was covered in scaffolding to facilitate the renovation of the Burgh Chambers above into a unique holiday let. Alison takes time to acknowledge and thank her customers, saying: “The business is supported by a very loyal clientele who are vocal in their support – it’s humbling and at times overwhelming.” She adds: “Not a day goes by without a wonderfully uplifting remark – ‘this is just what the town needed’, ‘it’s great to see so many ‘different’ things’, ‘what did we do before Maisie & Mac?’.”
And in 2018, Maisie & Mac opened a second shop in the centre of Dundee.
Ten years on from the start in Cupar, Alison’s business is a valued part of the community. She says: “Customers appreciate the friendly atmosphere where suggestions, advice and a laugh are freely available alongside knowledge of the products we sell makers.” She says that it is a source of pride that she is able to support individual makers of high quality items while demonstrating to customers that such items are often no more expensive than mass produced, less well designed items – and that Maisie & Mac can match or better the internet on price!
The decision not to have an e-commerce site for the shop was deliberate, but it is one Alison continually questions! She says: “So much of what we sell is individual, so anything illustrated online may result in the customer receiving something slightly different … colour and expression differences.” She adds: “A website full of the more commercially produced items we sell would not truly represent what the shop is about. So much of what we sell needs to be seen in detail, touched, appreciated in person and our customers are very vocal about ‘the experience’ … they get ideas for gifts they would not otherwise have thought of, enjoy the process of looking at beautiful things and being able to speak to staff who can tell them about the makers and discuss anything from the weather to suggestions for local activities and recommendations of other local businesses.”
The pandemic has brought this debate much further to the fore and is an ongoing consideration. Alison has done what she can to meet the demand for online shopping saying: “I have provided a delivery/click and collect service when allowed throughout the lockdowns. Sales have come through Facebook posts, from emails from regular customers asking me to make gift suggestions as well as through the CuparClicks site, a new initiative by CuparNow, the town’s Digital Improvement District.”
Trading through lockdowns …
Alison has been able to post out directly to gift recipients – enclosing cards with customer messages free of charge … appreciated very much in the first lockdown, particularly when getting to the post office was tricky for some. Alison adds: “Social media has been key to keeping in touch with customers and during the most recent lockdown I have put in place literal window shopping … making displays with a notice about how to purchase items. This has worked well – customers take a photo of the item and of the buying instructions on their way past and get in touch.”
And what of the impact of Covid? Alison says: “I have been fortunate to have been able to access government grant support as a self employed person with two non-domestic rate paying premises which met the criteria. The furlough scheme has also been vital in terms of keeping my eight staff in employment.”
Alison adds: “When we reopened at the end of June last year, our loyal clientele in Cupar came flooding back … making it clear they wanted to support local business and telling us they had missed us! As a small town I think Cupar bounced back more quickly than larger places such as Dundee where I have my other shop. People had been used to going about to the butchers and other essential shops nearby so coming back to us wasn’t such a big deal. Also, we’re well established there. Sales in the run up to Christmas were the best yet … not entirely making up for the months we have been shut but certainly healthy and very encouraging.”
The next decade?
The next 10 years will see Alison building on what she and her team have created … constantly listening to customers so that she can make good buying decisions and always looking out for new and exciting makers and products. Parts of the building will be updated and maybe an e-commerce site will be inevitable.
She feels confident for the future: “I am proud to have made it to 10 years and still love what I do. I am humbled by how invested many of our customers are in the continued success of the business. I’m proud that it has been seen as a really positive addition to Cupar since the early days. Crucial to that success is customer service and a selection of products which customers constantly tell us is ‘different’ to what they can source elsewhere.”
She adds: “I am passionate about the promotion of individually designed and beautifully made items which are often no more expensive than their poorly designed mass produced counterparts. I have forgotten over the years how brave it felt to give up my job to open a specialised retail space in a small town in a recession! It feels like many of our customers in Cupar are now friends and so many describe themselves as ‘fans’. Some have been asking whether we are having shop jute bags printed again (we are) .. having used the ones we got made and gave away on our first birthday constantly they now need replacing!”
The party can wait!
Under normal circumstances, Alison would be hosting a party at the shop with drinks, nibbles and giveaways, but under current restrictions that is not possible. “I will put up our new exhibition in the downstairs gallery – works by Nichola Martin, Lynsey Ewan, Pat Holland & Ian Ledward – and promote it online until people can come in to see it when we are allowed to reopen on 26th April. I will also have a window display for the 10th anniversary with pictures of the shop during renovation and when it was very sparsely stocked in the early days. There will also be competitions to win vouchers and product giveaways when we reopen. Banners & balloons will feature at some point too!”
Follow Maisie & Mac on Facebook. The shop and gallery’s website can be found via this link. You will also find the shop on CuparClicks.
You can email Alison here – and call the shop on 01334 656523. And when the shops re-open, you can find them at 1-3 St Catherine Street – ‘neath the iconic Burgh Chambers dome.
Thanks for reading!