work-life balance

Ever since I began buying and selling antiques in the mid seventies, it’s been part of my life and not just a job. The hard beauty of visual things that shout ‘look at me’ are easy to appreciate, but my heart belongs to tactile treasures that want to be touched and felt. The words Faded Grandeur are my muse and my favourite items are those showing signs of having lived a life. If the choice was a between a skilfully and needfully darned silk stocking, and a collectable porcelain dish, the tat would win every time. I specialise in selling antique and vintage fabrics, quirky fashion and timeworn home accessories to my girlie customers, and at the other end of the scale I cannot resist the lure of architectural pieces; weathered garden stoneware, ironwork with original chippy paint. . .you get the picture. We once sold two rustic beehives to the set designers on a Harry Potter movie!

Over the years, I had bricks-and-mortar shops, but mostly sold at large London antique markets. Antique dealing is a tough game, full of knocks and surprises and the need to think quickly, but most of all, it’s full of very early morning starts, and bleary eyes were the norm! My buyers were mainly London dealers finding things to tempt their own customers, and Americans and Japanese on overseas buying jaunts. Being able to source items at home here in Dorset, and make occasional trips from our local ferry port to the French brocantes, meant I always had fresh stock to bring to market. As cancer came and went, business-breaks were unavoidable. Surgery often meant it was enough that I simply survived the day, but recuperation brought the benefit of time to potter about, re-framing old pictures, repairing needlework and turning unloved scraps of cloth into patchwork covers. Chemotherapy dictated energy levels, but good days meant a trip to the local fleamarket was still possible, and buying a few pieces to re-sell gave me back the sense of normality that illness loves to eliminate. My horse and my work have always provided stability; the two things that need attention every day and allow respite from the chattering voice of cancer.

One Tuesday in September the bottom fell out of the world as two towers crashed to the ground. We all know how we felt that day; we may have forgotten what we did and said, but how we felt will remain forever. The only certainty was uncertainty, and we plodded through each new day failing to process the calamitous crescendo of events. Trying to earn a living in such circumstances seemed an obscene triviality; overseas buyers had stopped travelling so my business simply stopped. I had plenty of stock but with no buyers coming to us, I took a leap of faith and went to them; I switched my business on-line to the newly created UK eBay. I must mention here that I’d never touched a computer, so I asked a savvy friend to buy me the set-up and then I taught myself how to use it; my first hurdle was to find the ON switch!

I had recently bought a stack of early 1900s postcards, and in honour of my favourite, an old Steiff teddy bear with his toy bunny friend, we used the eBay ID Ted and Bunny as a trading name. eBay proved incredible, and I spent days glued to the computer in a cycle of photographing, listing, packing and shipping my inventory. There were only a few of us selling vintage fabrics in those days, and I’m still in touch with my early compatriots. Life had changed, my favoured workwear was now pyjamas, and my jetlagged appearance was less from driving miles on the motorway to antique fairs, and more from late nights celebrating auctions finishing. For me, an unexpected bonus of selling on the internet was that as cancer diagnoses and treatment came and went, I could continue working as best I could, no-one ever knew, and I could bury my feelings in work, obliterating worries and fears with the rhythm of writing item descriptions.

Next to the rural church and farm shop behind our house is a very picturesque village hall, which was originally a pre WW1 scout hut. Driving past it each day on the Post Office run, I mused what a wonderful venue it make to hold a vintage fair. In the middle of the night (when all my best ideas happen), I thought of the title Vintage at the Village Hall, and we all know that once you have a name, you have a project; the next morning Fab Fairs was born and I started a new career as an events organiser. Later that afternoon as Mark and I stood inside the village hall, I visualised creating the fair I would most want to sell at, with carefully curated wares providing a cross-section of vintage and antique finds, together with contemporary crafts from artisan designer-makers. Everything must be affordable, the sellers must be people who would interact with the public, and there would be an old-fashioned tearoom with mismatched vintage chinaware and homebaked cakes. I’d sold at enough fairs to know the highs and pitfalls, and if I built it I knew They Would Come. The only hiccup was that the hall was booked for events every Saturday. No problem, I would hold the fair on a Monday; it was an unheard-of idea but hey, why not?

My first task was a publicity blog to tempt sellers and buyers. At that time, there was a real blogspot family of vintage traders, with everyone sharing posts and links to each other’s businesses, and the response was amazing. Then I sent press releases to the local papers, and spent weeks visiting local businesses with printed flyers. As the blog grew I moved it to facebook, which I felt was more accessible, and gave a mention to everyone who helped us by taking flyers, displaying posters etc. It was a hard slog and I made it up as I went along, but I loved it and the fairs we held at the village hall were legendary. We decked the hall in flags and bunting so it looked like a Victory party in wartime England, and buyers who arrived to queue an hour before opening were given free cups of hot tea. Traffic queues formed two miles along the road, stalls sold out of wares, and my homebaked lavender muffins were an instant hit. A local newspaper reporter came to take photos, but couldn’t fight through the throngs of people, so I had to email him photos the next day! My dream came true, but eventually and with much sadness, we outgrew the premises; I had a huge waiting list of potential stallholders, visitor parking was a nightmare and it was time to find a bigger venue.

Our nearby Georgian town of Blandford Forum has a splendidly large Corn Exchange building, steeped in the history of historical gatherings. We had space for fifty stalls, and we moved the Monday fair there with seamless success. Oh, how that building loved the bustle, the glamour and the spectacle of antique beauty; it literally absorbed the heady atmosphere and shone with renewed purpose. I enlisted help from all the local shops to advertise and promote the event; there were banners, posters and flyers displayed everywhere! In return, I said I would get out-of-town buyers to visit the shops, and we disbanded our own tearoom so people would filter out to the town coffee houses. They truly were glory days and I wish I could still be living them but alas, stage 4 cancer arrived and once again, business stopped. I ran the final fair while having radiotherapy on my neck, because I didn’t want to disappoint everyone by cancelling, but it was a silly thing to do and once the adreline dropped so did I! In the spirit of giving, I packaged the fair, detailed the day-by-day process and bequeathed it to an interested friend, along with introductions to journalists, online sites and other fair organisers with whom I worked so well. She said it was too much work, and discarded my gift with disdain. Bittersweet memories.

These days I still buy and sell within restrained boundaries. I have an Etsy shop to serve my distant contacts, and a little bricks-and-mortar Vintage Barn shop, set in the grounds of a country Garden Centre adjoining the stunning Cranborne Manor House, ten miles from home.

I’ve never been very keen on facebook; I have friends whom I talk with, and see, and I like them without the constant need to give a thumbs-up. A facebook profile has always been useful for business contacts, but (this blog aside) I’m not a show-and-tell person. Back in the days of the Village Hall blog, I came across someone who mentioned Anna Blake’s training, and Anna was one of the first fb pages I followed. From devouring every word she published, I jumped at the chance to join Anna’s fledgling writing group; I’ve always enjoyed writing, it was my best subject at school (despite horses being my only topic) and I’d loved composing the business blog and publicity copy. What I hadn’t realised is how liberating writing can be, how it aids processing and clarifying a busy mind. Anna and the writing group bore the brunt of my gruesomely cathartic prose with patience and encouragement, as I gradually found a way to express myself that was less brutal on the reader. And here I am, some years later, confident enough to share my experiences in a weekly blog, without sacrificing my integrity for the drama that is cancer. You see, cancer has interrupted me for too long so it is important now that I speak directly, and not let the disease shout me down; we all want to be heard, but this is my voice.

12 thoughts on “work-life balance

  1. Hi Elaine. Thank you so much for sharing your story . This is the 2nd consecutive blog of yours to magically appear in my email, so maybe WordPress finally acknowledged my requests to receive your blog.

    You write so well and clearly of difficult matters, and somehow manage to strike just the right chord. It’s always a treat to find your writing here or on the Barn writing page.


  2. As soon as I saw the postcard of Ted and Bunny the memories of the old blogging days came flooding back. We were all a bit different back then, with different rough edges and unpolished dreams. So much has changed, so much has stayed the same, yet here were are … moving ever onwards.


    1. “So much has changed, so much has stayed the same, yet here were are … moving ever onwards”.
      never a truer word written Sue, it seems like such a long time ago and yet it was what…ten years?
      How different we were, how different the world was.


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