In the autumn of 1993 you could say that I had reached something of a crossroads. Aged 25, I had spent the years since my A levels restlessly travelling and working around the world. I had tended bars in Hong Kong, worked the fairgrounds in Australia, and had travelled the Yucatan as the percussionist in a Mariachi band. I had sold health drinks door to door in New York, and dispensed pharmaceuticals in a Calcutta street clinic. I gardened in California and had crewed racing yachts in the South China Sea. I had been around the world twice, hitch hiked from Acapulco to Vancouver, slept rough in LA, and seen and done many things that I could not possibly write about.
But I had no idea what I ought to be doing, and I had not cut my hair for nearly five years.
Returned home for the first time in years, I picked apples in Essex that autumn to pass the time. And it was whilst harvesting that the idea came to me to import some of the rainsticks which I had first seen in California earlier that year.
I have heard it said that every successful business needs a good piece of luck. Mine was to have picked a product that seemed to fly off the shelves. I started to sell them in Camden Market and was soon – helped by skills learnt in New York – knocking on shop doors. My first outlet was in the Kings Road on SOR…but by the end of the first year I had around 20 shops and it was all going great! But my old habits did not die that easily and instead of building on that success I disappeared to India for 6 months and then moved into a caravan in Devon with no phone to practice windsurfing. Rainstick Trading hung on by a thread – if there was no wind then I might take my camper van into Exeter or Plymouth and flog a few sticks, but my true priority was the wild sea off Burgh Island.
But I suppose I had to grow up at some time, and whilst walking the cliffs of South Devon I began to picture in my mind what I wanted. I saw a small company with a really beautiful collection of ethnic musical instruments in a lovely warehouse who-knows-where. This envisioning has underpinned everything that I have done, I would really recommend it to anyone as a method to overcome obstacles and reach life goals.
Nowadays there are four of us working in a great warehouse that the business owns in Suffolk. I write from a remote mountain village in Peru, where I have been to visit the workshop that produces our ocarinas. I travel, and find lovely things that we can wholesale. There are many practical criteria that suppliers must meet to trade with us- rule number 1 is that it has to be profitable! We have to be able to communicate, ideally products must be something that can be repeated and developed or grown into the future. They ought to be handmade and sustainable. They should be functional or beautiful. They should help to sustain communities. Yet we keep the needs of our shops firmly in mind regarding colours, quality and price. But there is no blueprint or tickboxing, I allow myself the freedom to trade with all kinds of different people in all kinds of different ways. That is why we have ended up importing from over 15 countries, working both with suppliers who are able to deliver us an entire container and the smallest of outfits who maybe only produce one or two lovely things part time. Some suppliers have grown and prospered with us, with others we have parted ways.
Last week I stumbled upon an Indian woman selling bags in the market. Dressed in native attire, her work immediately stood out from the massed produced and often imported “handicrafts” that were also on offer. I spoke to her at length and heard how she made everything herself by hand in her house where she lived with her husband and six children. I bought her entire stock of 40 bags, promising to call to buy more if our beloved customers like them. The facts that she has never exported anything and does not have a bank account are hurdles that I am prepared to overcome, I explained to her how to send them and bid her farewell. I paid for everything in cash and I am sure she will not let me down.
And of the future? Tomorrow I am taking a taxi I hope to a village in Ecuador to meet some producers of dreamcatchers. Will we work together? I do not know, but I will try and continue to be a link in a happy trade joining small producers with a large Western market.