Fiona Atkins opened her antiques, art and modern ceramics shop, Town House Spitalfields, in 2002, in the heart of some of London’s most beautiful Georgian architecture. The building in Fournier Street has a varied and interesting history, and most notably was home to Huguenot silk weavers who lived there until about 1820. The French Huguenot refugee community had come to London from France in the 1700’s, and their fortunes were closely linked to the silk weaving industry. The design of the houses often had large attic windows with tiny attached frames, which helped to let in maximum light for the master craftsmen. The house was then acquired by two doctors, (a father and son), who lived there for 50 years, until the 1870’s, and built what is now the rear gallery as their surgery. A succession of people and businesses followed until Fiona acquired the building in 2000. Fiona also owns and rents the apartment above her shop for those who would like to spend time staying in this period home, and exploring this historical area (further details here).
Why did you open Town House Spitalfields? My parents were antique dealers and I went into partnership with them in 1984 doing antique fairs, including Olympia. I didn’t like the fact that you can’t really create the space you want at fairs, or get to know your clients, so I decided to open a shop. I fell in love with the building in Spitalfields which was originally built in 1721 and retains many original features – I knew it would be perfect for what I wanted to do.
Who designed the space? It was virtually derelict, Spitalfields was not somewhere people wanted to live or shop, so the area and the buildings were very run-down. As a result it took over two years to restore; it would not have been possible without the architect Jeremy Amos who oversaw the design and structural repairs, and I was responsible for the interior finishing.
What is Town House Spitalfields best known for? The shop is probably best known for the exhibitions we hold several times a year and the 20th century British art, but we’re also well known for our coffee and cakes, which we bake!
Where do you source your product? It takes a lot of hunting to find things that I think are interesting and worth having in the shop. The antiques and 20th century paintings I find through my connections and sometimes at auction, and the contemporary potters and artists are all people I have found one way or another. I always go to meet them though, talking to people and seeing how they work is very important to me.
What makes your shop unique? Although very few people visited Spitalfields when I opened in 2002, it has since become very well known for it’s early Georgian buildings, and it’s varied history as the destination for successive waves of immigrants from the early 18th century onwards. So, of course, it’s the area and the Georgian building that make the shop unique, but I also have lovely staff who make everyone feel welcome.
Who are your customers? It makes me happy that I have customers ranging in age from teenagers to people in their eighties, from all cultural backgrounds and from all over the world. Everyone seems to be drawn to the very domestic feel of the interior.
Fiona Atkins, shopkeeper at Town House Spitalfields
Who or what inspires you? I’m fascinated by shops of all shapes and sizes, and inspired by some of the amazingly clever ideas other shopkeepers have. I’m very visual, so I always respond to design, colour, and the feel of something in my hand.
Before I was a shopkeeper, I was…involved in project management of submarine cable systems!
The hardest lesson learned in starting a business? I’m naturally cautious, so the hardest thing for me was learning to be brave and take risks.
What tasks do you like to delegate? Admin, bookkeeping and ordering supplies! But I also encourage people to get involved in projects and events that interest them, so I try not to delegate just the boring bits.
The best lesson you have learned opening a shop? We sell a confusing range of old and new things at a wide range of prices, and I soon realised that the way products are displayed in the shop needs to be very clear, so that people feel relaxed and happy about moving through the different areas. Similar types of items, within a similar price range, are grouped together, so that the different rooms all have a different, but clear identity.
What would be your advice for anyone wanting to open a shop? If you’re going to open a shop you need to be passionate about what you’re doing as you’re going to be thinking about it 24/7!
Which famous person would you like to visit your shop? This is cheating a bit, but if I can choose anyone I’d like, then one of the mid-twentieth century British artists, so that I could ask them about their work; I’d have to flip a coin to choose between Ben Nicholson and Stanley Spencer.
If you weren’t a shopkeeper you would be…with hindsight, I would also liked to have been a set designer.
What is your perfect day off? My perfect day off would be one with no time constraints at all and nothing arranged. So I’d wake up, look out the window and decide what I wanted to do that day with complete freedom and no emails! Depending on the weather I’d probably choose an exhibition or garden to visit followed by lunch at a favourite restaurant – but the real pleasure would be in not having anything planned for the day, so that my time was my own to do whatever I liked!
Can you share your five favourite shops? The pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence has to top this list. I shall never forget the first visit when we stumbled upon it on holiday, but all their shops are lovely and I’m hooked on their bath salts. I found the Haeckels shop in Margate inspirational too. I saw it when it first opened: the concept was so different and the store so beautiful that I came away with my head buzzing with ideas. The de Le Cuona shop in Walton Street makes me feel the same way, the fabrics there are so amazing, I’ve used them at home and for the shop. Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street is another favourite, the perfect design and feel of the books just makes you want to sit down in the shop and start reading. Finally, Leila’s Shop in Calvert Avenue because of its ethos. Leila finds the best fruit, vegetables and produce, and the shop is always a pleasure to visit because what’s in it is so good and has been so carefully chosen. I suppose that’s what sums all these shops up: it’s not just the presentation, but also the thought behind it.
What is you favourite neighbourhood restaurant? St John Bread and Wine on Commercial Street, I love the informal atmosphere and that you can have as much or as little as you like and all delicious.
I wish I could…open a branch of Town House in New York!
On the Future of Retail
“There has been a revolution in the way we shop, but it’s not only about how we order and pay and whether we do it online or not, I think our attitudes to shopping have changed too. It’s easier to buy all the standard things online when you know you can have them the next day, even the same day now. That’s fairly boring though, so I think going round the shops is increasingly being seen as entertainment and a source of inspiration and creativity. So the challenge is to create a unique environment with interesting things – and to get people through the door!”
5 Fournier St., Spitalfields, London
Words & Photos by Stephanie Bateman Sweet, The Lifestyle Editor