Indie Oxford Interview: Babylon Trading
This week we catch up with Miri Allen, owner of Babylon Trading on the High Street in Oxford. We chat about her journey to becoming a indie store owner, and how customer choices influence the shop collections >>
Tell us about yourself, and how the shop started.
I founded Babylon 10 years ago, after working as a buyer in the Gift & Home industry for 20 years. I felt the retail offer in most of our High Streets is restricted to big chains offering the ‘same old’ in most places, effectively creating ‘Clone Towns’. Babylon was founded to create an eclectic Home, Gift & Lifestyle offer that tries to make a point of difference on the High Street, drawing products from small scale designers and makers that are not represented by the multinationals. There is such a wealth of talent and innovation in the gift and home industry that is just not out there as much as it should be. Oxford in particular, has a great indie culture which attracted me to the opportunity of acquiring a beautiful Grade 2 listed store on the historic High Street among the Colleges – I have just the best view out of the shop windows to inspire me every morning.
What does your role entail?
Like most small business owners, everything from sourcing the correct stock for the store, to displaying and promoting, and customer service on the shop floor.
Have you faced any challenges in your work, and what lessons have you learned along the way?
As we are a bit out of the way down the High Street, I have always tried to make the extra five minute walk worthwhile for our customers, by always trying to have interesting stock, great customer service & creative displays. I have learnt that in order to achieve this, you always have to change the stock with new ranges constantly coming in and paying attention to your customer preferences and tastes.
How do you plan the range for Babylon?
At the beginning of the year I will focus on a direction based on current market trends and our ethos. At the moment we are trying to increase our range of UK made products alongside the success of the Fair Trade companies from last year. Our range of Recycled Paper mirrors have also proven very popular, so we will be looking at increasing our recycled product range as well. But always, the range will be eclectic with emphasis on quality and design, and as our range of products is so wide from coffee tables to silver jewellery, I am sometimes just simply on the look out for great products that fit within this large scope, and this gives me great freedom in creating our retail offer.
Which are your favourite pieces at the moment?
It is a difficult choice, but I will have to go with a long term supplier who has just launched new additions to the range. Jo Downs, a Cornwall based fused glass designer that has created a range of affordable gifts from around £10, such as jewellery dishes and bowls. The products are unmistakably individual and made in a Cornish workshop, with the new Cosmic range just launched featuring wonderful deep blue glass tones picking up with the current astronomy trend.
What makes the shop unique, and who are your customers?
I hope that the cherry picking approach to buying, creating a truly independent business at heart makes us stand out. I also always strive to offer fair prices without compromising on quality. Our customer base is a bit like our product range, very diverse, including locals and visitors. We definitely have a repeat custom from locals which is lovely, in addition to university and other workers that are based around the city.
What are your plans for the coming season in the shop?
Our new products for Spring/Summer are going to have a strong natural theme, in terms of materials, and designs from flowers and plants to wildlife. For example, bee silver jewellery, Tree of Life wall art, organic wood edged tables, fern & peacock plant pots, and whale salad bowls to name a few.
Lastly, which are your favourite independent businesses in Oxford?
That is a really hard one as there are so many great independents…I can painfully narrow it to four.
Firstly Skogen, just around the corner is a great café to escape to at lunch time, with a good lunch selection and most importantly, hot cinnamon buns to die for.
I’ve also recently discovered Hamblin, an amazing bakery in East Oxford, where you get greeted by the owner and given lots of info regarding the amazing bread they make onsite, the place feels like a real indie, which I love.
Objects of Use is my final choice, a great shop selling all kinds of brushes – we need more shops like this one.