Friday, 15 March 2013

A Museum Where You Can Buy Things

From Shrewsbury Prison to It’s A Nomad Life on Wyle Cop.   I don’t know how much further apart you can get than that.  I’m staring at a row of arrows from Papua New Guinea, courtesy of Vicky Crook and Sam Handbury-Madin. 'A museum where you can buy things' is how some people have described their shop. And looking round at cabinets, shelves, plinths and walls stuffed full of tribal artefacts from around the world, I can quite see why.  Yum.  I like it here.

It’s the window that first drew me in. A month or so ago a wooden hornbill sculpture appeared in it, but now it’s gone. Vicky says they like to keep things fresh. They’re continually going to auction, bringing in new stock, moving things around. Much to my relief, I find the hornbill at the back of the shop. It’s from Papua New Guinea, mid-twentieth century. Even as I’m writing this I’m tempted to go back and buy it.  It’s a gorgeous thing, and for what it is not too expensively priced.

Shrewsbury is renown for its small independent shops, and It’s A Nomad Life is one of the most recent, situated at the top of Wyle Cop opposite the Lion Hotel. It’s roots, however, go back to university days.  Vicky studied History and Archaeology at St Andrew’s, and Sam studied Archeology at Bristol  where he continued to develop the passion for tribal art and artefacts which was first nurtured when his father [whose family had been in the trade since the 19th century] brought home a collection of ethnographic artefacts.  

The upper room in It's A Nomad Life is named after the well-known collector, author and art dealer, Nik Douglas, with whom Sam worked for four years. Nik Douglas died last year in New York, but for many years he traded out of Anguilla in the Caribbean, and many of the statues on the upper floor originate from his collection.    ‘Sam fought hard to go out to Anguilla and work with Nik,’ says Vicky. ‘It was his dream job. And his persistence paid off. It was an amazing experience.’

After Anguilla, Sam worked for a while in an antique shop in Vancouver, one of the biggest in Western Canada, then returned to the UK, trading online with a view to building a business and opening a shop.  It was here in Shrewsbury that he met Vicky, who had returned to the town as a fund-raiser for Build It International, having previously worked for Barnardo’s in London.

Both she and Sam have local roots, Sam through Shrewsbury School, Vicky growing up in Little Albrighton, then moving to the town centre at the age of fifteen.  Her interest in fine objects long pre-dated  her degree, with its Greco-Roman, Byzantine bias. She’d always wanted to run her own business and during her school and college days she’d accrued plenty of retail experience. A shop was as much of an interest to her as it was to Sam - not least providing the chance to show off the wealth of fine objects they’d amassed.   

‘I’m good at the business side of things,’ Vicky says, ‘and Sam’s good at sourcing items.’ The subject of provenance is an important one, so Sam sources mostly through personal connections he’s made over the years. Whether it’s the Nik Douglas family in the Caribbean or trader-friends in places like Bali, this means the bulk of their antiques and art have been collected ethically and can be traced to source.  ‘There’s a good network of connections between tribal art dealers,’ Vicky says. The ethical bit is very important to them. She stresses it several times.  She doesn't tell me so, but I see from their website that they also raise funds to support charity work overseas.  

I want to know about fakes.  Vicky reckons that it’s often in the handling that you can recognise a fake.  A thing won’t feel right, or the ageing process won’t convince. Stylistic elements may be wrong. And a tell-tale whiff of burning  can be a sure-fire indicator of a fake.  

This is another world to me.  As much as stepping through the door of Shrewsbury Prison, I’m in a place I know little about. How much interest, I wonder, is there in Shrewsbury for tribal art? Vicky says I’d be surprised. It’s A Nomad Life may only have opened six months ago, but the response has been really encouraging.  ‘We’ve been surprised how many people coming through the door have links with places like Africa, or even remote regions like Papua New Guinea,’ Vicky says.  They’ve had some great conversations. She hopes their passion for their subject shows through. 

Sam and Vicky may be new to Wyle Cop, but they say it’s a great part of town for independent traders, and they’ve been made to feel welcome into that community.  People are so friendly, they say. Setting up shop in the middle of a double-dip recession has required them to tread cautiously, but a great help has been the fact that they already owned the bulk of their stock and that they were already trading online.

I comment on a silver necklace locked inside a glass cabinet.  Embossed with tiny rabbits and dogs, it’s a child’s necklace from Laos. Behind it is another - also from Laos - its rows of silver bands denoting all the stages of a woman’s life from birth to motherhood and beyond. There are some lovely items in this shop.  On the wall above Sam’s head hangs a framed Fijian tapa cloth, a beautiful circle of fine, hand-pulped mulberry bark that has been painted with natural dyes.  It too is gorgeous. I add it to my wish list, and I could go on and on.

The shop is well fitted with CCTV, I notice. Vicky gives me a tight, pinched smile.  She says it has to be.  On day three after their opening they learned the hard way how careful they’d need to be.  ‘This man came in. An older man - not a person who would have stood out as meriting watching.  He seemed perfectly normal and relaxed.  He even spoke to someone on the way in through the door.  The shop was busy.  We were only vaguely aware of him.  A bronze Shiva stood on a shelf by the window.  It wasn’t a tiny object - it was about twelve inches tall and heavy too.  But the man picked it up, dropped it into his carrier bag and walked out. He did it in full view of people in the shop, right in front of the window too, where anyone could see.  We couldn’t believe it when we realized what had happened. Couldn’t believe his cheek. Later the police found him on CCTV walking down Wyle Cop, but they lost him under the railway bridge.  He simply disappeared.  They said that type of theft was rare, but it served as a warning to us.  Not that anything like it has happened since, but we’re more prepared.’      

What next, I ask? There are more auctions to attend, they have the It's A Nomad Life website to maintain and every month Vicky writes about a particular artefact on the LoveShrewsbury website.  Then, of course, there’s the wedding to prepare for. 

Wedding.  My ears prick up. My Tonight From Shrewsbury could do with a wedding. Vicky shows me her emerald and diamond art-deco engagement ring. It’s over a year now, she says, since Sam gobsmacked her with it at Aber Falls.  ‘Our families knew before I did, because Sam had asked my dad,’ she says. ‘When I returned home with a ring on my finger I didn’t need to say a thing.’

What a year, I say.  Vicky nods. Bought a house. Got a dog. Opened a shop. Been robbed. Made new friends. Got engaged. Got the dress. Got the venue. Got the cars, the flowers, the cake. Even got Shrewsbury’s very own vintage ice cream seller and his van. ‘What a year,’ she agrees. 

No comments:

Post a Comment