Name: Hoxton Street Monster Supplies
The Place: As the name suggests, Hoxton Street in good old Shoreditch, London
The Story: 200 years ago Igor left Transylvania for London only to discover that there was a woeful lack of provisions for monsters including such staples as compacted earwax and organ marmalade.
Wait, our Innovative Retailer is 200 years old. Cool: No, that’s just a story. The concept actually dates from 2010.
Oh. But Igor the Romanian definitely was a thing: No, that’s just a story. It’s actually run by the Ministry of Stories.
And he has a problem getting hold of earwax? No, that’s just a story. It’s actually fudge.
My head is spinning: Good, that’s the idea. Are you sitting comfortably?
Not really: Then I’ll begin. Nick Hornby.
Is he real? Yes, he’s real. And he co-founded (along with Lucy McNabb and Ben Payne) the Ministry of Stories, which is also real. It works to encourage and unlock the creative imaginations of the young from 8-18 years-old through a writing space, which hosts programmes and mentoring. It aims to put the imagination of the child front and centre. But to get to the writing bit you have to pass through the shop and maybe buy a tin of ‘Escalating Panic’ on your way.
A tin of what? Or some bottled ‘Vague Sense of Unease’. Either way, due to a ‘rather inconvenient curse’ all profits go to the Ministries of Stories.
We were doing so well and now it’s all gone belly up again: Never mind. The main thing to catch hold of is that the commercial aspect (Hoxton Street Monster Supplies) is a fantastical front to the charitable arm (Ministry of Stories).
Do you have to be a monster to work there? No, but it helps. Everyone in the shop is a volunteer and is encouraged to let their imaginations run free when selling the products. The shop is only open three days of the week and the volunteers also fulfil all the online orders (where you add items to a casket rather than basket) and they can come from all over the world.
So the bricks and mortar shop is not that important: No! The shop is very important – according to Deputy Director Kirsty Telford, it more than breaks even and the strength of the shop’s ‘monster supplies’ brand enables the charity to “punch above its weight” and form partnerships with places like the Houses of Parliament and the BBC.
But apart from fudge/earwax what do they actually sell? A plethora of ingeniously designed products (from the Clerkenwell-based We Made This agency). The shelves are a masterclass in repackaging the very ordinary into the extra-ordinary. For example a simple roll of garden twine is sold as Fang Floss and flies off the shelves.
Liking this more: Little sugar mice become Petrified Mice. Cinder toffee pieces retail as Toasted Bone Chunks, strawberry sherbets are now Brain Food.
Are you sure this is just for children? And then we come to the famous Tinned Fear series whose effects according to the packaging include: “A most palpable episode of the Night Sweats. Quite likely also to induce: aches, agues, quivers, shivers, lassitude and general trembling. Now with added nightmares.”
I’ll take a dozen: What you actually get is a short scary story/poem (often by a famous writer) and some humbugs. Specific monsters are also catered for.
Such as? For the werewolf there is the Jar of Moonlight promising: “A quite immediate and singularly effective transformation from human to werewolf, for the modern lycanthrope who finds waiting an entire month for a full moon an utterly inconvenient bore.”
Which is actually? A solar powered torch.
You know it’s a real shame they don’t market to adults too: Oh, they definitely do. Check out the Salt Made From Tears jar range which “combines centuries-old craft with the freshest human tears which are gently boiled, released into shallow crystallisation tanks, then harvested by hand and finally rinsed in brine.”
Only slightly creepy: And really just flavoured sea salts.
What’s the best seller? Actually the Monster Supplies cook book sells very well as does Thick As Human Snot (lemon curd to you). But being a charity obviously they have limited resources to spend on endless new product development. However, two new things are coming on-stream in January.
So who’s coming into the store? A lot of tourists. The shop has won plenty of awards and is included in the Lonely Planet guides. A large amount of visits are one-offs, which also negates the need for constantly changing ranges. This is quite handy and 80% of the stock is unchanged from the time the shop opened.
I can see online potential here: Yes, one third of sales are already online but the different customs and licensing regulations around the world are a bit of a barrier and so management are on the hunt for potential partners especially in the big interest areas of US and Asia where Telford admits it is a source of customer frustration. The main problem with running one very small shop is that they can only really place minimum orders from suppliers as most of the products have expiry dates so economies of scale are a closed book, as it were.
Any more planned? Well, the Ministry of Stories already has offshoots in Brighton (Little Green Pig) and Rotherham (Grimm & Co – also featuring a shop but with more of a Potteresque-type vibe full of potions and witches’ charms) but further expansion requires funds and remember – the shop is a means to an end here. Most usual retailers might set up a writing project to drive sales to the shop, but here the commercial unit is purely a useful revenue creator for the outreach and writing work. It just happens to be a very innovative little shop and probably the only place in the world where children can write a letter to a monster and get a reply.
I beg your pardon? Oh yes, launched last Hallowe’en the Post Mortem letter writing service. For a modest £2 fee for local children and £5 for everyone else – you sit and write a missive to your chosen monster and your chosen monster writes you a reply back. Revenue stream and generator of footfall to the shop all in one. Genius.
So this is what happens when writers run retail: Every shop should have one.