Sheffield couple’s first shop could point the way to retail’s future

James and Lisa Wallbank at the new shop Makers on Abbeydale Road
James and Lisa Wallbank at the new shop Makers on Abbeydale Road
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James and Lisa Wallbank’s new business is more than just a shop - they believe it represents ‘the future of retail’.

Makers opened just two weeks ago on Abbeydale Road, bringing an empty shop opposite Nether Edge Primary School back to life 20 years after it was last used as a greengrocer’s.

It’s an Aladdin’s cave of collectables, curios and interesting objects, from homewares and artwork to jewellery, bags and toys, most of which has been made by local craftspeople.

Husband and wife the Wallbanks will also be running workshops where customers can learn new skills such as sewing, wood carving and laser cutting - which could spur them on to become ‘makers’ themselves and add to the shop’s stock.

James said the new venture is just the latest addition to the Sheffield Antiques Quarter, which has united the various antiques, vintage and other related enterprises around Abbeydale Road, Broadfield Road and Queens Road.

“The whole shop is kind of a cornucopia of curios and interesting things,” he said.

“We sell all sorts of handmade and unusual items - things that people have made, and things that we have discovered or recovered.

“We’re really starting to think that this is the future of retail - a place where you can come and get something unique, and if we don’t have it, we can help you make it.”

Launching Makers was something of a leap of faith. For 15 years James ran Access Space, an educational charity based in the city centre, while Lisa previously worked as an NHS secretary.

“One of the things about Access Space, and the reason I left, is that people gain the technology skills with making and doing and then say, ‘OK, where’s the money?’ It’s like there is a missing rung on the ladder,” said James.

“One of the things about Makers is that you can say right, as soon as you’ve made these things you can start selling. We’re trying to make sure every rung of the ladder is in place.

“We’re intending this to be a sustainable business model - and it is a business, there’s absolutely no nonsense about that, but at the same time we thing can do something really positive and have an effect on the local community.”

The couple live just a few hundred yards away from the shop, for which planning permission was awarded in April.

“For the last six months we have literally dug the foundations,” James reflected. I’ve been involved in project managing and labouring on the whole build. We’ve got professionals in to do the complicated bits but it’s been a massive learning experience and a huge amount of work.

“I can’t speak highly enough of the builders, they’ve just been phenomenal and done a great job.”

The workshops start next month and are ‘very varied’.

“On the one hand there are traditional crafts like hand sewing and machine sewing, and we’ve also got more macho crafts like wood carving and technological things like laser cutting.”

There’s a cutter already installed in the building - or, more accurately, in the shop’s jokingly-named ‘laser kitchen’.

Currently 10 craftspeople supply to the shop, but a ‘whole string of people’ have expressed interest in selling their wares too.

“There’s been a great deal of interest from the Antiques Quarter too,” James added. “They can see the synergy between traditional antiques, arts, crafts and collectibles, and this kind of local production. So if you think about things like Forge Bakehouse, which is part of the quarter - they don’t sell ‘antique bread’ but they do sell things that have been made locally.

“The really interesting part comes when someone comes to a workshop, learns to make something and then returns and says ‘Can I sell these things I’ve made in the shop’? It’s a fabulous feedback loop.”

James admits Makers is an unusual proposition - not a space for industry exactly, but not a straightforward retail venue either.

“Just because you might be setting up four sewing machines doesn’t mean you’re setting up a clothes factory,” he laughed.

In the context of big schemes such as the proposed Sheffield Retail Quarter, and the city’s upcoming Ikea, Makers offers a very different concept of what it means to browse and buy.

“It’s great to have a location that is near to where people live.

“We think what people like to do is have an experience which means they walk out of their house on a Saturday or Sunday, get some tea and coffee, walk around, look at things, get inspired and make things for themselves. And meet people too - it is a very social activity.”

And the revival ushered in by the Antiques Quarter is firmly taking root, James reckons.

“It’s starting. It’s taken a long time for the quarter to take off and for the shops to regenerate. The shop that Makers is now based in was empty for 20 years - to turn that around is a really enormous thing.”