In Clerkenwell in East London, there`s a beautifully cozy street called Exmouth Market full of small shops, coffee places, and smiling flaneurs. There you find the stationary shop “Marby and Elm”. It`s the shop of Eleanor Tattersfield who turned her love for stationary and letterpress art into a successful business. She not only sells her designs on cards, candles, and stationery items but also hand-prints custom orders. And lately, she has started to collect “Secret Acts of Kindness” – more about that in our conversation below.
Eleanor, your entire business story is pretty amazing and seems so straightforward: what started as a hobby has turned into your own shop “Marby&Elm”, named after your two boys. Meanwhile, your sister Charlie is your shop manager and your dad, who is a lettering artist, had a chance to revive his passion and is part of the business, too. But I`m sure your business hasn`t just “magically turned” into what it is – or has it?
I think the things you enjoy and have a natural enthusiasm for are not really an arduous task. Even though they might be hard work. Yes, it was hard work, but it was always really fun. It was always going to the next thing and then the next thing: I started in my garden shed and when my shed became too small, I moved to a local studio. We then got an amazing client – Liberty – so we started supplying them and that just became such a big thing that we needed more space and more hands to help fulfil the orders. So, the natural next thing was to rent a bigger studio. And we thought: why not try a shop that we can also use as our main studio. So, in a way yes, it was quite a seamless, organic building.
How important is it for your business that you can do custom orders – for example that you can make unique cards according to customers’ wishes?
There are three arms in our business, and they are equally important. One of them is doing bespoke things such as private commissions for personalized stationery, letterheads, or business cards that are individually designed for and with the person. And then there`s wholesale – for example Liberty. The third arm are our designs that we make in bulk – still on a small scale though – to sell in the shop.
Outside your shop you have placed cards that people can take to write you their “Secret Acts of Kindness” – which you later might want to turn into a book. How did the idea of Secret Acts of Kindness come about?
It started with “Lockdown Secrets”, the first series of secrets which I collected during Lockdown when I was in the shop on my own. I was communicating a lot with my customers online, for example via Instagram. I was trying to post things that were relevant to the strange times that we were living through, so I was making a lot of cards that were trying to bring a bit of light and humour to the situation. Stuff like “I want to isolate with you”, these kinds of things. The community that followed me on Instagram was very active and I started to do lockdown letters: I suggested to people that if they knew somebody who was in a less secure mental place than others that they could give me their address and I would write them a letter.
What a beautiful idea! So you were writing to the people directly and in your own name?
Yes, I started to write a lot of lockdown letters to people – there were hundreds of them – and a lot of people started sending things back. They sent me seeds, and paintings, and lovely things about their lives, and I thought: Wouldn`t it be good if people can write down their thing that is coming to the surface to them during lockdown on a card and send it to me anonymously.
Fabulous! And you were then able to turn these cards into your first “Secrets” book…
Because my followers are predominantly interested in creativity or are creative types and because they had time, the kinds of cards that I was getting back were really beautifully rendered- a lot of them painted or collaged – all different and very creative. I got a publisher and they published “Lockdown Secrets”. Then we did “Sex Secrets” next and the third in the series are the “Secret Acts of Kindness” that I am collecting now. Meanwhile the “Secret” collecting, encouraging, and exposing has become an extra arm of the shop.
So, are you going to think of other Secrets to collect in the future?
How many cards with Secret Acts of Kindness have you collected so far, and for how long do you want to keep on collecting?
I think there are a couple of hundred and I don`t have a set deadline. For now, I’m going to keep collecting them for a while longer.
This is all so fascinating – the instant response to your efforts! Right after you started your business you wrote to the super popular retailer Liberty if they would like to stock your products – and they came and did; you wrote to the famous fashion designer Paul Smith if he would be interested in your work – and he was and invited you round; now you are asking people to tell their Secrets – and they do! How do you do that?
I don`t know – I guess it`s just asking.
Hm I suggest you probably have a good strategy to ask without being actually aware of having one... How did you ask for example Paul Smith? In an email or in a written letter?
I asked in a written letter. I thought about any kind of connection that I might have had with him that I could put into the letter. Of course, I flattered him because it was genuine. And I thought he comes across as the kind of person that I hope to be one day: someone who is approachable even though he had a lot of success. He is interested in young people who are enthusiastic and who are trying. And I think it`s also a way to keep his finger on the pulse to know what`s going on beyond his generation. My impression of him is that he is generally enthusiastic about all forms of creativity and design.
And how do you ask for the “Secrets” cards to be sent to you?
I do try to encourage people in a very personal way. Every time somebody asked for a card, I would send one to their house and I would write a note saying that I`m grateful that they had asked for it, that I `m happy that they are going to write me their secret, that I`m looking forward to reading it, and that I`m looking forward to it coming back soon. In my personal note I include their name and if possible, something I know about them. And I think if you make that kind of effort, people are much more likely to return it.
How important do you consider your communication skills? I suggest they might play a big part in your success…
I think if someone is positive, enthusiastic, and works hard, most things can happen. I think that you’re right, that I do have a particular aptitude for communicating with people, especially strangers. I like it a lot for one thing, so it comes to me quite naturally, and I guess I`m quite unusual in that I like to make friends with people on the tube or in the street. I like to converse with people, it makes me feel very connected to the world. But it`s probably not something that a lot of people do that easily.