31 October 2019

The Art of Keeping Shop - A Conversation with Simon March

Just up the hill from Lewes Train Station, in East Sussex, you will find a rather unique independent shop. A hotchpotch of a building perched on the edge of the street below a gym and an original antique sign that reads 'Craven Cigarettes will not affect your throat'. Its windows are lined with jars of coloured powders,  pops of hot pink, Lapis blue, reminiscent of the colourful Pooja powders used in Hindu worship. A dog called Hubert sits in an impression of a kennel painted onto the glass, is this a pet shop, purveyor of art supplies or a curious gallery? It's difficult to tell what's going on inside - it's a cross between open all hours and an artist's abode. Off-putting for the conservative shopper but catnip for the curious. 

Curat Lex - Collection by Marchand Son

When you see a chain store, you immediately know what's inside, they are instantly recognisable by their colours and branding. You know what you are going to get, it's safe and predictable and the same on every high street the length and breadth of the country. This independent shop simply bears the name of its proprietor, Marchand Son and you have to be curious to want to go in, to be the kind of customer who doesn't want to be shown the latest trends or be told what to like. This shop is not staffed but run by a sometimes contrary, intellectually curious and down to earth man passionate about colour, paint, and more importantly the dying art of the shopkeeper.  Being a writer I'm nosey and inquisitive; I can't wait to get inside and find out more. 

Vida Aquatica - Collection by Marchand Son

I arrive on a chilly afternoon and peer through the window, the bar heater inside is glowing orange. When Simon opens the door, his apron is splattered with paint as he's been mixing it out the back. This is not just a shop full of pretty colours for artist's palettes but a place where beautiful and practical concoctions are actually made. Marchand Son is a shop selling paint to decorate the home, but like most independent shops it's more than that, it's unique because the owner is unique - we are buying a little bit of their spirit and vision. To understand the shop you have to meet the shopkeeper. 

The interior does not disappoint. Pinboards painted the pale green colour of vintage teacups, clogs painted with his colour collections, a giant set of scales and a poster reading 'Halls Distemper - The Oil Bound Water paint.' There's nothing twee or contrived here as surfaces are splattered with paint. Buckets, cans and aprons are visible; there's even a row of jars filled with pickles in progress. This is a place of work, albeit an eccentric one.

Simon's workroom. Can you spot the pickled onions?

As we sit at the paint bar, the classical music playing is accompanied by the thudding of the treadmill from the gym upstairs and I am curious to discover how Simon came to be in this place, how this Philosophy graduate from London ended up in Lewes selling paint?

"My first job was a Saturday job in Fired Earth in Hampstead Heath. I thought I'd hate working in a shop but I actually quite liked it. I thought you know what, it's not a bad thing to do to own a shop."

From humble beginnings, Simon went on to open paint shops in Clapham, Waterloo, and Peckham and was the first purveyor of paint to sell their wares in Liberty of London. His shops gained him an international reputation and coverage in 'Vogue Japan', 'The New York Times' and a four-page spread in 'Elle Decoration'. 

It's evident looking around the shop that Simon has an artistic bent, so why a paint shopkeeper and not a painter?

"Lack of ability I've always liked the arts things connected to arts and interior decoration but if you're provincial, the only gateway to that sort of thing is to decorate your own bedroom. I thought I'd have my own shop and without the ability to paint I could make paint .The guy over the road owns a record shop, but I bet he wants to be a rock star really.'

Simon is not simply a shopkeeper because he can't paint, he genuinely loves shops.

"Selling paint drew me because I liked shops, stationery shops. Shops like Brody & Middleton on Drury lane and Cornelissen of Covent Garden. Magical places where you bought powders & all sorts of concoctions."

Simon has always liked the gubbins and tools associated with the arts and even before the internet he would send off for random items like a bag of chalk from the gilding specialists Wrights of Lymm. It made him feel a little guilty.

'How can you like a brush if you don't know how to use it, it doesn't seem right. But that's what I liked so ultimately I thought it would be nice to own a shop and sell it to people who can use it.'

But artists can create without putting brush to canvas and all the world is a stage to natural performers. What Simon has created is a little piece of living art, a theatre for his ideas and passions.

Image Copyright Inglis & Hall

"People come in and say, 'you're an artist', and I protest and say I'm a shopkeeper, but there is a little bit of false modesty cause there is something very artistic about creating my shop, it does have an aesthetic that people can understand. Owning A shop - It's my own world, it's my own theatre, I'm master of my own domain."

You can do whatever you want to do. It's an installation; I want people to take photographs of the shop and say it's lovely and that's good enough. I like talking to people."

Purge the world of sappy credulousness. Believe in shops, not galleries. - Colour Makes People Happy Manifesto.

It really is like a theatrical installation, so why not run a gallery and sell art?

"It's too exclusive. It's no coincidence that people like the shops in art galleries - they're the bit that people like to spend more time in. You want some connection - I like galleries, but I'd prefer to go to a shop any day. You can go to an art gallery or see a film but people like the tactility of stuff, that's why shops are nice you can actually pick stuff up."

Simon sees shops as the galleries of the people. When Burlington Arcade was opened in London in 1819, working-class people wouldn't have visited galleries but would have pressed their noses up at these shop windows in wonder. He wants to recreate that sense of magic but without the exclusivity.

"My paint is egalitarian; it's working-class it's for everyone."

Crustãre - Collection by Marchand Son

Don't listen to anyone else, including me - Colour Makes People Happy Manifesto

There's so much snobbery in interior design and what constitutes good taste. Fast colour trends with retail and the media promoting this season's hot look and style.

"Interior design is horrible, and paint isn't, it's for everyone. I hate interiors. I hate interior design programmes, interior design as a thing it's pretty flimsy. People see something they like in a magazine, but it's so distorting, it tells you nothing, it tells you that someone has a beautiful house and lives in Belsize Park. Rather than stately homes or spurious links to history - imbibe with meaning after you've done it. You stamp the meaning on it."

As well as his shop in Lewes Town, Simon also runs a business called Colour Makes People Happy, mixing and delivering paint across the UK. It seems that customers have a hellish time trying to decide on which colour to pick , so I want to know how colour makes us happy.

"It's in our hard drive. It's down to survival, the ripeness of a berry, we like small intense spatterings of colour and we're made to like them, we seek them out. In a world that historically would have had no permanent colour, we look for that. The scarcity of it makes it precious that's why you have such a thing as precious stones. Colour is something that makes us happy, we're looking for it, we can't help it."

Before chemical paints, colour did not exist in a permanent state. The pink of roses faded with the summer, the deep blue of the darkest night lightened with the dawn, it's no wonder people marvelled at painted temples and gaudy statues. In a world now full of colour we take it for granted, but we still have the same impulses to capture the ripeness of the moment, points of memory and intensity.

Pea & Ham - Collection by Marchand Son

Colour also makes us happy because of its ability to tell a story and create mood. Colour is just the vehicle, and Simon hops aboard to suggest associations that bring colour stories alive. Innovative ways to engage the customer and improve the retail experience. Although it's a beautiful shop, Simon is a businessman, and like all good independent shopkeepers, he does it his way. You won't find wasteful sample pots, but cards painted with your chosen colour so that you can move them around your home to see how it reacts in different lights, how it works against other colours.

Simon also invents ingenious ways to wed people to colour, matching paints to songs with the "cross-fertilisation of senses - a trick but a lovely trick." He is currently filling record sleeves with colour samples which he will display on the shop walls. In 2020 he will launch box sets of colour palettes relating to films so you will be able to paint your home with colours that appear in The Shining or Saturday Night Fever. People have done this online, but he offers the analogue version, he has the paint to back his visions up. Finally I ask the dullest question in the journalist's repertoire because for once I know the answer will be anything but dull. So Simon, what's your favourite colour?

"Well, I have two I hate: numberplate yellow and faded tattoo blue. I really like the metallic green of Christmas baubles. Iridescent green."

Simon is a fascinating, top-class conversationist. Passionate and friendly with a bit of punk philosophy thrown in. I don't just get a conversation about paint but the history of colour, the science of colour, the stories we tell ourselves about colour, too much to include here. You'll just have to get a train to Lewes and potter up the hill to Marchand Son. Pop in and say hi, you're in for a colourful afternoon. Just don't forget to pick up a pot of paint.

Marchand Son 30/31 Station Street, Lewes, BN7 3DB