You might think you could find no higher form of cuddly twee than a teddy bear shop in Lyme Regis, but once you know that Alice’s owner, Rikey Austin, began her career as a bricklayer in the Black Country before moving into writing and illustrating books for children, it becomes clear that there is more lateral thinking behind this enterprise than meets the eye.
The shop is crowded with bears, shelf upon shelf of them, old, new, spectacled, worn, loved, wept upon, silkily glowing with newness. Also pigs, crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, each the essence of cuddlesome. Through a doorway around which Rikey has painted a spreading tree is the teddy bears’ hospital, rows of tiny wooden beds where the wounded lie awaiting surgery by Dr Dave Taylor, his wife, Nurse Lesley, wearing blue scrubs and their apprentice, Becky. Downstairs, Rikey’s husband, Paddy Howe who is a geologist at the town’s museum, has a workshop where he cleans and prepares his fossils and here, too, is their son Leon, 16, homeschooled and revising hard for his GCSEs. So while Alice’s Bear Shop is not exactly a family business, it is certainly a family.
Rikey fetched up in Lyme some 16 years ago having spent the decade and a half since she ran away from home at 16 spending no longer than a couple of years in any one place, in the nomadic tradition of her Roma ancestors. She was working in a bear shop in Taunton when she decided she would rather work for herself. With Leon still in a pram, the family visited Lyme Regis so that Paddy could hunt fossils: “We were in a cafe and I remember saying: ‘If ever I opened a shop, it would be here. This is the one place in the world where I could be happy — and struggling’.”
Destiny played one of its trump cards when the man at a nearby table, overhearing the conversation, revealed himself as an estate agent with just the thing she was looking for on his books. She opened Alice’s in Bridge Street then moved to the current premises in Broad Street seven years ago.
In 2007, Unicef published a study which found that British children were the unhappiest in the world and this proved something of a lightbulb moment for Rikey.
“British children are targeted as consumers. They’re constantly being told that they need to have something to make them happy. Very often they don’t. Their parents have a good disposable income and they want to give their children the things they never had but it becomes addictive. It’s like a sugar rush when we should be giving them slow-release whole foods.”
Play value is an important part of the Alice message. Rikey will not stock brands like Beanie Babies which impel children to collect more and more versions of the same thing and lead them only to clamour for an even bigger collection: “When a toy has play value, then it lasts longer. We have different outfits to make for the teddies. We can provide a patchwork quilt kit for your teddy. I want to do some flat-pack furniture for teddy bears. All these things add play value. What our children want us to do is spend time, not money.”
It’s a commercial philosophy born of family experience. With Leon and two older boys, Tom and Jack from Rikey’s earlier relationship, the Howes established a tradition of the Promise Jar. In a way, it’s the reverse side of the Wishlist coin. You take an empty jar and, knowing that some member of the family wants a camping weekend, a trip to the Eden Project, breakfast in bed or whatever, you put your promise in writing to make this come true within a specific time frame. Then the paper goes into the jar and your promise is sealed. The timing is negotiated to take account of each individual’s other commitments but it is an absolute promise, which must not be broken. Rikey has it in mind to design a line of promise jars accompanied by a sheaf of suggested promises so that the world can join in the fun.
The teddy hospital side of the business is connected, morally, to the idea that time and experience is of a higher order than money. In a world of disposable possessions, the very act of mending an injured toy places a value on its meaning and Rikey is persuaded that others are coming round to her point of view. In the early days, one or two wrecked bears would be brought in for surgery every month; today there are six or seven a day. And thanks to an extensive website, they come in from all over the world. She is slightly saddened that most of the casualties belong to nostalgic adults rather than heartbroken children. As with most things in her life, she is on a mission to change that.
She is perhaps at her most evangelical when it comes to the responsibilities of running a business. In discussions with partners and suppliers, she demands an ethical statement and, as a member of the Organisation for Responsible Businesses, her guiding priorities are People, Planet, and Profit. A packaging company may offer her very advantageous terms, but if their green credentials don’t come up to scratch, she will contentedly pay more for ecological peace of mind. It’s no accident that her trading partners include The Tiny Box Company and the Green Board Games Company.
This is not to say that she’s against expansion: “The dream is to bring some industry into Lyme Regis because a lot of the work here is seasonal and I would like to develop the manufacturing side so that we could offer outwork — cutting patterns for the kits and so forth — all year round. We have our five-year plan — and our ten-year plan — which is to develop new kits each year. Ideally we will have our own unit where we can make flat-pack furniture and all the kits for the teddies and develop soft toy manufacture in the UK.”
Sounds like quite a commitment to the Promise Jar.