Disillusioned with the world of big business, heritage specialist David Bloodworth decided it was time to ditch the rat race for something new.
Travelling the world as a senior executive responsible for major projects may sound like an exciting way to live. But the price is high, and especially so when it comes to home and family. If you’ve thought that it’s too late to have a new career when you’re over 50, read on.
I wanted to spend more time with my family. So I decided to do something for myself
“For over 30 years I worked in the theatre, film and TV industries, much of it travelling the world, working for multi-national organisations,” says David. “I was working in a senior capacity for one company and was becoming very disillusioned with it. The owners were making promises to staff that were not being met. My creative staff were not being valued financially.
“Then the business collapsed. I had to decide what to do next. My wife and I had a child late in life, and I wanted to spend more time with my family. So I decided to do something for myself.”
Finding a partner in crime
David had been friends with York-based homeware retailer Angus McArthur for many years, helping to theme his stores. Angus too was getting bored and was thinking of selling up.
“I’d been selling contemporary homewares for over 20 years. More and more sales were going online, and I wanted to do something different.”
Their solution was somewhat unusual – ghosts! For many years, Angus had been involved in the Great York Ghost Hunt, hiding tiny ghosts around the city at Halloween. People purchased trail maps and tried to find them.
“York is known as the city of a thousand ghosts, and therefore often referred to as the most haunted city in Europe. It was almost unthinkable that there had been nowhere to purchase a ‘York ghost’,” says David.
A gap in the market for ghosts!
Countless visitors to York take part in ghost walks and stay in haunted hotels. Over 30,000 Great York Ghost hunt trails were being printed every Halloween. People were asking where they could get buy the tiny ghosts.
Angus had noticed that there was a growth in people looking for ‘retail theatre’; an experience which could not be obtained online
It was clear there was a potential opportunity to create an iconic souvenir with an element of retail theatre. Both in the sale and production of the souvenirs as well as allied events such as storytelling.
The duo set out to revitalise the souvenir sector in York, by creating an innovative shop concept utilising Angus’s retail skills and David’s heritage sector expertise.
“We noticed that there was a massive gap in the market for affordable, handmade souvenirs. In the medieval period, people used to visit York and buy a pilgrim badge to prove they had been there. These badges would have been made in a workshop above a shop in the Shambles,” said David.
Angus had noticed that there was a growth in people looking for ‘retail theatre’; an experience which could not be obtained online, involving a unique product.
What is retail theatre?!
Retail theatre is a display, or even whole shopping experience that includes a theatrical element. So, not just straightforward retail shopping. Purchasing of your items is part of an experiential event.
David saw scope for a ghostly concept tailored to this experiental demand. Something they could offer providing something special designed to attract the attention of the thousands of tourists flocking to York every year.
“We wanted to make our souvenirs unique, a symbol of the city offering affordable luxury from choosing, through to packaging and the total retail experience.
“Instead of tourist tat, our ghosts are quality souvenirs that are handmade in and belong to York. It is an old-fashioned business model. We have not tried to do a Disney style ghost. This is sympathetic to York; an authentic product to which people can relate,” explains Angus.
The result was the creation of the York Ghost Merchants, which opened last year in the atmospheric medieval Shambles last year. And the shop sells just one product – ghosts.
Enjoying the atmospheric experience
It looks nothing like other typical souvenir shops in busy heritage cities. There is a traditional Georgian exterior complete with small, leaded windows. Customers step inside and are greeted by the sight of oak-panelled walls, display cases and the serried ranks of large and small ghosts.
The ticking of a grandfather clock is the only sound, apart from a formal greeting from a smartly dressed gentleman wearing clothes more akin to those seen over a century ago – including a bowler hat and apron.
All the ghosts are hand produced on the premises in a workshop, just above the shop. Made from resin, each ghost is totally unique, as colours are hand mixed, applied in varying ways and textures. Customers browse and look for their personal choice.
Once shoppers have chosen their special ghost, it’s placed on a podium hidden in the walls, photographed, and wrapped in specially decorated tissue paper. After that, it’s boxed for its homeward journey – which starts in a little train taking it to the door for the customer to collect.
To add to the retail fun, customers can explore the Cabinet of Curiosities and try to find numerous tiny hidden ghosts in a variety of locations.
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The individuality of the experience paid off
I had a gut feeling that it would work. We spent a lot of time making sure everything was right from the beginning
Setting up a shop of this kind was nervewracking. Having created something totally unique, selling just one product, they both knew was a big risk. Especially when two families were totally dependent on the income.
David admits, “I was worried. The Shambles is not a cheap street on which to start a business selling just one product. It needed a huge leap of faith.”
Angus had no such reservations. “I had a gut feeling that it would work. We spent a lot of time making sure everything was right from the beginning. And then on the first day, David looked at me, and we looked at the great queue at the till. And it was clear it was going to work. We have some people who have bought over 60 ghosts! The collectible nature of the ghosts appeals.”
And then 2020 happened…
Having just got into their stride as specialist souvenir retailers, the events of 2020 created an unexpected problem. When the pandemic hit in March, the store had to close. Trading came to an abrupt stop.
Undeterred, still David and Angus decided to focus on developing their concept still further. “We worked out a way to translate the experience of The Ghost Merchants into digital media.
“This has increased our versatility and given us an extra business stream we can build on. We sell small batches of ghosts at a specific time in the week. So, for example, at 7pm on a Friday we might release a batch. Within a few minutes we sell everything; demand exceeds supply. We tell people to come back next week!”
Never looking back
I know wholeheartedly we made the right decision. We have a much better life now
Neither have any reservations about the huge career changing jump they made, despite it meaning a new career over the age of 50. It has revitalised their lifestyle, and enthusiasm. It’s a far cry from the restrictions of their previous ‘jobs’. They also both acknowledge that it’s a blend of past and future that has made this work.
Angus points out, “We are showing that retail can work. We have reinvented the souvenir shopping experience, by looking back at the past.”
David adds, “York does seem very parochial after travelling the world, but I like it. I know wholeheartedly we made the right decision. We have a much better life now, not working all hours of the clock. I see my wife and son, and we meet a lot of lovely people coming into the shop.
“It is a very British eccentricity and it appeals to our customers. We had never seen this as an international business, but the pandemic has proved that it can be. And as a result, we have quite a following overseas. So now we plan to keep moving both sides of the business in future.”