We chat about keeping it original & always independent
Tiffany Minell, of Darby Street's much loved Abicus & Scout boutiques, takes us on her retail journey, chatting about the early days, Newcastle life and moments that have shaped her.
Image credit - Justin Aaron
Catching up over coffee on, of course, Darby Street Tiffany speaks to us about the world of retail, as it was, and as it is today. A local in the true sense of the word Tiff's passion for the city is a delight to hear, as is her business journey.
Have you always lived in Newcastle?
Yes, I grew up, basically all my life one block off Darby Street, in Bar Beach.
So what schools did you go to?
I went to the Junction Primary School and then onto Newcastle Grammar for four years, I then spent a term at St. Francis Xavier before Tim and I talked each other into dropping out of school, we’ve been together since we were 16. We decided school wasn’t for us so we went off and worked full time, did some TAFE study as well as a few other things and then the shop came along when I was 20.
What did you think your future looked like when you were at school?
In high school years I used to walk down Darby Street nearly every day to get to school and there used to be this incredible, old blue weatherboard terrace, near where Pushing Pansies is now, and I dreamt of having a recording studio in there.
I’ve always really loved music, although I tried numerous instruments I never had the natural talent nor the patience to stick it out. As a teenager I interviewed and photographed bands, created zines and worked in music retail, so recording bands is what I thought I could strive to do. So the dream was to have a recording studio on Darby Street, in that cool old terrace.
Where did your interest in fashion come from?
I was managing a music retail store in Newcastle when a friend of mine, who was also my old boss, suggested the idea of opening a business again, or doing something music related, we were out drinking at the time, she asked ‘do you want to do it with me?’ and I was like ‘yeah! why not?!!’ and that’s how it all started.
We knew there wasn’t as much margin in music, which is a contributing factor to why many independent music stores sadly closed down over the years, and that’s when we thought about incorporating clothing.
Plus, I guess fashion has been in my blood, my paternal grandmother was a style writer for Women’s Weekly back in the 1950s, I remember her having the most incredible wardrobe and lavish parties. As she had two sons she decided to donate all of her collection (including Balenciaga and Pucci) to theatres and also to The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
Phyllis Minell - attending a ball in 1952
So at twenty years of age you opened your first retail store?
That’s right, the conversation happened in mid 2000 and then we opened Abicus in October of that year, where Scout is now. I guess we were both a little naïve about how the fashion industry worked but we went to Melbourne and picked up a couple of labels.
Our first ever label was called Stereo Trash, a Melbourne based brand that was straight out of the late 90s, we also picked up Ben Sherman, Grab and Industrie, all of which we have moved on from now.
From day one the shop really took off and was embraced by the local community… we were selling out of stock really quickly so that’s when we realised we needed to get our act together and find some new brands. Around this time brands started approaching us too, we have been so fortunate in that way. When we first opened, we only had half the shop space but when the shop next door closed down we expanded and the business continued to grow and grow. We now stock so many of our personal favourite labels including Rollas, Assembly, Birkenstock, Spell, Hansen & Gretel and Brixton.
Being only twenty at the time it was a pretty brave move to bring such a new concept to Newcastle.
I definitely grew up pretty quick, I was confident in doing it though, I just thought why the hell not! My parents were a little bit apprehensive as I had a good secure job. But at the time I thought because I was young, if it didn’t work I could go on and do something else without a big financial loss, as I invested all of my own savings I didn’t have the pressure from another party either.
It wasn’t a huge commitment back then and there weren't any other stores to compare us to so we were in a unique position. Any money we made we kept investing it back into the business to continue the growth. It’s very different now, there’s a lot more happening in retail in Newcastle with the developments of large shopping centres, some other fantastic independent stores and also the world of online shopping to consider.
When I opened the store, I had a business partner for the first 5 years who was 8 years older than me and had a business prior, so I was fortunate that she was able to bring certain skills to the business. Once I bought her out, Tim and I were able to take the store in the direction which Abicus is known for today.
Image credit - Justin Aaron
How much has the fashion industry changed since Abicus opened?
Back when we started, it was definitely easier, that is, the way the Australian Fashion industry essentially had a different model, don’t get me wrong, it was still really hard work, but the way we consumed and engaged with fashion was different in the early 2000s. There were four ranges a year from fashion labels, now there can be up to ten from one label because of the faster fashion scene. The internet and social media have encouraged that ‘need’ to have new looks all the time and many fashion labels now have to keep up with that.
I used to travel to Sydney a couple of times a year, now it’s sometimes twice a month. I do have very healthy long-standing relationships with our suppliers though so I can do much of the ordering remotely which is fortunate when adding children to our life!
Has there ever been a time where you thought you were done, this is all too hard?
Probably when we were going through the major renovations at the new Abicus site, that was hectic. I’ve always been a very driven person, Tim definitely exceeds my drive also so I knew we couldn’t give up but that really pushed us physically, mentally and financially.
When we hatched the idea of moving Abicus into the bigger location we were given a shell which we then designed and built ourselves, it was a massive job and not something we had done before. In the old location (now Scout) it was a gradual build that we just kept adding onto. The new space had so many delays, it ended up being around nine months behind, so we had double the stock (for both Abicus & Scout) for a long time and we were working around 90 hours every week, I think we had about three days off throughout the entire build over nine months. Due to the delays, money was very tight so we took to the tools ourselves!
Abicus just prior to opening at the new location on Darby St.
Even though it was really hard work for us, giving up was never an option, we had staff and suppliers to pay so we just kept going. It definitely made us stronger, more resilient, you’ve just got to do it don’t you.
What’s kept you in Newcastle all these years?
Newcastle’s just brilliant in so many ways! I’ve never had the desire to live in Sydney, I’ve visited so many times for work and gigs, I have friends and family down there, but Sydney was never really my thing. If anything we discussed moving to Melbourne, but when Abicus happened and we moved out of home into Cooks Hill it all fell into place for us. Maybe if the store didn’t work out things could have been very different, but Newcastle continues to have so much to offer. It’s home.
Leo, your son, arrived in May 2016 how did having a baby change work and life in general?
For me, I tried to take a back seat and we gave certain roles to staff, however in saying that, Leo was born on a Thursday and I was processing pays and completing accounts on the following Tuesday. I do however have a great team of staff who pretty well look after everything on the shop floor.
I can do majority of the ‘behind the scenes’ of the business remotely and the way that Tim and I have set the businesses up allows us to be flexible and juggle our roles around when we need to.
Somehow we’re working it out, but with baby number two on the way, maybe ask me again in 12 months time [laughs].
Do you see streets like Darby St and independent retail stores like Scout and Abicus continuing to have a place in the future?
I really hope so! Ultimately we believe in bricks-and-mortar retail and the unique experience that can be shared with customers in that environment… It’s essentially why we’ve put so much time, energy and money into our stores over the years. The in-store experience has to be special.
Abicus is 175 sq meters, it’s huge, you don’t really need that much area for the stock we carry, but it was all about creating enough space for parents with prams and our customers in wheelchairs, enough space to be comfortable in and not feel overwhelmed and crammed.
The unique shopping experience that is Scout
It’s hard to say what the next five or ten years will bring, I do hope to see more and more businesses in the fashion industry making a conscious effort to be more aware and active relative to their environmental footprint and offering. For Tim and myself, we’re having these conversations with all of our suppliers and label partners to see what their position is, and hopefully that awareness cuts through much more.
I also really want to see the Newcastle CBD come back to life, it’s been such a testing time for so many in the CBD and surrounding fringes. I remember when it was buzzing, back in the 80s and 90s, for myself and my family that was the only place we would go to shop. It would be really refreshing to see that inner city CBD vibe happening again on a retail level. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time!
Social Media. Necessary evil or genuine love?
Social Media, oh gosh. It’s definitely a necessary evil, having a business like ours, you’ve got to do it. I am really lucky with Scout, our staff completely take care of the Instagram account, I don’t have to even think about it. Abicus social media is essentially also managed by the staff with the exception of the majority of the music based content which is done by Tim and I. Music absolutely does not pay the bills, but it’s where our genuine passion comes from. An incredibly important aspect of the store for us since day one.
Abicus' vinyl collection
Looking back would you have done anything differently?
Probably not over-buy so much stock [laughs].
Because we grew so rapidly from day one, it was a steep learning curve, we didn’t really know what we were doing when it came to stock levels. I never did any type of business course so I had to teach myself how to do all the accounting, payroll, basically all the behind the scenes, it was all dolly steps with that side of the business.
The buying, and over-buying, greatly influences the business’s cash flow, this can quickly turn into stress. It’s so hard not to over-buy, balancing the right stock levels at the right time is one of the most challenging aspects of the business. I guess that’s why we have had some incredible sales over the years!
There may have been a few other things along the way I would probably do differently but nothing major. I’m constantly learning every day and that’s what keeps it interesting!
What has inspired and motivated you over the years?
All of my friends definitely inspire me in so many different ways. Tim inspires me constantly, his little motto is “always be bothered”, so that’s often on my mind. But I think my natural drive to do the very best I can in life, comes from older brother. I very rarely talk about this. He died suddenly at 21, when I was 18. In his short life he crammed so much ‘living’ into his days, he worked full time as an apprentice, he volunteered as a lifeguard at both Cooks Hill and North Bondi, he had been in the Army Reserve, travelled 3 hours to visit his girlfriend most weekends and had time for his mates. Always giving to others even up until his death when a week prior he saved someone else’s life at Bar Beach. Looking back, I believe I dealt with much of my grief by immersing myself in all aspects of the business.
Outside of work and family, what do you enjoy doing?
When I get the chance, catching up with my girlfriends is very important to me, it is always so refreshing. Also, one of my favourite Newy things to do is quite simply doing the Merewether to Bar Beach walk… who wouldn’t love that?!
I don’t have the energy for it at the moment (being 7 months pregnant), but seeing live music has always been a huge passion for me. I’d like to say I read lots of books, but I am still reading the same book I started six months ago… I’m juggling another couple of books too, but my desire to read can so easily all go out the window when I find a new Netflix series to watch! I am pretty low key these days. Ha!