Bluematchbox – Ten years on
When Grant Pratt first opened his shop in Tilehurst, 10 years ago, it was a gallery and working studio, with a few shelves of glazes and tools for sale. Fast-forward to today, and it’s clear that his plans for Bluematchbox will need bigger premises, says Rachel Graham
I have to admit that I was slightly nervous about meeting Grant, because I receive his newsletter every Saturday. It always makes me laugh out loud, and his humour, knowledge and self-deprecation really are an engaging combination. But, if I made a fool of myself, would I find myself mentioned in his ‘Mudzine’? Grant assured me that everything in the newsletter comes ‘from a place of love’, but on arrival I immediately curried favour by admiring his chickens (in a previous incarnation, I worked on Practical Poultry) and I think I passed muster!
Although he described himself as having been a ‘self-taught jobbing potter’, Grant has certainly done a great job of building a pottery supplies business where providing excellent customer service drives everything they do. He and his wife Pelin, who is an artist, are both adamant about this. “Service is so important,” said Pelin. “People come to us because we’re makers too, so we understand their problems.”
This does create certain challenges though. Grant explained: “It’s a problem when it comes to finding staff; we need people who know what we know. If I’m running a shop, I want the staff to know what they’re talking about, to have tried the products. For me, this is not just retail, it’s more than retail. It’s good practice. I’ll be honest if I haven’t used something, but we do try to test everything – the other day we tried out some new graffito paper, so we could tell customers how to get the best results. People need that now more than ever. It’s important to me that the customer is happy; I get personally upset if they aren’t.
“We do try our best, but most people expect instant, ‘Amazon prime’ deliveries these days. We aim to get our orders out the next day, but if you place an order at 11pm on a Sunday, I’m afraid it won’t be sent out until Monday!”
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the shop is a long, thin building that extends backwards into the garden in a maze of rooms and outbuildings. When it opened, the idea was that the couple would have a wonderful Bohemian life balance of throwing and selling pots. The shop started as a gallery, and Grant’s studio was at the back. “To make it look like an old pottery, we made everything from scratch, sometimes using old palettes, and painted the walls with gesso. The problem now is that whenever we want to add more shelves, or walls, we have to make them to match the originals. We created a bit of a rod for our own backs there!” laughed Grant.
We moved from the shade of the willow tree where we had been chatting and went inside. Every room, every surface is full, and I can understand the need to move to somewhere bigger.
“When we first started, I had a small garage and I had my studio and my stock in there,” said Grant. “Then we moved here, and I was recently looking at photos of when we first opened. It’s hilarious how empty it was. How I ever thought it was going to be enough, I don’t know. Now, this is nowhere near enough room. It just keeps growing, and I love it!
“We’ve squeezed in a crazy amount of stuff, but I can’t get stock in fast enough. Clay can be a problem. We have 40-50 different clays, but we can only hold a small amount of each, so if someone comes in and clears us out, it can take 2-3 weeks to get more, which is another reason why we need to move to somewhere bigger.”
The sheer volume of stock, both in the shop and ‘out the back’ is staggering. “We used to have a few plinths; the majority of the shelving you can see in the shop, wasn’t there. There was just one bottom tier, and for some reason, I thought that would be enough. But people come in and they want a choice, so we have to offer as much as we can. In America, no one worries about using brush-on glaze, or a pre-made stamp, and things are changing here thankfully.”
This is obvious. The shelves are brimming with countless tools; glazes from Amaco, Mayco, Potterycrafts, Botz, Duncan, Potclays and Scarva. Rohde and Potterycraft kilns, and five brands of wheel are available, not forgetting the previously mentioned number of clays. Accessories, books, and T-shirts – it really is like being in the potter’s equivalent of a sweet shop. Everywhere you look there is something you want.
The internet has opened up the market enormously. People can see overseas products and are now asking for them here. “I don’t use many tools myself, but I’ve learned to keep an eye on what’s available and bring in things. I try to keep slightly ahead of the game,” said Grant.
Bluematchbox is the only mainland UK retailer of Diamond Core tools, and regularly sends them into Europe. It is one of the top sellers of Rohde kilns in this country and Grant installs them and teaches customers how to use them. However, as the pottery supplies market grows, he suspects that import duty and carriage will lead to customers wanting domestic suppliers/manufacturers. At this point, Grant expressed some frustration: “The overseas companies are so good at promoting their products, with videos of people using their tools, or fantastic brochures with great images and information, but over here we seem to be rubbish at it. It’s frustrating no one seems to be investing in their products. It’s never modernised and the general attitude seems to be, ‘Why should we bother, we can import it’.
“We have the knowledge here to make stuff, but nobody seems to want to do it. So we have to import. Things will change, bigger companies will need to adjust to the demand. It’ll take time, but it will happen.
Property in the area commands ridiculously high prices, and often sells before it ever hits the open market, so finding the right premises will be a challenge. As well as the retail side, Grant would like to run an open access studio. The vision is that the new premises will run independently of the current shop, which will return to being Grant’s studio. “I really want to get back to making,” said Grant. “I have commissions waiting to be made. But to do that, I need to take on staff to free my time up. When we have a bigger place, and this is just a pottery, I’ll be able to do that.”
Wherever they eventually expand to, it’ll have to be right from the off. “We started as a gallery and built up slowly, but you only have one chance with a first visit – if someone comes through the door and it’s not what they’re looking for, they don’t come back again. You can’t say ‘come in 10 years, it’ll be fantastic’,” said Grant.
Bluematchbox is all about service and knowledge, and Grant and Pelin are genuinely obsessive. I’m looking forward to seeing their next venture, because I’m sure it won’t be a case of giving it 10 years before it’s fantastic.
Bluematchbox Potter’s Supplies
205 Halls Road, Tilehurst, Reading
Berks RG30 4PT
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“I’ve been potting for 20 years now. I had a slight interest in art but never did it at school. I was forced into doing academic subjects and hated it – I wanted to make stuff. I started painting in my 20s, when I met Pelin – I was in awe when she told me she’s an artist – and I really got into it. Then she bought some clay and I got completely into that. I bought a wheel and a kiln in 1999 or 2000. I was completely ignorant; I sat with a book with about five pictures in it, working out how to throw, and wedging on the floor. Then after about a year I did a City and Guilds and while that only had four weeks of throwing, it was enough for me to work out that I was throwing left-handed. I changed that!
“I was the only person on my course who was throwing, but now the Throw Down means more people are doing it. Throwing is coming back, but you have to be a bit obsessive to do it. It’s a very narrow skill, and if you’re creative, you’ll probably want to try other techniques. The City and Guilds was okay, but I’ve mostly taught myself. I say I’m a jobbing potter – I like the idea of pottery being ‘a job’!
“I used to work on building sites and in offices, laying floors and I loved the banter. Whenever you put out a call for help, the office workers would all down tools and come and help out. We’d end up sitting back watching these frustrated office workers getting their hands dirty and doing something creative.
“It got to the point where I wanted to make a living from pottery, so in 2003 I rang Potclays and asked if they wanted an agent. They said yes, and I started that from my studio. I got into being a technician, and teaching, but that dried up. In 2008, this shop became available and we thought ‘why not’?