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Carole Varley heads to the coast to meet the thriving shopping community in Southsea

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Just a pebbles throw from the beach, yet within a mile of the bustling centre of Portsmouth, Southsea has a character all its own that is helped in no small measure by the many independent traders there, giving it a village feel although still part of a large coastal centre.


A real sparkler


As Barbara Tipple, who has run Barbara Tipple jewellery in Southsea for the past 32 years, says, "Its the secret of the south. Its a wonderful place to live. Southsea has everything; it has the real feel of a local community, even though its in a city."


Barbaras not saying that just because she went to Gosport Grammar School and her achievements have won her an honorary doctorate from Portsmouth University. For Barbara was thrust into the international limelight straight out of Londons Hornsea Art College by winning the De Beers Diamonds International Jewellers award at the tender age of 21 (she won it for the fourth time in 2004) and she also runs a smart shop in Bond Street, Mayfair, to accommodate her many prestigious and international clients. For Barbara, working in Southsea is a positive choice.


"Its just a wonderful place to be," she says. "It is easy to commute to London, yet a short ferry ride to the Isle of Wight. Theres a real sense that its not frantic, yet its near a city that is growing fast." Which is all very much to Southseas gain since bespoke jewellers like Barbara, who says that she has given a "lifetimes commitment to her craft" and designs pieces that range in price from 300 up to 200,000, are quite rare in England. She remains optimistic about the future, though.


"England should aim high," she says. "We have an amazing imagination. People here also appreciate quality. They want something individual. Buying a piece of jewellery is emotional. Its your own talisman. If its handmade its special, and if its handmade in this country, even better."


Something new


Another shop that tiptoes through the more emotional landscape of retail in Southsea has to be Creatiques, which sells couture wedding gowns and bridal accessories, and is run by Andrew and Rob Pearce just a bit further down Marmion Street. The clutch of national awards displayed on their shelves stands testament to their sensibilities and, stepping into the shop, which is bursting with billowing confections in white and cream silks and satins, sleek lines in cappuccino lace, and yet more studded with twinkling crystals, must be a joy to behold for the brides-to-be.


"We offer the personal service people crave these days," says Rob. And they really mean that, for they will close the shop for every customers fittings, even up until the clock is nudging 8pm if need be.


"Its very special," says Rob. "Its their big day and we take that to heart. We take a great pride in our work. Many of our customers become our friends, and we often get to help the rest of the family as well, customers sisters and nieces. We have even had brides leaving to get married from here," says Andrew of the shop, which has a pretty garden at the back. "What other wedding shop could do that?"


It must all be paying off, though, for, besides the awards, like Topsy, Creatiques just keeps growing and, having moved to larger premises three times already, they are looking to upgrade again into a store just down the road.


Sweet success


Their next-door neighbours, artisan chocolatiers Coco, which is run by mother-and -daughter team Sue and Holly Newland, look as if they need larger premises, too, if the number of customers squeezing into their small shop the day I visited was anything to go by. Sue and Holly, who also run a part-time accountancy business, first opened Coco five years ago, after training with top chocolatier and patissiere Paul Young and at the Cacao Barry chocolate academy, and they have enjoyed sweet success ever since. So what do they think is working for them?


"People like the personal service," says Sue. "They like to come in and handpick their own chocolates. It shows that there has been a bit of thought about what has been put in." That the chocolates are handmade on the premises is without question for, as Sue was dealing with the throng of customers at the counter, at the back of the shop Holly could be seen wiping her brow, busy making more chocolates to keep up with the demand. Using only pure and natural ingredients (they source local producers where possible), fillings are made with fresh cream, nuts, alcohol and fruits, but have no additives or preservatives, obviously fulfilling the zeitgeist of the chocolate moment.


Cooking on gas


Another independent trader for whom business is brisk on Southseas Marmion Street is the Good Cook Shop, which was started by Lynn Goodenough and her husband 10 years ago, after both had graduated from Sheffield University with degrees in mechanical engineering. Which is not as far removed from running a cook shop as you might at first think, given that Lynn can tell you, should you desire to know, that a knife must go through 67 processes to make it really sharp. With some 9,500 lines in the shop on offer, this kind of knowledge is obviously a big plus for customers.


"I just love gadgets. I love anything mechanical, and I also love cooking," says Lynn.


One thing her staff certainly love, is working there. Assistant Jenny, who has been at the Good Cook Shop for seven years, says, "It really is a pleasure to work here. We all really believe in what were doing. I wouldnt like to work in retail just anywhere. You get a service here that you wouldnt find anywhere else." Lynn adds, "We do choose very carefully who works here, so that we all have the same values. Its a question of service all the way, particularly for an independent retailer. Thats how we grew and, for me, its just wonderful that we can give our customers what they want. Thats what keeps us going."


Fine art


What keeps Rick Steenhuis, who took over the Hiscock Gallery in Stanley Street with his wife Helen some seven years ago, going is "the ability to run your own business, make your own decisions, do your own thing".


The couple, who both worked for a national publishing company before deciding to branch out on their own, had looked at several businesses before deciding that the gallery was the one for them. It seems to have been the right decision, for already they have expanded the business, acquiring more space and equipment for the art framing side of things as a result of their ever-expanding client base.


In addition to framing, the gallery, with one of the biggest selections of local art in the south of England, sells the work of more than 40 local artists, as well as artists materials. It also undertakes fine art printing and the shop has a wide variety of gifts.


"People come here because they know it is something they will get done properly," says Rick. "With everything looking the same everywhere, theyre crying out for something unique, and thats what we can provide. Its very much a personal service." In their line of business, Southsea also provides a perfect backdrop, Rick adds, "Theres so much to see here that people want to take home with them. Its got something endearing."


A sentiment with which all Southseas independent traders would no doubt agree.

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