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Sunday sit-down with… Jessica Penrose, owner of Flea Circus

HLN’s Jenny Brownlees chatted to Jessica Penrose – co-owner of Sandyford-based vintage emporium, Flea Circus – to find out how she made her business dreams a reality...

Written by Laura Kingston
Published 29.11.2020

By Jenny Brownlees

Flea Circus is on HLN’s must-visit list for first-time visitors to the city and born-and-bred Geordie’s alike. If you enjoy the retro things in life, there’s no better haunt to browse than this quirky department store filled to the brim with everything from French antiques and vintage clothing to records, maps, jewellery, retro toys and rare one-off items.

Together with Etch Interiors’ Jim Gregory, Jessica Penrose – of Nothing New Interiors – set up the vintage store in 2018, and has since seen it become an important fixture in Newcastle’s independent business scene. But, like many local businesses, this year Flea Circus has been hit hard by COVID–19 restrictions and has been working just as hard with its local community to adapt to this ‘new normal’. 

When did your love of vintage begin? 

When I was a little girl, I used to love going to the local jumble sales at Riding Mill, near where we lived in Hexham, or to junk shops. I’d head straight to the bric-a-brac – not to the toys or books or clothes. I was always drawn to that particular part and to vintage in general. It went on the back burner for a few years when I was working as a healthcare assistant and, following that, when I worked as a journalist. After I had my children, I went back to selling vintage. Back to what I loved, really. Back then, I was selling via eBay and it just gained momentum from there, until I began my own business, Nothing New Interiors, nine years ago. 

How did you expand your business from selling online to a bricks-and-mortar shop?

I began by selling furniture and vintage at markets, both at the Quayside and at Tynemouth. Then I rented a small shop space in Jesmond. That’s where I met Jim. He actually wanted the shop space I went for and I beat him to it! Though it was wonderful to have a space to sell from, it was small, quite dark and had a difficult stairway, which meant it wasn’t easy to bring furniture in and out. I learnt such a lot from my time in that shop, but when I saw Jim again, he explained he was in need of a space for his vintage business, Etch Interiors. It quickly became apparent I needed more space too. We said there and then: shall we open a place together? In November 2018, we opened Flea Circus. 

In and around the Ouseburn was always our dream location, as we both loved the independent businesses there. Not only did we each want a pitch within the shop, but we were also passionate about giving a leg up to other sellers. I went out pounding the pavements and came across the guys from Blank Studios on Warwick Street outside an empty lot. They told me Star and Shadow Cinema, which was next door, wanted to turn the space into a studio but, since they had just finished building the cinema, wouldn’t be able to do it for another two years. We propositioned them, showed them a business plan and asked if they would support us. Both the collaborative and sustainability aspect of Flea Circus fit with the ethos of Star and Shadow, so they said yes. We’ve actually just extended our lease for another two years. As our landlords, Star and Shadow have been so supportive every step of the way – especially during the pandemic.

The shop is made up of a large number of independent vintage sellers. How does that work? 

We have an incredible 31 sellers at Flea Circus, and each of them do a shift in the shop once a month. But we also have a few others, like our cards and prints, which are from local sellers too. We sell their items on a commission basis, as not everyone is set up to do a shift in the shop. I met a lot of the lovely sellers we have on the vintage market circuit. There’s a real independent business community in Newcastle, and we just kept meeting people along the way who’ve joined us. I feel as if we’ve accidentally created a lovely micro-culture. We didn’t set out with the sole purpose to do that, but the sellers – or our ‘Fleas’, as we call them – are a wonderful group and we’ve become such a good team. Real, lifelong friendships have been made and sellers support each other 100%. 

How has COVID impacted Flea Circus? 

It’s been so sad not to be able to get together right now. Even not being able to give sellers a hug at the moment is so difficult! But our customers have been wonderful. During the first lockdown, we began doing live tours of the shop on Facebook, showing people items that way, and had a hugely positive response. But this second lockdown did take us by surprise. We’re all very tired really, as we keep having to do things in a new way – which might sound silly, but it can be exhausting when you’re trying to run a business, to feel that things keep changing. We’re longing to just open the door and welcome our customers back in again. 

The response we got when we heard we were going to have to shut the shop again was phenomenal. I think we sold more in those three days leading up to the second lockdown than we did in the three weeks previously! People came out in their droves. We could tell people came in even if they didn’t particularly need anything and bought even one small thing, just to show their support. It was incredible. 

You’re part of a real community of independents across the North East. Do you have any businesses you’d recommend supporting by shopping local for Christmas 2020?

We feel for the whole community, we’re all in the same boat. So yes, I’m making a big effort to shop local for Christmas this year. What makes Newcastle special are the unique places that make the city ours, that are nowhere else but here, so it’s paramount we get behind them. To see businesses, for example, in the Grainger Market – which has been part of Newcastle for over 100 years – go under is so, so sad. So I‘ve been buying from there, and from Ernest’s takeaway service, The Tanners Scranners, Block and Bottle, and The Old Cold Yard, who are still selling beers at the moment. The Cumberland Arms have a little shop open, too. I’ve also been going to Heaton Perk and The Fork In The Rose, which is new to Heaton Road and offer coffee and cake where I live. Usually, Mushroom Works Open Studios is open for Christmas, selling artwork from local sellers which, to me, truly marks the beginning of Christmas. They do a 20×20 sale, selling 20cm by 20cm of artwork for £20, and we’ve made it a family tradition to each buy one piece every year. As they can’t have that event this year, they’re doing it online. I’ve made sure to buy things like tea towels from Bethan Laker, and Josie Brookes prints. It’s a big part of their financial year, so I want to support them wherever I can.

Do you have any tips for readers who are new to shopping vintageare there any items they could easily incorporate into their homes? 

I definitely think glassware and vases are a great way into vintage shopping. As are things you would use on a practical level, everyday items like coffee cups and kitchenalia. Using vintage glassware, especially around Christmas when you might have cocktails or mulled wine, gives it such a special feel, rather than your supermarket-bought, run-of-the-mill glasses. Houseplants are also so fashionable again, nodding back to the ‘70s when everyone had homes like jungles! Our seller Mia Loves sells a great range of plants and dried grasses. But we have some sellers in Flea Circus that aren’t vintage-focussed, too. One of our newest is The Happy Bee Soap Company, which offers gorgeous, all-natural products that smell amazing. They have everything from bath bombs and soaps to shaving bombs, they make such lovely gifts. So even if you’re not looking for a vintage item, there’s still something for everyone.

Do you have a particular era you focus on selling from at Nothing New Interiors?

My main focus is on sustainability. If I can stop anything going to landfill, I will. I sell everything from furniture to measuring jugs and saucepans. If it has a purpose and some charm, I’ll sell it! Rather than a specific era, my emphasis is giving things a second chance at life. I honestly think there are enough tables and chairs out there in the world already and, if they’ve survived this long, then they’ve proven that they’re well made. You can buy new, but it doesn’t always last or have the hallmark of high quality the way furniture used to. Sustainable options are cheaper long-term because they last. So by shopping vintage, you can not only make your home look unique but get better value for your money too.

Your own home in Newcastle (featured in national press) is such a stylish space. Is it difficult to not bring everything home from Flea Circus?!

A lot of things do come home with me, yes! I’m currently sitting with two enormous lampshades that I recently brought home. The beauty of vintage and sustainable buys though is that they hold their value. You buy them cheaper, you take them home and use them, and even if, many years later, you want to sell them on, the pieces won’t lose value as modern items do. Plus, there’s always a market for great quality vintage if something has great style and character – that never goes out of fashion.

You can follow Flea Circus on Facebook, where they will be continuing to go live and share items for sale, which are available to buy via a click-and-collect service. 

Follow them on Instagram to browse their gorgeous homeware and fashion, and visit them when shops reopen at: 210 Warwick Street, Newcastle NE2 1BB.

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