A new “mini department store” will open in Worksop this weekend – with its owners hoping a dash of West African spice can help energise the high street.
Westaf will welcome its first customers through the doors of 57-59 Bridge Street at 11am on Saturday, September 22, revealing a range of food, cosmetics and haberdashery unlike anything else in town.
The launch will see live music, hair and make-up tutorials, Afro-Caribbean food, free sample and recipe giveaways, and the chance to sign up for 30 hours of free sewing lessons.
Running her own enterprise will be a first for Sheffield resident Sylvia Acquah, who will be relocating to Worksop full-time later this year when she marries business partner Oluwaseyi Olubi.
The name is a nod to the couple’s heritage — hers Ghanaian, his Nigerian.
Sylvia, aged 32, said: “A lot of our stock will be familiar to people with links to Africa in and around Worksop, who currently have to travel to London or Manchester every month to stock up on their favourite things in bulk.
“We might not be able to compete with wholesale prices, but the convenience could make up for that.
“We think there is enough of a market there to sustain the business, but there will be lots of things for other kinds of shoppers too, like an international fruit and vegetable section, colourful printed fabrics, herbal teas and a range of natural, organic skincare and grooming products which are suitable for anyone.
“Bringing different kinds of customers together in one place means they might all find something unexpected.
“There will be things here you won’t find anywhere else.
“It’s maybe not the conventional way of setting up an African shop, but it makes it more inclusive.
“We hope everyone comes in and sees we’re trying something different.”
The impulse to open the shop arrived in a moment of inspiration in May, when Sylvia was in Worksop to visit her future in-laws – but she has done more than enough homework to make it a potential success.
Sylvia said: “I’m currently finishing up my PhD in social enterprise and empowerment, but I have worked in retail while studying ever since I was 16, first at Superdrug, then Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser.
“I had been thinking about starting up a business consultancy service, but part of my research was about entrepreneurship and solving problems and when I came to Worksop I spotted two which I could do something about.
“First, there was no shop for these kinds of goods, and second, there were lots of shop units which were shut or closing down.
“More and more retailers are closing their doors, it’s happening everywhere because of the economy.
“The situation is bad, but it’s important to see it as an opportunity to open more niche and smaller enterprises like ours in the community.
“It gives potential business owners a chance to try something they might not ever think was possible, and if you give shoppers good reasons to use the town centre it will help other businesses to.
“I’ve heard it’s quiet in town on Mondays and Tuesdays, so that’s when we’ll do our sewing workshops to draw people in.”
Westaf is taking over the premises of a former charity shop and Sylvia has drawn lessons from pop-up shop projects in Sheffield, where a larger economy and more extensive social infrastructure perhaps allows for more risk-taking.
She said: “I think the councils in Worksop are trying to encourage new business with funding, incentives and support.
“There wasn’t anything applied to what we wanted to do, so we just took the plunge, but I think Worksop can find ways to let people test business ideas out in empty spaces and, even if they don’t work, people lose nothing but gain good experience.”
That philosophy of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” has served Sylvia well so far and, at the very least, she plans to learn everything she can from developing a project of her own from the very beginning.
She said: “My first degree was in biomedical science and I hoped to find work in that field but opportunities were limited. Even so, I remember saying then that in five years’ time I wanted to be running my own business, and here we are.
The last month has been a whirlwind of decorating, shopfitting, orders, deliveries all while balancing the books, so now Sylvia and Oluwaseyi are eager to meet their customers.
She said: “Working somewhere like M&S, they place such importance on customer service, you learn a lot and I really enjoyed it too.
“I think one of the things I’m looking forward to most is meeting new people and getting more of a feel for the wider community. We’ve already met some really lovely people who have helped us get everything ready.”
Once the shop is open, the couple will be staffing it themselves, six days a week, 9am to 5pm, but in time they hope to create new jobs for others.
The shop will be offering home deliveries within a 15-mile radius, free for orders over £50, with a website in the pipeline.
For all the latest news from Westaf, follow the shop at www.facebook.com/WestafWrksop