By Catherine Franks
I enjoyed a recent review where I was accused of strong views. I take that as a compliment as a lack of strong views at present can only indicate one is failing to pay attention. How can you see that people all around you are struggling and not feel strongly about it?
I would in fact suggest that strong views are very much what we need right now but that does not mean confrontation, instead our approach should be one of collaboration. If there was ever a time which needed creative thinking it is now. If there was ever a place which needed collaboration, it is our planet in its current state.
On a recent visit to Bristol I was inspired by the community activism I saw at Stokes Croft and from their wee shop I brought back a print that is made up from a quote by Albert Einstein.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
This framed print will soon be a part of a small new project I am working on for upstairs at Steampunk. (Watch this space!)
I think about these very simple words a lot. It feels like we are in such a mess just now, in our country, on our planet, that a radical shift in our thinking is vital. Those who propose more of the same, just in an increasingly extreme and inhumane way, are surely idiots who we should not follow. We should not fear change anywhere near as much as we should fear continuing along our current path.
Change is good, growth not so much...
Steampunk is a business that has constantly changed and developed over the years but throughout it all we have remained steadfastly true to our ethos which puts people and planet over profit. I have not been interested in ‘growing’ the business in the capitalist sense - ie by becoming bigger, or expanding, or duplicating into infinitely more faded and substandard copies of ourselves but in growing in a more enlightened sense of the word by becoming better, wiser and more meaningful and intentional in our impacts and actions. And in getting better at what we do.
There are some who seem to believe that ‘growth’ (in the narrow capitalist GDP obsession way) is the only way forward. Sadly they currently form our government. But growth of harmful things (guns, pollution, deforestation, carbon emissions) should never be seen as a positive and yet they are treated as such if all we consider is GDP growth. We need to use the reason and the incredible brains and imagination we have been put on this world with to picture a different possibility, something entirely better. I really recommend checking out Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less is More’ to see how a degrowth approach is far more just and imaginative than the tired old linear growth model which is quite frankly just so last century. If you haven’t already explored Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model you should really take a look here - I mean anything based on a doughnut is pretty inspiring, wouldn’t you say?
What’s happening upstairs then?
One of the most frequently asked questions we have had over the past year is what we are planning for upstairs at Steampunk. I am sure that most assumed that when Covid restrictions went away, all would go ‘back to normal’. But Covid gave us a chance to pause and think carefully about what direction we wanted to go in and it gave us the chance to make some changes. So we grasped it. Because, as comforting as it is to return to something you know, the old ‘normal’ was in fact not that great for a lot of people and we didn’t really see the point in going backwards to it. Boy has it been a steep learning curve, but learning is fun and I don’t plan on stopping doing it at any point soon.
So for the past year since we reopened the downstairs seating of our cafe, our upstairs area has been a storage place for packaging and stock and all the miscellaneous stuff that the business has accumulated over its 10 year history. I am notorious for not throwing things away that could be repurposed and made useful again in future but the team could assure you that also has its downside.
Last Christmas Orange Moon Records moved in to part of our upstairs space and Becca who runs the business has become an integral part of Steampunk, even joining our team as a barista one day a week. Orange Moon cultivates a space which is about sharing a love of music and creativity. It invites conversations and lingering. Its a safe space where you can release your inner musical geekery and vibe with other like minded souls. Importantly it is a completely different sort of space than a hospitality one and it adds much richness and texture to what Steampunk is. Becca also shares our ethos of caring about people and has run free DJ workshops for local youngsters offering them skills and the opportunity to explore their own musicality.
In the summer Ben, who runs the well established and much loved Benjamin’s Barbershop in Stockbridge, began pop up barbershop sessions upstairs next to the record shop. These have been really popular and have again brought in a different dynamic to the space with conversations and connections being made with folk who might not have otherwise found themselves in Steampunk. Throughout the summer we have run pop up street food events on out terrace too, with each business bringing something different.
We have finally cleared our upstairs and are adding to its richness yet again this week as The Big Blu Pizza returns, but this time without his van. Chris will be making pizzas from our kitchen on Fridays and Saturdays (from 4pm to 7pm). With music from Becca at Orange Moon, this aims be a fun pizza party which we hope will be an inviting space to everyone from young families to teens to grannies. It will hopefully be a place where people can come together, socialise and have fun without it costing too much money. There is a lot of worry and isolation out there and we hope to offer something of an antidote.
By using our upstairs in this shared way, our space becomes infused with creativity, there is a buzz of activity and a feeling that there is always something exciting in store around the corner.
A different approach to ‘business’
I don’t want the atomsphere at Steampunk to be simply transactional, but instead want to offer room for gathering, for learning skills and for trying out new ideas and alternative ways of doing things. I would like to offer a place where creativity can flourish and bring something of benefit to our community. That is why we have hosted live music over the years, both as a support for young musicians and also to bring something extra to the town. We host creative workshops such as the Sashiko ones with Millie Scott Studio to bring new skills and support people to approach sustainability in a creative and fun way.
Next week we will run another ‘Crumble Together’ a communal apple crumble making event that not only gathers folk together to share food directly, but by donating our sales from it to East Lothian Food bank will also have a ripple effect in our wider community.
Our annual ‘Apple Exchange’ is underway again too where people can drop off unwanted apples from their gardens, and others can pick up apples for free.
None of these events bring a financial revenue to Steampunk but they bring an untold richness to our place and to those of us who share it.
I believe that is is not necessary for a small business to be capitalist. Our aim does not need to be the accumulation of capital or the concentration of wealth upwards but instead it can be about running a sustainable business, one that reinvests in its team and redistributes income in its local economy. One that encourages the constant gaining of skills rather than deskilling. One that contributes to its environment rather than simply extracts from it. That can be in ideas or attitudes or ways of working as well as in monetary terms.
I have been listening to an excellent podcast series recently called 'From what if to what next' which invites an imaginative approach to exploring our possible futures. Check out the episode 'What if every place had a thriving social economy' for some real inspiration.
The ideas I've mentioned here are not new and they are by no means unique to Steampunk. There are so many examples of businesses and other groups doing amazing things and I constantly look to others for inspiration and for reassurance that in fact we are not alone and together we can make small differences that add up to something enormous. We in turn hope to offer that reassurance to others by the small actions we take.
I hope you enjoy our space!