When my family moved to Cambridge in 1994, it was full of businesses owned by locals (apart from the supermarket and my beloved KFC, and I suspect the supermarket was a franchise). The shops closed early on Saturday and stayed closed on Sunday. I still remember when The Warehouse opened and the adults in my life RUED the day, knowing it signalled major competition for those small businesses. Sure enough, the arrival of CDs for $9.95 and an entire outdoor dining set for less than a hundred bucks was too much, and eventually Cambridge got a Briscoes and a McDonalds to complete its Monopoly set of mod-cons.
However, as Joni would say, the seasons go round and round and eventually, on one of my visits to Cambridge, I became aware of a new generation of locally-owned businesses starting to put out feelers. The most exciting of these for this magpie was Leven.
It started in a shop so small that the first time I went in, I was afraid to turn around too quickly in case I knocked something down. The stock was amazing. Now, Cambridge was a town where my high school boyfriend was able to find not one, but two, pastel-coloured candles shaped like cavorting teddy bears, so the bar might not have been that high, but even by my pretty spoilt Wellington standards, I was excited. On that first visit I bought my beloved tote bag from Caravan.
I asked Kath about those early days in Cambridge, and which came first – the population that would support a store like Leven, or the shops and cafes that helped to make Cambridge a desirable place to live for those townies from up the line (Cambridge is increasingly popular as a satellite town for Aucklanders). Kath explained – “I think there were always women in Cambridge who wanted what Leven stocked – they were just having to go to Hamilton or further afield for it. I thought that if my friends and I were keen to have access to these sorts of gorgeous things, then surely others would be too!”
Since those days, Leven has shared a larger space with another local business and now has that entire larger space to itself. It has expanded its repertoire from a selection of gifts and homeware into fashion, books and beauty, and considering that the first customer came through the door the minute it was opened on the day I visited, it’s clearly a regular stop for the citizens of Cambridge. It’s fair to say that there’s almost too many opportunities for me to set my wallet on fire when I visit Cambridge now. Yikes.
Looking around at the range (and buying several things I did not know I needed until I saw them…oops) it struck me as a huge undertaking to build up a business. I understand a little of what it’s like to sell locally designed things to a store like Leven, but I didn’t know much about what it’s like to be on the other side, starting a business from scratch, so I asked Kath what that had been like.
“You have to convince people to take a chance on you, and you’re an unknown quantity. I remember how excited I was when I would get an email from a brand I’d contacted, saying they would supply us. Nowadays it’s a bit different, but it’s still amazing finding new brands and new things to bring into the store and share with our customers”
The thing I love about Leven, apart from its excellent selection of Kowtow and the fact it smells delicious from all the Ashley & Co diffusers, is its story. I think it’s awesome that Kath saw an opportunity to do something brand new, and to bring something to her town that she thought other women would enjoy. I love that she put herself out there, building a whole set of relationships to make her business a success. And I love that locally owned businesses are able to grow in a town where once the promise of cheap imported goods caused speedy attrition in the main street.
When I was at Leven, Kath was supervising the finishing touches on the new fitting rooms, before running to take her daughter to a netball game. For me, that was a great example of what starting a business in a NZ town can give you – success, but balance. Leven doesn’t open on Sunday, just like its predecessors in 1994. Somehow, though, I think they have nothing to fear from big box competition.