Some of you may well be familiar with our venture “On the Stall City” (OTSC) by now. For those of you who don’t know us, we run a stall with our son Jacob on Norwich Market where we sell NCFC replica kit, training wear, leisure wear and memorabilia, and donate all profits we make to the Community Sports Foundation.
There is, however, a little more to it being just market a stall. It means so much more to us than that. It was idea that first came to us after we came home from an appointment Jacob had with his specialist at the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital back in December 2018.
Jacob has autism and a number of other health conditions, including Type-1 diabetes. As he has grown up the complexities of life have become more difficult for him to deal with, and he had started to suffer anxiety-triggered seizures.
Living with anxiety is an enduring feature of autism. Some have described living with autism as going to a job interview every day of your life where you constantly question if you are doing the right thing, worry about how you are perceived, and ruminate about the things you might have got “wrong”.
Jacob’s consultant suggested we need to provide him with opportunities for “anxiety holidays”, namely activities that could act as diversions from his day-to-day anxieties; the idea being that this would help him keep his anxiety levels down and hopefully prevent further seizures.
Many people with autism have special interests. When Jacob was younger, his special interests were electricity pylons and car washes. We would spend many an afternoon at the local garage, watching people getting their car washed to the surprise (and sometimes alarm) of many.
As Jacob has got older, his special interests are now, thankfully for us, something we can actually relate to, namely Norwich City FC and talking about Norwich City FC.
However, being a City fan is rarely angst-free. Also, football is a game of chance and skill, where things happen randomly and unexpectedly. This can be problematic for the autistic mind, which relies on order and predictability to understand the chaos that autistic people have to navigate daily.
It seemed to us that autism and football were unsuitable bedfellows. As a child, it took Jacob a long time to understand the concept of playing to win and he did not have any competitive instinct at all. But we really hoped that the combination would work.
So, Jacob adopted football as his special interest and has been a devoted City fan since 2007. His autistic mind lends itself perfectly to accumulating football facts, figures and memories. He has an astonishing pre-pandemic record of attending all home and away games for over 10 years and has only missed one home game over this period.
During this time as a fan, Jacob collected an impressive and bulky collection of replica kit, programmes and assorted NCFC tat that littered our house. Ten years’ worth of three-kits-a-year, plus the occasional match worn or retro shirt was putting a huge strain on both Jacob’s wardrobe and our patience.
When we were having a coffee after that hospital visit, we had a “eureka” moment. Norwich City Council were offering some “pop-up” stalls on Norwich market to encourage start-up businesses and others wishing to dip their toe into retailing. We had mooted the idea of a boot sale previously to get rid of our excess NCFC items, but this was discounted as being too random and fraught with uncertainty.
The pop-up stall, however, was in a fixed location and so was less random than a boot sale. We came up with the name “On the Stall City” in a sudden flash of inspiration over that same cup of coffee. On to the Council’s website we went to book our slots on the pop-up stall, and OTSC was born, in the space of an afternoon.
When we were thinking of a suitable venture for Jacob, we wanted a charity to benefit. So why the Community Sports Foundation? Well, that’s another story, but just to say that their expert coaches and staff managed to reach out to Jacob when he was in a particularly bad place, and somehow spoke to him in a way that various medics, therapists and others in the medical profession had failed to do in the past.
We are forever indebted to the CSF’s patience, skill and kindness, and it just seemed natural to make them the beneficiaries of OTSC.
As for choosing a market stall to raise funds, we are never going to be brave enough to skydive, or athletic enough to “Run Norwich” to raise money, but we are happy to chat about football all day long, so this is a perfect combination for us!
We operated the pop-up stall for a number of weeks over a period of months in 2019. We managed to sell Jacob’s stock of shirts in a flash, and we were concerned that we would run out of things to sell. However, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of City fans donating items, we accumulated enough stock to run the stall half a dozen times, raising thousands for the CSF during that time.
We had no idea whether this idea had legs when we started, but it was well-received and it seemed to us that we could be on to something that perhaps could work longer-term.
The pop-up stall was such a success that we decided to apply for a permanent stall. A few meetings with Norwich City Council, a business plan and a dedicated bank account later, we were ready to start trading.
However, when thinking about the business plan we had to address the issue of the ongoing availability of stock. We have received amazing support from City fans who turned up at the stall with bags of old shirts, sent donations to the CSF offices to forward to us and have been so touched by people’s kindness and generosity.
However, we knew if our business plan and application to the Council were to succeed, we needed a guaranteed supply chain. As such we were delighted with the support that we received from the football club itself. Ben Kensell, the then COO, pointed us in the direction of Phil Gray, Lotteries Compliance and Gaming Manager, who has been a godsend (or a sort of honorary godfather!) for our stall.
Amongst a range of other duties, Phil is tasked with raising money for the Academy through the sale of NCFC merchandise. We bought lots of surplus club shop stock from him and all of the money that we paid for that was allocated to the NCFC Academy, so this really was a real win-win scenario. We have also received a huge stock of CSF training gear, mostly brand new Errea stuff, as they transition over to the new kit supplier, Joma.
We were delighted to be informed that our application for stall 13 was successful. Plans were afoot to open in March 2020 but the pandemic had other ideas. Jacob is classed “clinically extremely vulnerable” so we locked down to shield him, with no way of knowing when we would be able to open.
Stuck at home, we thought we had to do something. Charities, including CSF, were suffering badly in the pandemic, at a time when the support they offer others was needed more than ever. We got hold of some additional stock from NCFC, opened a website, catalogued hundreds (if not thousands) of items, and started trading on our website in June 2020.
It was a lifeline for us. Something positive for us to do and to hold on to at a time of complete despair and uncertainty. Online trading is pretty hard work, but Jacob was a natural at cataloguing items on the site, and Sharon (whose hobby is online shopping anyway!) became a dab hand at packaging items for despatch.
Every night she’d get the ironing board out, stick a Rammstein album on, and package away through to the early hours! It was a great distraction for us and we managed to get more money to reinvest in stock, and made a four-figure donation to the CSF in time for Christmas.
On the subject of money, when we started OTSC we had no idea how much we would raise for the CSF. We started pretty low-key and after a weeks’ trading simply rocked up at the CSF offices with carrier bags full of takings.
When we opened our online shop we could only take card payments into the OTSC business account, but it became apparent that once we opened the stall on a permanent basis, a more formalised and transparent finance system would be required.
We are now in the process of putting matters on a more formal footing and are setting up OTSC as a “Community Interest Company”. This a set-up is similar to a Limited Company, used for community commercial projects.
We had thought of setting up OTSC as a charity, but as all our profits go to the CSF charity anyway, this was not appropriate. All of OTSC’s accounts are made public on Companies House, and there is an “asset lock” in favour of CSF, which means we have a legal obligation for all of our profits to be donated to our named charity, the CSF.
Anyone seeing us on the stall dropping things and grappling with the payment card reader know we are novices and weren’t exactly born for this. We are both lawyers by trade, and our day job is running a company providing online training, webinars and legal consultancy work for clients.
Our “day job company” as we call it (aka ABC Food Law) keeps us fed and housed, and the way we organise our day job company (we should say out-of-hours job now!) allows us the luxury of being able to run the stall during the day.
The three of us do not take any remuneration from OTSC at all. All the work we have always done, and still do, is on a voluntary basis. We are lucky that our “day job company” can bankroll OTSC to a large extent – ABC has provided much of the start-up costs, such as the stall refit, and its continuing operating costs, such as the purchase of stock, to make sure that as much of the money raised on the stall reaches the CSF as is possible.
As we say, we weren’t born for this, we have another day job which without which we cannot eat, and we are only human, so please bear with us – we do have our limitations!
We can only run the stall for limited hours, and we have had to turn down numerous requests for a mail-order service. We simply do not have enough hours in the day to provide this service on top of all our other work and domestic stuff. We also have no control over what donations we receive and what items we acquire – so if we run out of a size 38 shirt and you ask us “when will you have more in?” the answer is, we do not know.
We are not an NCFC outlet store or retail outfit, just three NCFC fans trying to do their best. We are limited for space too, in a stall half the size of our “pop-up”, and have a huge stock of club shop surplus, so we can’t display many of our football programmes. However, we are exploring ways that we might be able to sell these in the future.
We still would still love to receive any donations of good-quality shirts and any football memorabilia. Not just NCFC ones; we are happy to receive any football shirts as they may appeal to the passing trade in the market, especially once the tourists return to the Fine City.
We are rather awash with programmes at the moment though and have limited storage space. As such we are currently only looking for old (pre -1960s) and rare ones. For example, friendlies, reserve and youth games.
We do restock our stall at regular intervals during the day, but as we have such a small space, we would be grateful if our customers would maintain a respectful distance from others when shopping with us. If the stall is busy when you visit, please come back a bit later. There is always something weird and wonderful that might be donated or we come across, so you will always find something of interest!
Just a word of reassurance to those, who like us, have been locked down for months: Our stall is open fronted and well ventilated and so there is no requirement to wear face masks whilst shopping with us during the ongoing pandemic. We take card payments only, and offer contactless card handling so no cash is handled on the stall.
Our “pay station” is sited in the open air to the side of our stall so all our payment transactions are in the open air. However, we have a stock of face masks and so if you would prefer that we wear them whilst you are browsing, please ask and we will be more than happy to oblige.
Finally, a reason why we are “On the Stall City” and not mail-order or online is that there is a real community purpose to what we do. If you don’t want to buy anything, we are happy to chat NCFC all day long.
The feeling of belonging that is part of being a football fan informs what we do at OTSC. Many people with autism and those with disabilities are excluded, shut out of society and forgotten. This was the motivation and necessity that drove us to create On the Stall City in the first place.
The pandemic has made this situation far worse for those disadvantaged. We need to fight this. And in our very small way we are, out there right in the middle of the city centre where all human life is on display and where we feel completely at home.
We love the people that come to us and talk nine to the dozen with Jacob in a non-judgemental and accepting manner. We love our stall. We hope when you come to visit, you will too. Someone once came up to us and said “It isn’t just about the money, is it?” and he was absolutely right.
The stall is open Tuesday – Friday 11am to 3pm. You can find us at Stall 13, opposite the Garnet pub. More details on donations, opening hours and so on are at www.onthestallcity.com or on Twitter at @OnTheStallCity.