In a hard time for independent stores, a new website aims to support the people behind these companies, writes Caitriona McBride
One of the few positive aspects about the last year is that local businesses have been cherished like never before. It has been a heartbreaking year for so many business owners who have been forced to close or face an uncertain future. A new website, My Block, is the result of two Belfast women’s passion for what makes businesses here so special, and why we need to celebrate them more.
The duo behind Belfast Design week, Karishma Kusurkar and Christine James, came up with the idea for My Block during the height of the pandemic. This innovative platform will be a one stop directory that will highlight and celebrate the diversity and heart and soul of local independent businesses across Belfast who are such an integral part of the business tapestry in Northern Ireland.
Karishma, a multi-disciplinary designer, said that as well as being a practical directory, they also want it to feature engaging stories behind the businesses. During lockdown, online sales soared and she said that while it can be easy to resort to Amazon, they hope that My Block will highlight the local alternatives and little hidden gems you never knew were on your doorstep.
“Our project is called My Block because that refers to neighbourhoods, your local street, and it’s all about that discovery of what’s around the corner because often we resort to just going onto Amazon because it’s convenient and getting everything on there,” she says.
“It’s certainly not to say don’t shop on Amazon, you have to only shop at independents, it is just to encourage people to look at what is on their doorstep.
“If they can buy their gifts locally or they can swap out some of what they normally get with a bigger retailer like Amazon from a local independent business, then every little bit really helps support that local economy as well. Really, what it’s going to be is a directory space where you can discover things to do locally, but also the human stories behind businesses.”
Supported by Innovate UK, the women secured funding by applying for “business-led innovation in response to global disruption”.
While the focus is on businesses in Belfast for now, the women aim to eventually see it expand to include all of Northern Ireland.
The online platform will feature a range of things like practical information about local business but it will also feature design, culture, content, with a narrative driven focus on the stories behind the businesses.
Karishmar’s friend and co-director of Belfast Design Week, Christine, runs Blick Studios.
“One of the reasons we came up with idea for My Block was because last year was a really difficult year for us,” she says.
“Our main source of income is renting out physical space so obviously that was really challenging, it still is challenging because of social distancing. It was a difficult year but a good year, we got some opportunities we didn’t expect.”
Karishmar said that one thing they really noticed was the businesses who were struggling as they had fallen through the cracks in terms of receiving government support and she and Christine really wanted to do something to help.
“There was a lot a lot of new businesses set up in the last year or two that had no support actually from government grants because they weren’t eligible because they didn’t have enough tax returns in,” she explains.
“There were a lot of people that were caught between the support.
"A lot of people are not eligible for furlough scheme so we thought that actually a lot of businesses just had to innovate and continue on and try and reach new customers, so we wanted to tie into all of that and help promote those businesses and get the word out there to new audiences, too.”
One thing that’s clear is that both women are passionate about the unique spirit of community in Belfast.
Christine has lived in Italy and Karishmar lived in London and she thinks this has made them truly appreciate Belfast as a place to live and work.
“We both have spent a bit of time in other cities which made a difference because you kind of realise the value and the benefits of being in a city like Belfast.
“Sometimes we all take it for granted, the opportunities that we have here, because it’s affordable to live here and we have a very supportive community.
"There is a lot going for Belfast and I just don’t think that maybe it is shouted about enough.”
“One of the lovely things about Belfast I think is that we do have a really good sense of community here,” says Christine.
“People are very supportive and very interested in getting involved with stuff because for so long we didn’t really have anything here so I think there is a real demand for it, especially as more and more people are making the move back to live in Belfast from other places.”
As so many people have been working from home in the last year, exploring our local neighbourhoods has led many of us to appreciate and discover what we can find locally. My Block will highlight the businesses we know about, as well as the ones we don’t.
“On Ormeau [Road] there is of course Kaffe O but there are also some people who work from their homes in Ormeau as well,” says Karishmar.
“There are services like dog-walking that people might not know about. So it is everything from dog-walking services to retail to food to illustrators in their neighbourhoods. It’s uncovering all of those.”
So far, over 100 independent Belfast businesses have signed up.
One example of telling the story behind a business on this platform is She Sells Sanctuary, set up by Gemma McMahon and Sara Morrison during the height of the pandemic to raise funds for Women’s Aid because of the increase of domestic violence during lockdown.
Both women, who are involved in the local art scene, reached out to their contacts for designs that they then had printed onto canvas bags and T-shirts to sell online and all the proceeds go straight to Women’s Aid.
“I think it’s really changing that perception about business in Northern Ireland. Most business here is small business and it is people’s livelihoods and their hearts and their souls go into it and a lot of hard work. And getting people really behind [business] and support small businesses,” said Christine.
She said she hopes that the website will encourage people to spend their money locally.
“Definitely one of the reasons and the idea behind the project is because we were in that position ourselves in terms of the impact of the Covid pandemic.
“For us, it was really important to push that if you’re buying local you’re really supporting on a local level and that kind of money goes back in so that was where the idea came from.
“I think maybe people aren’t always aware that if they buy a coffee from a local place the impact that has versus buying something from Starbucks or Café Nero or Costa.”
The website will be continually edited and updated and Karishmar said they are keen to hear from other businesses who would like to be featured, particularly businesses in north and west Belfast.
Her dream for My Block is that it will showcase the vibrancy and diversity of businesses in Belfast, eventually including local independent businesses across Northern Ireland.
“We are kicking off with Belfast and over the next few months we are hoping to start reaching out and expanding to other parts of Northern Ireland as well,” she says.
To feature on the pilot platform of My Block businesses must be based in Belfast, be privately owned, have no more than four outlets and 50 full-time employees. Also, the owner(s) must be in control of all decision making.
“What we’d love is for somebody from the general public would hop on our platform and say: ‘I didn’t really know that this was just round the corner’,” says Karishmar. “Or: ‘I found the perfect present for somebody from here and I’d never heard of them before’. So new discoveries and finding out what’s happening locally and hopefully businesses getting business out of it, too.”