Sipping her coffee, Margaret Copland explains how she started out in small business. “I’d worked in a bank for maybe ten, fifteen years. I got promoted to a job I really hated so I left the bank. I really liked small business, so I started a cleaning business because I thought it was a good way of making money. But I was subservient to the people I was cleaning for, I hated the fact that my time wasn’t my own.”
A love of playing with beads soon took Copland to the markets where she set up shop and met now partner Hayden Bowman. “I used to sell pewter to Hayden, I think the only reason he started going out with me was because he was getting pewter cheap!” she says with a laugh. “We opened up a shop called Beads and Pieces; we ended up doing a half gothic and half ‘nice’ theme in Brunswick St in Fitzroy, but down the cheap, grotty end. “
Copland reveals how naive her perception of the area was. “I just saw the nice coffee shops [in Brunswick]; I didn’t see how dangerous it was. Hayden had worked in the area and moved in with me and basically took on the role as protector. One night someone took a sledgehammer to the front door. There was also an old family that lived above their shop. One night someone knocked on the door and the mother opened it and they came in, hit her over the head and took all their money.”
Drug rehabilitation centres nearby didn’t help either. “Usually drug addicted people would come in; and they’d steal so much stuff. We were so naive, we’d have our back to them, and they would just take boxes of stuff!” she says with a laugh.
Copland’s move to Woodend was a welcome change from the city hustle and bustle, yet the store development took time. “When we moved here, we were a bit burnt out on people. There was just so much mass humanity in Fitzroy. We had plans to open the shop up right away, but it took us about ten years to get around to doing it.”
Being a practised Wiccan, Copland explains how she first became interested in the religion. “Witchcraft magazine came out about twelve years ago, and from there is where I got interested in it. I did lots and lots of study. My particular area of witchcraft is charms. I’m really into charm bags.”
The alternative nature of Uncle Fester’s has, surprisingly, had no real negative reactions from the predominantly Catholic town. “Look, some people will drag their kids out of the shop, they realise it’s not a nice gift shop. One of our first sales was actually to the Catholic Church. They bought purple candles for the altar, I thought that was funny!” she laughs. “They’d already tried every other store; they did tell us that we were their last call.”
Despite the positive reception from townspeople and customers alike, there has been at least one case of what Copland would describe as evil. “One lady came in, and her son had died. She was blaming his girlfriend; she said she was a psychic vampire and that she had sucked the life out of him. The girlfriend ended up marrying the boy’s ashes. The media made it out to be very light hearted, but according to the mother it was much darker than that. In that case I just listened, she was very distressed.”
Copland’s belief that society has moved into darker imagery stirs some memories up from Brunswick Street. “Hayden’s first thing was glass coffins. There was this one little Italian lady that walked past every day, and she felt that she had to kneel and pray in front of every coffin,” she laughs. “Other people would be really shocked and horrified, but now, nobody would even look twice.”
With the business on her hands, Copland says she has never considered children. “I never, ever had any maternal bones in my body. I was very interested in business; a lot of my books were about that. I just think that what we’ve done we couldn’t have done with kids.”
Though most of Uncle Fester’s business is from the internet, Copland elaborates on how she manages the store itself. “It’s so deadly quiet at the moment, the shop is easy to manage. I think when petrol prices went up, people stopped doing day trips so much. It’s good to have a proper worksite shop; it adds credibility to your website. If people wanted to come and visit us, they can, although 90 percent of them never will.”
“Although, before we opened the shop, I set up the front room in the house as a showroom and a shop, but that just got too busy and Hayden didn’t like people coming in the house all the time.”
Through the daily newsletter that their site posts, Copland says she feels when customers come in; it’s like half the conversation has already begun. “People came in last weekend, and said they weren’t there to haggle, because I’d put up a post up about how Hayden doesn’t like haggling. In the past, if you started haggling with him, particularly when he had his own hand-made stuff, he wouldn’t want to sell it to them anymore! People would agree to pay full price but he’d still say no,” she laughs.
When asked whether she would ever expand the business, Copland hesitates slightly. “I am, but it’s different now than what it was ten years ago. We were selling at markets and now it’s all online. If I was concentrating on the shop, we’d really have to move back to Melbourne, again. When we moved, we thought the city was so grotty, but now I can sort of see the attraction of being in the city again.”
* Interview conducted and written up as part of a University assisgnment