Common Circus’ labour of love

Before Lauren Henry started her lifestyle store and coffee shop, Common Circus, she worked in the fashion industry for eight years, all the while dreaming of starting her own business. She wanted to create the kind of store she would love to visit, a community space where taking your time to browse is encouraged and regulars are greeted by name.

This is exactly what she has created for the locals and holidaymakers who frequent her store on the banks of Lake Macquarie in New South Wales. Customers can grab a coffee, chat with friends at the large communal table, and look through a range of products from Australian brands including Robert Gordon, Milk & Sugar and Leif.

“Our philosophy is simple—in a day and age where life is full of crazy, I just wanted to create a space where our local community felt a sense of belonging,” says Henry. “A place where they could grab a coffee, pick up the paper and also a beautiful range of homewares, so they can create a beautiful home to live in. I believe the space you live in and spend a lot of time in matters… If it’s comfortable, organised and homely, you will feel the same.”

When setting up Common Circus, Henry wanted to create a combined coffee shop and homewares store to take some of the pressure off potential buyers. She has a passion for interiors and loves to shop, but says she doesn’t like the experience of walking into a small, quiet store and being ‘watched’ by a retail assistant.

“I wanted to create a store where you didn’t feel the pressure from staff, but you know they are there to chat or offer advice. The coffee helps us create an environment where you can wander through the store while waiting for your coffee, or with your coffee, and either get inspired or find something you love.”

This setup allows regular visitors to really consider a potential investment piece for their home rather than rushing into buying something, which Henry says is important to her as she wants customers to love what they have bought and enjoy it, rather than regretting a purchase. The downside to offering coffee and a small selection of food alongside the product (think delicious sweet treats, toast and muesli) is the negative reviews people occasionally leave online when Common Circus doesn’t meet their expectations.

“For example, they want a hot lunch but we simply don’t claim to be a café and provide this. Or you’ll get a review on Facebook saying you have a bad café because you don’t sell meat pies. I really have to learn to not take it personally, but I am sure a lot of small business owners would agree with me that is it completely personal and your business is an extension of yourself.”

Having such a great spot on the shores of Lake Macquarie, Henry has kept the Common Circus look simple, letting the big glass windows that look right out onto the salt water lake steal the show. The fitout was done on a budget with original timber floorboards and plywood walls creating a simple, relaxed feel.

The product offering has changed over years, while sticking with the overall Common Circus coastal-meets-Scandi aesthetic. Henry sources new products at trade shows and by keeping up with the Australian design community, but says she mostly goes by instinct and what has worked in the past.

“We have been open almost four years and if we didn’t change in that time, we wouldn’t survive. Of course you have a theme and a general vibe of what you always offer, but keeping the store new and fresh and constantly changing is what brings customer back.

“We have also learnt a lot about our local community and their wants and needs and have adapted to sit within the community… Seasonal buying also plays a big role in what we have in the store at any given time. What we have in May for Mother’s Day is very different to September for Father’s Day and it changes again at Christmas.”

With so many regular customers, Henry says it is important to keep the store looking fresh. She remerchandises the space about once a fortnight, with lots of mini adjustments in between.

“I start to feel anxious when I know a delivery has come in and I haven’t had a chance to properly merchandise it within the store. In the early days I would be in the shop until 1 or 2am just playing around and changing things up weekly.

“I don’t have the luxury of that kind of time these days, but we do plan for a day dedicated to merchandising every fortnight. Most of the time I am fiddling and fussing and moving things around every time I’m in the store—it’s crucial.”

Henry has got to know her locals well over the past four years, and says the relationships she has formed with these customers are an unexpected highlight. “We all feel part of their lives and we are privileged to ‘grow’ with them as they raise families, move into retirement, and go through ups and downs. It’s a nice feeling to ‘service’ your community and provide a social meeting point for them to enjoy a lifestyle we all deserve.”

Having put so much time and effort (and love) into her business, Henry says it is important to her to stick to the dream she originally had for Common Circus. While she has had to adjust and adapt along the way, the overall vision has remained the same. With a new baby keeping her busy, her priorities have shifted (with a bigger focus on work/life balance) but she hopes to eventually open a second store.

“I follow my gut feeling and I try to get out of my comfort zone regularly and push myself to be better at what I do. But I am also very conscious not to get swept away and end up with a business that I don’t want to run. Common Circus is very much a labour of love and I want to always love it and not conform to what everyone else wants it to be.”