If you’ve lived in Brighton for long, the chances are that you’ll have heard of She Said. If you haven’t, She Said is an erotic boutique based down a narrow alleyway (locally known as a Twitten) on Ship Street Gardens.
The boutique is owned by the lovely Nic Ramsey, who started up her shop in 2002 after moving to Brighton from London. When I met with Nic, she was organising the basement level of her shop for an incoming re-stock. I take a pew on the stepladder while she explains what a busy week she’s had. Nic has recently received a wealth of media attention after teaming up with a ceramics artist to create a range of vintage-inspired playthings. The most popular product being Dearest Fanny’s ceramic dildo, pictured below.
Despite all the hustle and bustle, Nic still managed to squeeze us in for a quick interview to talk all things business and all things personal. I was interested to know how Nic came into her line of work, how she explained to her young daughter what she did for a living, as well as how her business survives in a fiercely competitive industry.
First up, I asked…
How did you go about starting-up your own business?
“The shop has been going since 2002, although it did take me about a year to get it off the ground. I moved to Brighton from London and needed that year to research what I was doing. It wasn’t as easy as popping online and then doing a quick Google search. Back then I’d find myself having to go to all manner of ‘alternative’ events and quite literally tapping people on the shoulder and asking them where they got their clothes and accessories from. Now you’ve got this plethora of choice!
“In order to find classy sex toys, I tracked down a little family-run business in Germany called Fun Factory. For the first year all we sold was Fun Factory and we were the first business in the UK to stock their fabulous, colourful toys. Since then, there’s been a huge change in the industry. There’s almost too much choice now – with everything looking pretty much the same. Your buying decisions change; how do you decide which one of these 15 identical products to go with?”
So, how do you make your brand stand out from the rest?
“Everything I’ve ever done has been about building and nurturing our brand. I never had any knowledge of brand-building, but I’ve always had this vision of having a successful brand. Products come and go, designers come and go, but I’ve always had a vision that this business would still be going in 100 years’ time and who knows, maybe still in this little alley.
“At this point in time, we’re going right back to our roots. We’ve had to move a couple of times. We were originally based next door for 12 and a half years. Then our landlord refused to renew our lease, so we moved to the High Street, on the corner of Ship Street. We thought this would be a good move for us and hoped the increase in footfall would translate into more sales and revenue, but it just felt all wrong. When you have huge rental costs, your motivation goes from buying and selling beautiful things and making your customers happy to buying products that you think will generate the most cash. We weren’t prepared to re-market our brand to fit the style of the High Street, so we moved back to Ship Street Gardens at the earliest opportunity.
“We can now buy things that we love, even if they don’t make so much money. The ceramic dildos are a fine example of that – we don’t really make much profit out of those, but they’re beautiful, bespoke pieces that we love having in the shop.
“Location is so important. If you don’t get that right, you won’t get the right clientele. For us, this little alley is perfect – it’s discreet, it’s a bit naughty and it allows for a private shopping experience.”
Do you feel at risk as an independent business?
“I think somewhere along the line, the government has given up on independent retail businesses. The future is online and that’s fine, but I just hope that people will continue to support small, independent businesses and allow them to continue to survive on the high streets but also to play a part in the online future of retail. After all, if it weren’t for us independents, Brighton would be a very dull place to visit.”
After asking more generally about She Said as a business, I’m keen to dig a bit deeper into Nic’s personal life to find out what spurred her on to start up an erotic boutique.
What’s it like running an erotic boutique and why did you start it up in the first place?
“My whole mission when starting up this business was to create a lovely experience for women. What drove me on and made me do this, was not because I had some mad fascination with sex or lingerie or sex toys. If I’m truly honest, I really don’t like sex toys. My underwear is simple and comfortable with the odd exception, of course. I had a very difficult time with sex in my teens and early twenties. I was unlucky to have various medical issues in my teens and early 20’s, a time when sex should have been fun and exciting. Instead it was painful and a bit scary.
“So, I’m a big advocate for talking about it. The more you talk about these things which are sometimes taboo or not pretty, admitting not being perfect– if it makes one more person talk to their kids or their friends about things then that’s great. This whole experience gave me a very intellectual approach to sex – I went on TV documentaries talking about sex, read loads of books about sex but living it was a different story.
“Opening this shop was my ‘jumping in at the deep end and swimming with the sharks’.”
“The tipping point for me was when my fiancé broke up with me just 6 weeks before our wedding day. I’d been with him for 5 years and we moved to Brighton to start a whole new life. He stayed one or maybe two nights and then packed his bags and left. He told me I was frigid, and he needed more. It was the biggest wake-up call, it was what I needed because he was right. I don’t hold anything against him at all, but I did at the time. There was a bit of anger in me going on to open an adult boutique. But it all worked out and these days, we’re still friends and I definitely would not describe myself as frigid!
“Yet for years, I have to confess that I walked the walk, talked the talk and put the sexy corsets on. I played the part of sexy underwear shop owner before finally realising that it was time to ‘fess up and admit to myself and everyone why I was actually doing this. I needed to explain to other women that not everybody has amazing sex lives and screaming orgasms all the time, and sometimes ever. But that they could improve their love lives, bodies and self-confidence. I am living proof of that. From then on I started doing talks to groups of women, I started teaching women the importance of pelvic floor training and I even decided I’d do workshops with women to get them ready for the menopause and how that has a huge impact on many women’s sex drive.
“I also love to help women setting up businesses for the first time and give them the advice and support and mentoring I never got. I’ve even helped women open boutiques like mine. I’ve never seen that as a threat, more importantly, it’s about getting more shops like She Said out there helping women and couples have a better time. Before they start up their own business I say: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Are you ready to take on that rent? Are you ready to give your heart and soul?’ It’s a lot to take on and definitely not for the faint-hearted.”
Do you sell anything for men or is your stock exclusively for females?
“We do sell couple toys and an edited range of boys’ toys but because we are very female-focused, we don’t need to have an extensive range, just a carefully selected edit, because there are other shops in Brighton that cater for that. Plus, I want women to come in and feel like this is their second home and feel comfortable. Having a huge display of men’s toys would not be conducive to that kind of atmosphere.”
“I’ve never wanted to make my shop exclusive or promote it as exclusive. The very nature of being exclusive means excluding. From my own personal background, I wanted to make sure that no one felt unwelcome here or that the shop was not for them.”
I was interested to hear more about Nic’s personal life. I was aware she had a daughter and was interested to hear what she told her about her working life.
How do you explain to your young daughter what you do for a living?
“From an early age she knew that Mummy’s shop was a bit special! But she also knew it was nothing to be ashamed of. She would often be there hearing friends and customers and even strangers saying just how special and lovely She Said is, so she’s grown up knowing it’s a nice thing and not something to be ashamed of.
“I think if we lived anywhere else it would probably be a different story. But Brighton is so accepting and so forgiving that I don’t think it’d ever be a problem.
“I tried to pull her aside a while ago for a “chat”, but she made it very clear she already knew what I do! She knows I’ve been on telly and she’s seen me in the paper holding the ceramic dildos so… we never even bothered having the conversation.”
Did you ever have any close calls while she was growing up?
“I have two memories that stick in my head. When she was tiny, I turned around one day, and she was gnawing on a silicone dildo. Don’t get me wrong – it was new stock I had brought over from the shop to store at home, but she was teething on it! I couldn’t believe it when I realised.
“She also once picked up a packet of naughty playing cards off the shelf when she was in the shop one day, which I quickly confiscated from her and didn’t really think much of it. A couple of days later I got a phone call from her Childminder saying that she’d been telling her friends she’d seen pictures of a lady kissing a man “down there”. She was four years old! It’s at that point that I realised literally everything goes into a child’s mind – there’s nothing they don’t miss, but they don’t necessarily know it’s bad. So, I cleaned up my act after that and cleansed the house of anything adult orientated and made sure that nothing got sent to our home.”
Have you ever had anyone come into the shop that’s asked you a weird question?
“Daily. It happens all the time. People come in and say “I’ve got something to ask you which you’ll probably find really strange”… and then they’ll ask a question that I’ll have been asked 100 times before. It’s very rare that I say to myself ‘Oh God, no one’s ever asked me that before!’.
“We’ve had a couple of men who have asked us to come into the fitting room and have their bits hanging out, at which point we just tell them they have to leave – we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour. We have rules now and we’ve learnt lessons. Nevertheless, we’re still inclusive of men and transgender people too – we are very sympathetic to everybody and we never judge anybody. But we do have tolerance levels of what’s acceptable.
“Over the years we have had men routinely coming into the shop saying ‘I want a woman’ and we have to calmly explain that we’re not that kind of business, that it is actually illegal in this country and ask them to kindly leave. I genuinely think they expect there to be a back room with girls in.”
It’s clear to see why She Said is such a successful, thriving business. Nic oozes passion and enthusiasm and is utterly dedicated to making women feel comfortable and confident in her shop. To see the shop for yourself (if you haven’t already) please go to 12a Ship Street Gardens, Brighton BN1 1AJ.