Written by Rachael Brown. Photography Martha Simons (No Guts No Glory).
I first meet No Guts No Glory’s new owner Alex in the morning quiet of the shop, before its doors opened for the day. Located near the bottom of Fore Street’s steep slope, this indie store has become a cult favourite in Exeter and it can’t just be the street’s downwards gravitational pull that keeps people coming back. With a High Street full of chains, No Guts No Glory has become known in Exeter for its culture of directly supporting independent artists. True to brand, the first thing Alex shows me when I walk in are freshly stocked NGNG t-shirts, hand-printed by a friend of his.
Chatting amongst the art, pottery and the wall of plants, Alex’s route to owning the shop seems surprising. Originally from Reading, he has a background in business and first developed a curiosity in ethical practices whilst studying in Cornwall. He attributes it to a mixture of his course’s focus on sustainability and the region’s slower pace of life.
“Before I never really toyed with the idea of owning my own business,” he explains. “I worked in a really large investment bank last year as a data analyst, so it’s a big change, because I spent ten weeks there looking at excel spreadsheets five days a week. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a geek at heart and there is still a degree of analysis in what I do here, but just not to the same level!”
Exeter’s Fore Street caught his eye and it eventually became the place where he managed to put the ideas he learned at university into motion. “I knew that Fore Street had a lot of shops which are focused on sustainability, then I found out that loads of the products here were based around being ethically sourced”. When graduate jobs dried up, he seized the opportunity to be more creative and through luck and the support of friends and family he managed to get the keys to NGNG.
“[Entering No Guts No Glory] felt right because it felt like I could come into this business and take it over without radically changing it, because it already fit my beliefs quite well.”
When I ask if he wants to take the shop in a new direction, Alex replies, “It’s almost a bit of a cop out answer because I don’t want to sound like I’m not being courageous! But because the shop was doing so well and has been doing so well for the last ten years, I’m not looking to implement any immediate change. Certainly the plants have all stayed the same. I think the key thing that I’ve changed is that the shop never used to sell music and now it does.”
But records aren’t on the shelves just for a love of good tunes. Introducing vinyl to the store, for Alex, meant another step towards becoming more sustainable. “I brought second hand records in because I studied the circular economy and I’m trying to promote circular practices. I encourage people to come in, bring their records in and I’ll buy them off them. I’ll check them out, dust them off and resell them. They’re not really there for profit, they’re there because I like listening to music and it’s a good way to keep the records flowing through the shop”
When I ask about circular practices Alex lights up, “There’s a book called ‘Cradle to Cradle’. Basically, it explains that the only way we can be sustainable as a planet is if we do it at the point of product design”. He then goes on to describe how circular processes differ from the linear economy in which products have one end point, often landfill.
“One really popular example [of circular processes] is compostable plastic. So essentially you can make it out of corn kernels. And if you were to then recuperate that plastic, you can put it in the soil again and grow corn.” He apologises for being lecturey, “In theory it’s near impossible but the idea is that we get as close to it as we possibly can and try and minimise waste.”
At present, Alex is looking to get something called ‘cradle certification’ for No Guts No Glory. “There’s a very limited range of products which have that certification because it’s so difficult to achieve, but going forward I really wanna keep my eye out for it.” Encouraging people to re-use products in this way means that even plastic items can be bought sustainably as we give them a shot at an infinite life. Particularly as “they hold up really, really well.”
To add to his ethical practices, Alex sells records from independent or lesser known artists at half price. “Chances are you probably won’t have heard of them, you just pick one up and give it a go. But when you buy it you’re supporting someone that’s only had a couple thousand hits on Spotify” As the future of many musicians and independent businesses are thrust into the spotlight, ideas like these feel essential.
He remembers a particular moment which sums up the importance of this support. “A girl came in a couple of days ago and I got chatting to her. She asked whether we were interested in stocking any of her face masks”. Alex said yes and bought all of them. “Turns out that she had just lost her job and buying those face masks had given her some rent money for the week. She was over the moon about it. Buying from independent suppliers means you really get that sense that every penny you give to them goes directly to them.”
But what about the independent shops themselves? Courageous little hives, hidden in nooks, quietly throwing life rings out to local artists – how does Alex think they’ll fare at this uncertain time?
“For independent shops this is our life,” he explains. “I think we’ll persevere a lot more through this difficult time because we have no other option.” This determination makes Alex the perfect custodian to carry the flame lit by NGNG’s previous owners, as taking over the shop took, well, guts.