The Story Behind The Curious Merchant

Alison James is a North East based creative with career paths crossing from crafts and costumes, to cooking for the stars and creating her own cave of carefully curated homewares. Elysia Fryer explores her new venture, The Curious Merchant in Masham...
The Curious Merchant

Before meeting with Alison, the word curious instantly springs to mind when reading the ‘My Story’ section on her website for The Curious Merchant.

What hasn’t this woman done? A cup of tea in hand, and a welcome break from our busy schedules, it’s not long before we’re delving deep into her creative world – nose diving into all kinds of exciting industries.

I sit back with ease, knowing this creative soul has heaps of stories to tell. My jobis simple. Listen and be inspired.

“After leaving school, I never felt that I was going to follow the same path as most of my peers,” explains Alison.

“I didn’t want to go to university and I definitely didn’t want to work 9-5 in an office environment,” she adds.

“I started designing and making clothes, and through mutual friends I was lucky enough to get a job with Teesside businessman, Steve Cochrane, who at the time had a small start-up in Redcar called Sliced Tomatoes.

“I worked in the shop and, along with a couple of other girls, made some of the clothes that were sold.

“The style was very avant-garde, and for the first time in my working life, I was totally in my element. The whole artistic, creative
environment was exactly where I needed to be – and it was an incredibly exciting time in the early 80s.”

This was Alison’s first step in the right direction. A flourishing local business that gave her the platform to design, do the do and have confidence in her creative ability.

She knew this was an avenue she wanted to go down, but life experience is always essential, right?

It was time to travel. After some time working with Steve, Alison decided to up sticks and escape to the South of France – a place that, little did she know, would help mould the business she owns today.

“Always wanting to experience something new, I packed up and moved to France after answering an au pair ad in the Lady Magazine.

“Cannes was a total dream. I loved it. It wasn’t long until I was offered a job as a commis chef in a chateau just down the coast in La Napoule. And once again, I jumped at the chance to try something new.”

Chatting to Alison, I soon discover that she’s one of those remarkable people that just has that edge when it comes to living a forward-thinking lifestyle. She can take something on, give it a good go and put her unique stamp on it.

“My new home was a stunning 13th century chateau on the beach, overlooking the Med. I couldn’t believe my luck.

“I think this is where I finally felt at home, surrounded by creative and like minded people. My love of French food and culture blossomed into something really special, and I’ve never shaken that off.”

Surrounded by French antiques, paintings and sculptures, Alison found herself in the environment she was craving, and before she knew it she was sleeping in an ornate four-poster bed, climbing luxe marble staircases and taking her lunch break with the most spectacular South of France scenery as a backdrop.


“I really was living the dream, working as a commis chef cooking for visiting artists, actors and French dignitaries. It was like
stepping into a whole new world, and I just couldn’t get enough of it.

“It was here where I established my love of French design and cuisine. I was lucky enough to work with an excellent chef, which is where my passion for patisserie blossomed.

“That, alongside working with some really inspiring folk including Roger Vergé, a French chef and restaurateur, was just incredible.

“Another fond memory of my time in France is when I was invited to attend the Cannes Film Festival for its 40th anniversary, wearing my best white outfit I brought with me from Psyche, Middlesbrough.

“We chefs walked the red carpet behind (a long way behind, may I add!) Elizabeth Taylor – with Prince Charles and Princess Diana somewhere in the distance.”

Like most things, Alison’s high-life living in a foodie bubble in France had to come to an end, and after returning home to the North East for a short while, she was called upon for her next adventure.

“A relative who worked in the rock ‘n’ roll industry asked if I could help him out on the road. I had absolutely no idea what it entailed, but it clicked pretty quickly and I’ve been cooking and working with bands for over 30 years since.”

Whilst cooking for the stars, Alison naturally fell back into her design world. She is one of those people who has a constant creative itch – a drive to push the boundaries and try something new.

“While I was working as a chef on the road, word got around that I was handy with a sewing machine. Shortly after, I was asked to help with the stage clothes – making alterations and what have you, whenever possible. This was the beginning of my move sideways into the wonderful world of wardrobe.

“My first job was with Jon Anderson from English rock band, Yes. I would work with him for an hour every day before running back to the kitchen to carry on cooking.

“I went on to work with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Bruce Spingsteen, Pink Floyd, the Ramones and The Beastie Boys; and more recently, artists such as Foo Fighters, Little Mix and Olly Murs.

“I loved my job and enjoyed being on the road, but after some time I felt that I’d done my bit for the music industry and it was time to settle in my own space. My home.”

It was that desire to hunker down at home that brings us here today. Time to get to know the new kid on the block – The Curious Merchant.

Returning home wasn’t about hanging up her boots and winding down completely. It was about putting some roots down in a place she knows and loves and having the freedom to bring her creative ideas to life.

The Curious Merchant is an Aladdin’s cave of all things cool and creative. It offers an eclectic mix of homewares, antiques and French-inspired furniture.

The space itself, set in a gorgeous Grade II Listed building in the charming market town of Masham, takes inspiration from Alison’s travels – a space filled with one-off pieces that tell stories.

“Whether it’s something useful for the home or something you don’t need at all but just want to simply admire, The Curious Merchant has it all.

“All of these things can just make everything seem right with the world, and I hope a visit to the shop will make people feel that too. It provides inspiration, but also a sense of escape.”

The shop’s ethos is rooted in home comforts with a bit of wanderlust thrown in. It’s an effortless marriage of wonderful things.

“I guess the shop was a creative realisation of all of my skills, along with the passion I have for beautiful and eclectic things,” explains Alison.

“I have travelled and shopped around the world and some spaces just really blow you away. I wanted to recreate that feeling when you step inside and don’t know what to look at first. A place that triggers that childlike spontaneity. I want people to share that buzz when you find something gorgeous and you can’t leave without it.

“In years gone by, merchants sold a bit of everything. There was no real order as such – just great things thrown in for people to look at, enjoy and perhaps take away with them. That concept really appealed to me as I’m always searching for something different.”

Creative chaos, I guess you could call it. But it just works!

“That’s where I got the name from. A cave of curiosity. A merchant’s paradise. All brought together in a visual and exciting experience.”

Taking inspiration from her time in France, the creative chaos of life on the road, and crafty childhood memories, The Curious Merchant is the perfect representation of Alison’s vibrant personality.

“From a very young age, I was always working on arts and crafts,” she tells me.

“Perhaps I should give thanks to Blue Peter for everything I know. I was that child who made rooms out of cereal boxes taped together – I’d make curtains for the windows and I’d design the furniture using anything I could find in the house.

“Thankfully, this progressed into something much more productive, running less of a kitchen table business and more of a small bedroom business. I was constantly moving my furniture around, painting the walls black and experimenting with funky furnishings.”

A youngster equipped with a sewing machine and overlocker from a young age, Alison started her own business supplying clothes to local shops – everything from dying and pattern cutting, to printing and stitching.

Settling down for a slower pace of life in Masham came just at the right time for Alison, but many a story has come out of her life on the road.

“I could write a book with the stories I have from my tour days,” Alison laughs.

“One stand out moment was a Celine Dion tour in America. We were at Madison Square Gardens in New York and she brought US chefs in for the day to give us all a bit of time off. Her glam squad gave us all a makeover, we ate like kings and then we were given the VIP box at the gig. The best bit – she stopped mid-show to turn a spotlight on the box and applaud us for all of our hard work over the years. She sang to us at a packed-out Madison Square Gardens, it was really, really special.

“Another high point was when Nirvana drummer, Dave Grohl, ran off stage, picked me up and twirled me around because I’d been away on another tour for two days and he’d missed my food. Total swoon!”

Needless to say, cooking for the stars comes with its fair share of special moments; but after a long career on the road, when home is calling your name, you just have to listen to it.

“I was sitting outside Johnny Bagdad’s Cafe on the Square in Masham, I had just finished a tour looking after Olly Murs, and was wondering what I should do with myself between jobs.

“I was pondering over a cuppa and spotted the gorgeous Grade II Listed Old Barclays Bank building standing empty. My creative brain instantly started ticking, and it wasn’t long until my vision turned into a reality.”

Masham is a quaint Yorkshire market town with heaps of character. It’s a place crying out for cool, creative businesses.

“Masham has a very well established arts scene, so that really appealed to me,” says Alison.

“It reminds me of a French town square. It’s quiet yet buzzy. Contemporary yet charming. It’s just exactly where I need to be – and perfectly homes in on everything that has shaped my journey.”

When Alison isn’t behind The Curious Merchant counter, chatting away to like minded creatives, you can usually find her whiling away the hours on Masham’s Market Square, sipping coffee at Johnny Bagdad’s Cafe, unwinding at Swinton Park, or getting lost in the beautiful countryside that surrounds her.

“One place I always recommend to customers is ArtisOn – a great hub just over the bridge where you can join workshops and learn new crafts. It’s exactly what Masham is all about – and I hope my new shops can sit alongside these forward-thinking businesses hidden in this quaint town in the countryside.”

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