‘The first day I started looking for places, I saw this one and instantly felt ‘this is it.’ I saw 20 other places, and there was only this one in my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just fell in love with this place, and I had to have it. ‘
I am sitting with Mihaela Berbecar who is reminiscing about her hunt for the perfect location to start up her own shop, a long-held dream and a financial gamble. She was fresh from working abroad in Dublin with some hard-earned savings and a vision. Now, nearly one year later, we sit in Happy Decor Boutique, her dream is made reality.
Situated on the quiet, cobbled Strada Andrei Saguna in Cluj-Napoca, with the gentle sound of running water from the river lined with elegant bridges, Mihaela just knew it was the perfect place to set up shop. ‘There is a feeling of otherness here, almost European. It is a little oasis; I can come here every morning, drink a coffee, play my own music and forget everything that is going on around me. Every single day I walk down the road and see the shop standing here, I think ‘Wow, this is mine, this is MINE!’ And I feel 100% happy I chose this life.’
It all started with scribbled notes on a piece of paper one feverish night in Dublin. She was working abroad, saving up money after finishing her studies at the University of Art and Design, and soaking up inspiration from the new things she was surrounded by. ‘I was so obsessed with the shops. The first thing I did every morning was open my computer and look at these blogs, and I was so full of hopes and dreams. I spent hours a day thinking about it, going online to look at different products and estimating costs. Then one night I put everything down on paper. And I just crossed a line where I thought I have to do this now or never. Even if it blows all my money and only lasts one month, then I have to do it. And now here I am!’
After finding the perfect spot, Mihaela set about transforming it into the shop she had envisioned that night in Dublin. ‘My father made some of the furniture, the dressing table was donated by grandmother. We found this chest in my friend’s attic. Half of the furniture came from my house; we spent months without a dining room table at home!’ And did it turn out how she had imagined? ‘More or less. My expectations are very high! I wish I could do more, more, more. I have a bigger dreams than this.’
Although handicrafts are gaining popularity across Romania (in correlation with the rest of Europe and America) even professionals predominately continue to sell online. Starting up an official business and registering yourself as freelance in Romania, let alone starting up a shop, is a risky business. Finding the right papers and paying the right taxes takes its toll and most find it more convenient (and profitable) to sell discreetly through craft websites and online shops. Yet there is an undeniable value of a real place. Throughout my time in Happy Decor Boutique a constant flow of customers trickles through the door. Each time Mihaela is on hand to offer her expert advice; ordering in a specific bag, giving directions to a vintage shop where she bought her lampshades, helping a man choose out the prefect necklace for his wife’s birthday.
‘The feedback is wonderful! You just can’t compare the feeling. The one thing that keeps me going is the reaction that I get from customers to the shop. Although for a period I didn’t have any feedback from anyone except my friends and family, and I was like ‘oh, who cares. I don’t need feedback.’ But now I receive emails from customers everyday telling me they love the shop. People tell you with all their hearts and it is so important to hear.’
‘Loads of the people who know me in Bucharest told me to go over there because the money is over there and people appreciate unique, handmade stuff. But it all depends very much on what you want from life. Do you want to earn more money but be stressed and invest a lot of time? If you are that type of person, then go south and earn more money from bigger projects. But for me I realised that I would lose a lot of memorable moments. I can walk to my house from here. I see people I know on the street. I belong here.’
At more or less the same time Mihaela was setting up Happy Decor Boutique, her friend opened a shop in Dublin selling almost identical products. Drawing a comparison between the two illuminates that there are no perfect conditions for starting a business. Each place brings its own drawbacks and benefits. ‘Here there is not as much money but the market is so open and unsaturated. In Dublin and Europe there are thousands of shops like this. But here there is always going to be space for everyone and people are so thirsty for new things. Any kind of new idea could fit on the market.’
It may be cheaper to open a shop in Romania in comparison to other European countries, but keeping it alive is another matter. When the dream becomes a day-to-day reality, with all the crushingly boring paperwork and complicated book-keeping, it is hard to maintain that initial enthusiasm. On top of that, the renting situation in Romania’s city centers is made inhospitable for new ventures due to high rent and unsurity over the true owners of many buildings. Recently the small tea-shop ‘Flowers’, a staple of Cluj’s main Unirii Sqaure that enjoyed almost cult status amongst students in the city was forced out of its premises after the building was returned to its ‘original’, pre-communist owner. As a result, many big chain stores choose to locate in out-of-town malls. Walking through Cluj city center, it seems dominated by second-hand shops, student bars and (increasingly) high-end restaurants. Small, independent shops are left isolated without a support network to rely on, often surrounded by empty buildings abandoned by other entrepreneurs that didn’t manage to make it past that first year.
Mihaela is no stranger to this constant pressure. ‘Now I can see after almost one year of having this shop that it’s not enough to just have a dream, you must have the money to sustain it. My shop is quite niche; it appeals to a particular type of person, usually those Romanians who have lived abroad or appreciate these European trends. Is Romania a good place to nurture entrepreneurs? No, but you take it as it is and go for it. You can’t say I have to be in the right place, the right country. It’s very hard. But you can’t complain.’
As an ever increasing number of Romanians seek better wages in richer European countries, Mihaela (and others like her) who choose to invest these savings back into their home county are key to building a strengthened economy in Romania. The future rests on these young, passionate people who have the independence to travel, the courage to take a gamble and the determination to persevere. ‘It’s hard and it takes years and you take chances. It not the easy choice. But I’m pretty sure that those who have money don’t have a clue what they are missing. We could say that I am the lucky one. I value what money brings and I got the chance to put it towards my dreams.’