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Shelley Collins: The Poster Girl Of Grit

When it comes to grit, Shelley Collins could write a whole book.

In late October, over the span of a single week, she had to bade farewell to the only three people in her trusted business circle.

Left alone with a newly consolidated business on her hands, the owner of The Galerie Fitzroy in Melbourne saw one clear option – get up and get on with it. So she did.

“I shed tears for a day and then I was done,” she told woman with drive. “But the rawness is still there.”

If Shelley seems remarkably stoic, it is only because her grit was first put to the test six years ago. She and her then partner, Stefan, had been running the gallery for eight years when he suffered a brain hemorrhage that put an end to their personal and working relationship.

Faced with a thriving business, two young boys and no manual on what to do next, Shelley decided to focus on just putting one foot in front of the other as best she could.

And that is how she continues to own and run one of Melbourne’s top original vintage art galleries. Here she talks to woman with drive about her passion for vintage posters, finding her grit and sole parenting while building a business.

 

Take us back to when your path first crossed with vintage posters. How did that happen?
Stefan and I were working in the U.S. at the time. We went to a café that had vintage posters on the wall. He fell in love and said we had to get one. I did a bit of research, found someone who sold them and we ended up buying three. We went home in silence because we had never spent so much money in one go before.

 

Most people would be content to just be collectors but you decided to take it one step further. Why?
Before we moved from San Francisco to New York, we were travelling a great deal to Europe and meeting a lot of people within the industry. By the time we got to New York, we were deeply immersed in the collecting community.

One of our favourite dealers remarked that being Australian meant we had a different eye to the Americans, and suggested we consider setting up a business.

We wanted to work for ourselves so it made sense. I believed it would work and if it didn’t, I would try something else. Either way, it was worth taking a chance on.

 

Tell us about your clientele.
They are those who want to buy a poster as a gift for a milestone birthday or to have something beautiful on their wall.

Our Moderne collection features a lot of fashion posters that appeal to younger women. And because our pieces range from $50 right up to $5000, we have created a space for a wide-ranging clientele.

 

The Galerie has been around for 14 years. How has that longevity helped you?
Longevity gives you confidence when things are not going well. You have got enough experience to say, hang on I have been in this situation before and it will pass. Only longevity can teach you that.

 

What has the journey been like since Stefan’s injury?
I went into fight or flight mode immediately after. One of my staff stepped up as manager, I employed more people and I turned up where I could to make decisions that other people implemented.

My sons were aged two and four at the time, and I told myself they would need me less as they got older so I would keep the cogs turning in the business until then.

Then Galerie Montmartre’s lease came up in 2014 and I realised my boys needed me more than ever. And I wanted to be there for them. But I love retail and the posters and did not want to give it all away. The only compromise I could think of was to consolidate and get smaller for a while.

I decided to bring the gallery off the busy street front, reduce our opening hours and build the business via social media. I also decided on a rebrand and so we became The Galerie Fitzroy.

As I was packing up the old gallery, I came across Stefan’s notes. We had so many dreams. But there are new ones now. And I do not know what the future holds yet.

 

How did that experience help you get through the recent crisis?
I think I got through it because it needed to happen anyway. It was time for me to re-immerse myself into the business – something I have wanted to do for a while. Things had settled at home and now things have settled here.

The last six years have been a slow grieving process and an acceptance of loss. It devastated me but I am moving forward now. There is a freedom in being responsible only to myself. It feels really good and it is what I need right now.

 

What was it like sole parenting while running a business?
It is still hard but nowhere near as hard as it was back then. The boys were very traumatised over what had happened to their father. A lot of those issues had to be dealt with. I had to step away from the business in some ways and employ people to keep it running until I had the brain space to get back into it.

 

What would you say to mothers who dream of starting their own business but feel guilty about taking attention away from their family?
I would say forget the guilt. There are always responsibilities and people vying for your time. You are going to be taken away somehow and if it is not your own business, it will be someone else’s.

Embrace what you can control and let go of what you cannot. I learnt that very quickly. When Stefan had the brain injury, I instantly grasped that life as I knew it had changed so I said ok, what can I control? It was a terrible but very powerful way to learn that lesson.

 

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