It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the most rewarding shops in the city (or anywhere) are the independent, the idiosyncratic and those backroom passions turned into shop floor reality. There’s not enough of them in the city, that’s another truth.

So, when Liverpool’s home of great design, SB Studio, opened its virtual doors a couple of years ago with their online emporia, Cow and Co, we were excited. But we wanted more. Because, with design this good, you really have to touch, feel, stroke…

Now, their curated selection of the best contemporary crafts, artisan gifts and intelligently designed houseware is available, lined up for your inspection, at Cow&Co’s real-life home, in Cleveland Square, just behind John Lewis. And we have to say it, it’s the best gift shop in the city these days.

“We saw an opportunity and we grabbed it,” says Cow and Co’s Nicola Holroyd, as SevenStreets caresses her delicious sardines (Portuguese, with a cool watercolour on the box), and thumbs her equally tasty notebooks.

Above the stripped back, meccano-like shelves (designed by SB Studio, of course) partner Benji and the SB crew have settled into their new mezzanine studio. Talk about living above the shop.

It is, of course, the perfect arrangement – it’s like exiting through the gift shop in reverse. Who wouldn’t want to browse leading edge design products before a meeting with your go-to rebranding agency?

SevenStreets soaks in the scene – the Japanese plastics, the Scandinavian woodwork, the achingly sexy magazines in the library – with a touch of ennui, as we realise an inconvenient truth. The only badly designed thing in here is us.

“We want to work with Liverpool designers and makers, of course,” says Benji, “But not exclusively – it would be wrong to be so insular – this is an international city with many cultures, and we’ve always felt quite strongly that the city is about sharing and working together with our neighbours whether that be in London, Brazil or even Manchester!”

The shop, says Nicola, is a place to bring all of these things together…

“We have plans afoot to develop the Cow&Co brand into new areas – more than just retail. But today we’re enjoying the shop and seeing how people engage with the space and the products we sell.”

Next up, the space will host a series of intimate talks and events, designers, illustrators, textile artists – demystifying the creative process with workshops for the crafty and the curious.

“There are well designed products in a lot of shops in Liverpool – that’s something we’ve never questioned,” says Nicola. “Our aim is to bring a more relaxed and engaging retail experience, folk can pop in for a chat, a browse or even a brew if they fancy – it’s all very much an experiment that we’re having some fun with.”

Benji admits to working with Leaf to bring a new range of their teas to market – with a gift-friendly approach to their packaging, and that keen SB Studio eye to its brand. And there’s more to come…

“We’re working with a number of ambitious small businesses on bringing more independent retail to the high street,” he says. “We can’t say too much as it’s all in planning at present but there are some exciting things planned for the city and further afield.”

It is, SevenStreets suggests, a good time to be creative in Liverpool.

“It’s true,” says Benji, “Liverpool is buzzing at the moment and that’s down to the recession, folk feel the need to get out there and create the work for themselves. The likes of Camp & Furnace, LEAF, Bold Street Coffee and co are leading the way in bringing something new and different to Liverpool. It’s a great thing.”

“It’s scary, setting up your own shop. There’s a lot of risks,” says Nicola. “But so far, we’re delighted with the response we’ve had. We’ve always said we’re keen to develop a customer service that’s long forgotten on the high street. We care about the little things, the space between letters, the sharpness of a fold — those sorts of things. Because in the end, anything big is made up of details, so if you look after those, you look after everything…”

As we talk, we notice Nicola and her team are busy restocking – refilling shelves already depleted, replacing lines already destined to add a little design magic to our homes.

We’re not so surprised. We’ve never followed the herd in Liverpool. That’ll be why Cow & Co will do very nicely, we think. That and the sardines.

David Lloyd

15 Cleveland Square

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