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Disneyland, Published: Mag Nation

When Mag Nation opened its Sydney doors in Newtown last year, this city felt a little more… complete. There is something about beautiful magazines which creates endorphins – their touch, their scent, their imagery – so Mag Nation is kind of like the grown-ups equivalent to Disneyland. Started by Sahil Merchant and and Ravi Pathare in Auckland in 2006, Sydney is the newest addition to Mag Nation’s six stores (and counting). Sahil sat down with Side Street and gave us a bit of insight into the brains behind the shops.

Why did you decide to start up Mag Nation?

No one else was doing justice to a product category that we felt was really important to so many people. Newsagents catered mainly for customers who buy magazines as a throw away item, but we realised that there were a bunch of people out there who valued gorgeous publications and would appreciate a different magazine environment, a tailored shopping experience and greater choice. And, both co-founders were eager to create something new and special as well. We were comfortable with backing ourselves.

Why did you decide to bring Mag Nation to Sydney? (we thank you)

We have national and even international plans, but Sydney was the logical next step after Melbourne and Auckland. And the only reason that Sydney came after Melbourne and Auckland is because the two founders live in those cities. It makes sense to start something where you live! Sydney has always been on our radar, but admittedly, it was harder than we thought to find the right location. Melbourne’s CBD has a fair number of cool niche retailers, while Sydney’s CBD is quite different – more work focused. Also, Melbourne tends to have more strip locations while Sydney is more mall dominant. Given our brand is really suited to strip locations, it took us longer to find the right Sydney site.

However, now that we are here, we couldn’t be happier. It has only recently become apparent to us just how few options Sydney folk have for niche and international magazines. In Melbourne, there is a patchwork of smaller retailers who sell parts of the range that we stock. In Sydney however, there are very few people, if any, who are doing what we are trying to do.

What has the response been like here?

I was completely blown away by the reaction we received when we opened in Sydney. I sort of expected that people would like the offering, but I never realised just how welcoming everyone would be. I think that is also a function of Newtown. It feels like such a community, and if neighbours could have come over carrying pie, I think they might have.

You have quite the cult fan base. Why do you think people are so attracted to your stores?

I think there are a number of reasons. First, very few people heap the same amount of love onto niche publications as we do. It means that our product offering and expertise is immediately of interest. However, I also think that we have managed to create a brand which has become known for fun and occasional wackiness (a point in case is Undies Monday), but also for openness and honesty. We sort of wear our heart on our sleeve, and despite a strong fan base, we are still a tiny micro business. It means that the founders still converse with heaps of customers, write the newsletters, clean toilets and beg and scrape to keep going a labour of love. When I am in Sydney, I sleep on the floor in the Newtown store. We are passionate about our business, and I think (and hope) that this comes through.

What was the beginning of Mag Nation like for you?

Tough. Neither of the two founders had any money and we had to convince big corporate types and professional investors to back us financially. Most people just laughed at the idea of investing into what they thought would simply be a newsagency. We were so hands on back then. Once we got funding, we worked until our fingers bled (literally) and spend every waking second trying to make this a reality. Not sure how much has changed actually...

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt since you set up Mag Nation?

Listen to your customers. They know stuff.

What are you looking for in the publications you stock?

Passion. Commitment. A willingness to sleep on the floor and work till their fingers bleed! Because this is what it takes to get a niche publication up of the ground. And, we also go a fair bit on intuition. We sort of now know what is going to sell in sufficient volumes to justify us stocking it. We would love to stock every niche publication that comes our way, but that would leave no room for Vogue or Marie Claire, and we still do sell lots of those types of titles too.

What kind of atmosphere do you want people to feel when they walk into one of your stores?

I actually don’t think about this too much. I guess I just want them to feel authorship over the space. I am happy for people to use our stores as they see fit, as long as it is respectful to our product and other customers. So, if someone wants to come in and browse all day without buying, we have no issue with that. Our motto is that “everything at Mag Nation can be touched, felt and browsed... except for our staff”. If you walk in, smile, and feel like coming back again, then I am happy.

How have you designed the interiors of the shop? What was the inspiration/design process?

My co-founder is more the interiors guy. He also happens to be a specialist medical doctor who used to look into microscopes all day so go figure. We have evolved the design of the store and learnt as we have opened new locations. Our modular shelving units were the foundation of our store design, but we are now even reconsidering that first building block. I don’t have an easy answer for you on this one, but I think that we are our own harshest critics. Each time we have finished a new store, we have then bagged the crap out of it a few months later with a view to learning what could have been done better.

Any exciting plans for the future?

Yes. Lots. The first is to expand our sleeping hours from three hours a night to four hours a night. That is very exciting for us. After that, we would dearly love to hit Brisvegas, Perth and Wellington... but in the words of my mother-in-law, poco a poco.

Tell us something about you and your empire that might surprise people.

Not sure that 6 stores counts as an “empire”. Maybe when I graduate from the floor of the Newtown store to a Youth Hostel you might say we have an “Emp”. As for something about me, most people are surprised to learn that I was a management consultant with a law degree prior to starting mag nation.

Sahil runs a pretty kick ass blog on Australian Antill. It's a must-read for all the entrepreneurial crazies out there.

words: Seema Duggal


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