Shopkeeper of the mind: An interview with Sophie Howarth

The glare of fluorescent lights and an overpowering scent of perfume welcome you to most department stores. Not so at the Department Store for the Mind, a retail concept responding to the rise of ‘mindfulness’ with clean, calm, thoughtful design. Online and in the occasional pop-up, it sells products to help you reflect on your thoughts and emotions. I sat down with founder Sophie Howarth to understand how she came up with the idea.


sophie howarthMany of your projects focus on mental wellbeing. Why is that?

I just don’t think anything is so interesting as the human mind. The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe. We have this incredible capacity for empathy, connection and imagination. If I’m going to spend my time thinking about anything, I’d like to think about the mind.

I actually had a go at thinking about the brain; I studied medicine, my husband is a neuroscientist and I spent quite a bit of time working for a think tank on psychological resilience. I find it captivating, but it misses a certain poetry. I love the way that the mind isn’t equal to the brain and you can’t totally work out what the relationship between the two is. There’s a humbleness to the incomprehensibility of the mind.

I don’t aspire to understand it, and I don’t come to any of this work from the vaunted position of having sat on a lotus flower or being a great professor of anything. I come to it as somebody who finds the relationship with my own mind and my own consciousness to be the most glorious and problematic and endlessly fascinating part of living and being human.


What have you learned so far?

There’s a humbleness to the incomprehensibility of the mind.
I set up School of Life when I was 30. I was ravenous for answers and input and knowledge from wiser people externally. Ten years later, my deep longing is to see if there might be some insight or knowledge or intuition internally. I’m learning to listen to myself and to look in rather than fill from the outside.

That’s why at Department Store for the Mind, a lot of our products are concerned with seeing if we can create a climate of quiet and provide a space in which we can be more aware of ourselves, the world and other people; to open up to what’s already inside us.

All of us are capable of amazing things. Our minds are already amazing, doing extraordinary work all the time and capable of being so imaginative. By just pausing to pay attention to that, that’s enough. I have no bigger mission or goal than to pay attention.


How did the idea for Department Store for the Mind come about?

sophie howarthI started imagining what it would be like if you could go into the world inside your head and it was a little bit like going into a department store, and there were all these areas and levels—higher consciousness and lower consciousness—and lifts to the back of your mind.

I’d like to encourage people to enjoy exploring the curved landscape and terrain of their own minds. So I sometimes think of our products like kit. You wouldn’t go climbing Mount Everest without some kit. So if you’re going on the ultimate journey of internal exploration—an amazing and sometimes terrifying journey—it helps to have a little bit of kit with you.


Both School of Life and Department Store for the Mind draw on retail. How come?

I love beautiful things. When I was working in the more medical and think-tank end of it, I really missed the tangibility of stuff and the delight of design.

There’s a stubbornness behind it too. I don’t want to have to apply to anybody to fund my ideas. Retail is the ultimate crowdfunding. It gives you this wonderfully direct relationship. Our customers are thoughtful people trying to live thoughtful lives, and learning what objects they feel will actually make a difference to them is super humbling.

I worked in museums for 10 years, and I love that world too but there’s this rarified thing, this work of art and you can’t have it. I guess what I’m trying to create is tiny little works of art that you can have. I want beauty to be that available and that nourishing. 


So is Department Store for the Mind part of a bigger movement you’d like to create?

I find the mainstream approach to mental health is not one of delight. It can be quite negative and campaign based, and often it’s not beautifully designed. By no means do I think I’m making a huge dent in the enormous challenge of mental wellbeing. But I feel that a celebration of the complexity of our minds—that strength and struggles are often two sides of the same coin—is one way in which we can make a really positive contribution to mental health.

Why would we have a million shops for our feet and no shops for our mind?
Also, it seems mad that you can have a high street full of shops without a shop for the mind. It’s just such an obvious gap. Why would we have a million shops for our feet and no shops for our mind? There’s also something about shopping as a process—you go in and you browse and you ponder on things—that suits this idea of exploring your internal world really well.


Who or what inspires you?

I read a lot of poetry, particularly contemplative and reflective poets—Mary Oliver, David Whyte, John O’Donohue, Rilke. I’m inspired by all sorts of artists and illustrators, many of whom I’ve had a chance to work with—Marc Johns, John Paul Flintoff—people who have a wonderful lightness of touch and spirit of delight but an openness to them. And I’m full of admiration for people who get on with doing good in a pragmatic way.

I love the absolute design elegance of Aesop and Hay. The content of those brands can be quite cool, sophisticated and pared down, which creates a sense of spaciousness. I love combining that with the warmth, humanity and wholeheartedness of the world of insight and compassion. If that creates a friction, I love that friction.


What works for you in terms of creating that spaciousness?sophie howarth

Being on my own. I’m a writer by background, and I love one-to-one connections with people, but most of the time I just need to be on my own. Finding a way to provide leadership and connection, and to run an exemplary organisation, and still have plenty of time on my own, is really important. And something that’s not made easier by having young children in the house!


What’s your most fun challenge?

I do not want to oversimplify what must be complicated, which is being human. How can we sit peacefully with uncertainty? You get to know yourself and you know that you can never know yourself. And in getting to know yourself, your self changes. That is what we call living.


What’s next?

We’ll be popping up in a gorgeous little shop on Redchurch Street in London from 18 June to 10 July. Then later in the summer we’ll launch a whole new product range. So there are lots of beautiful things for thoughtful people in the pipeline.

In the meantime, we’ve just launched a set of 24 Character Strength Pencils, drawing on a piece of research by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman exploring the human virtues valued by every culture in the world. It’s fascinating stuff, and we wanted to make the findings available to a much wider public in the form of a very practical product. The pack includes a Creativity pencil for drawing up new ideas, a Kindness one for writing thoughtful notes, even a Prudence one for doing your accounts!