My ode to Stretford Mall

When I had my first baby in 2011, I suddenly found myself with more free time than I’d had for years.  I used this newly acquired time to explore places in Manchester that I had never been to – despite being utterly broke, my mini adventures with my little mute friend were truly happy days.

One of my favourite places to go to back then, when I wanted a change from Chorlton, was to Stretford Mall.  I can hear you laughing, but as someone who can’t really handle the madness of the Trafford Centre (even the Arndale Centre in town is a bit too much for me at times), Stretford offered a more relaxed shopping experience with pretty much all of the shops I regularly needed.  I went there for shops which didn’t have branches in Chorlton, such as Wilkos, Argos and New Look, as well as the excellent discounted bookshop where I bought some of my daughter’s most treasured books, and the discounted branded clothes shop where I got most of my partner’s birthday and Christmas presents.

All these shops, and more, have gone from Stretford Mall in the last 5 years.  I never visited the centre during its hay day and I know that the Mall was waaaay past its best in 2011, but to me it’s recent decline seems so rapid – every time I visit I notice another yet store has gone.  It is one of the starkest examples of what is happening to retail centres up and down the country as shopping habits change and the government continues failing to act on the impact this is having on communities.

It’s hard to believe that when it opened in 1969, Stretford Mall was one of the biggest shopping centres in Britain. This article offers some great history of Stretford Mall, or Stretford Arndale as it was originally called – it’s a great piece, just ignore the bit about Chorlton Precinct – it was written before the CAMhub opened!http://confidentials.com/manchester/stretford-mall-a-portrait-of-a-dying-shopping-centre

I know that the Mall won’t be holding any ‘flower shows, Miss Stretford Pagents and tea dances’ again, but it would be nice to live in a time where all the shop units in Stretford Mall (on both levels!), and all the retail centres like it, were filled and thriving.  It frustrates me greatly that thousands of shop units lie empty because of high rent and rates which make it near-impossible to run a long term sustainable business, especially if you are an indy start up.  It just feels like a wasted opportunity for so many people.

My fear is I believe that by the time my daughter is a teenager, independent businesses on the High Street will be a thing of the past.  But now I am also beginning to wonder if places like Stretford Mall will still exist then as well.  Where will the elderly or disabled people, or the tired new mums go when they can’t face going into town? Where will the ‘community hub’ be then?

Chorlton is not immune to the issues which are affecting Stretford Mall, its just that it has a better reputation therefore people are more willing and eager to set up a business here.  But it is not easy for anyone – things need to change in order for people to be able to run sustainable long term businesses in suburbs and small towns for the health of both the economy and the community.  It should not be as hard as it is to make a small business work on the High Street in any area.   Last year an average of 15 shops a day closed down in the UK, and the number of new openings fell to the lowest level in 5 years, leaving 10% of retail units lying empty.  Analysts predict this situation to worsen over coming years, with the uncertain Brexit effect not helping matters.

I hope that Stretford Mall finds a way to revive itself, just as I hope that when Chorlton precinct is eventually redeveloped it will still be a home to independent businesses.  And I hope that one day the government finally realises that it needs to address the unmanageable business rates issue and make serious changes for the health of the British High Street – and I don’t mean just doing publicity stunts with Mary Portas.

Hopefully one day all towns and cities will be offering opportunities to encourage both shoppers and new traders and the trend of High Street businesses closing down will reverse.  But, given the speed in which the decline has happened, particularly in the last 5 years, things need to happen soon to save the essence -or ‘soul’ – of the UK’s town centres.  The sad fact is that I fear things won’t change and the decline will continue.  I have no idea how long Stretford Mall, and places like it, will last but I’m quite certain things will be very different by the time my daughter is grown up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OPEN LETTER TO GMPF #1

This is an open letter to GMPF, our business landlord.  It is highly probable that it will be the first of many such letters over the next 18 months.

Dear GMPF,

Ten years ago this month I moved to Chorlton as a bit of a stop gap whilst I figured out what to do with my life.  And, as life has panned out in the unexpected way that it does, I never left and I am now happily settled, raising two children and running a successful business in this strange but loveable suburb.

A heatwave was just kicking in on the day I came here back in 2006 which made the whole exciting move even more full of promise.  We were in a whole new world of beer gardens, open mic nights and roof top BBQs!  I remember going off to explore my new surroundings and stumbling upon the precinct and wondering if I had stepped into a 70’s verion of the Twilight Zone.  And I don’t mean that as a negative – for me it felt special and was somewhere full of untapped potential.  I always knew that it would inevitably be updated at some point, but I could very clearly picture a way to do it and still retain some of its nostalgic charm.

In the time I have lived here, Chorlton precinct has had at least 3 owners to my knowledge.  And over the years, rumours of redevelopment have been ever present.  I remember public consultations and architectural plans aplenty, but then the recession hit and all these plans were, I guess, put on the back burner. 

For me, the timing was perfect.  In 2011 I had my first child which gave me the opportunity to see those shop units in the precinct sitting empty and I began to formulate a long term plan – I knew by then that I wanted a business in Chorlton precinct and I was going to find a way to make it happen, no matter what.

Fast forward to the present day and that goal has been achieved…for now.  I understood when I signed my lease that it expired in 2018 but I didn’t worry because I don’t think I fully appreciated the potential that my business had back then.  I guess I thought I’d be just content to have a shop for a few years and I didn’t really consider too far ahead.  But time is ticking fast and battle mode is setting in.

I now have 3 children – a girl one, a boy one and a shop one.  I unashamedly admit to loving the non-human one just as much as the human ones.  The roots of all 3 are connected to the precinct to some degree and I can’t accept that in less than 2 years it could all be over if all the spaces are allocated to large corporations.  We have all worked hard to create something special in a part of Chorlton which we truly love.  The Chorlton Art Market belongs in the precinct.

My fear is that the redevelopment will see the precinct turned into a soulless identikit plastic mall when I know that it has the potential to be something truly special and something which could be a real gem for Chorlton.  As anyone who has ever lived here will tell you, Chorlton is a beautifully weird place, filled with people with a great sense of social pride and I believe that you, the landlords, have an amazing opportunity to create something that will sit pride of place in your property portfolio.

When the time comes, please consider the fate of my family business – a business which supports over 60 other local people and a business which is loved by an ever-growing customer base.  In a place like Chorlton, with a bit of imagination something ‘different’ has the potential to thrive…but only if the opportunities are there. Please don’t forget about us when you make your plans.

All together now: ‘Sometimes its hard to be a (business) woman…’

Don’t get me wrong – I love having a shop.  It is a dream come true.  Like most people, I played ‘shops’ as a child and now I get to do it for real every day.  So essentially my life is just one long play time.

Except sometimes, it isn’t quite like that.  Because the playtime never ends.  And in reality, constant ‘playtime’ is actually really hard work.  In some ways I can draw parallels with the Twilight Zone episode, A Nice Place to Visit, but I’m not repeatedly winning in a casino and I’m in Chorlton, not hell so it’s not quite the same (the CAMhub really is A Nice Place to Visit though).

As some will know, our shop is not like most shops.  The majority of our space is filled with the work and wares of over 60 local people and therefore provides income for individuals and families and helps to support the local economy in a very direct way.  It took a long time to become a reality – in some ways it has been brewing ever since I began organising charity events and cake sales when I was still a kid. All through my teens and twenties I slogged away in draughty village halls and fields doing craft fairs and summer fetes, and whilst I was at university in Preston I would sell my cards to a gift shop for a quid each (which was enough for 2 pints of Snakebite & Black on a Monday night in Squires so life was good).  This was before the days of social media so life really was a lot sweeter.  After a few years of pop up shops and markets and living a lifestyle way below the breadline, my shop dream somehow came true.

Anyway, my point is that the CAMhub did not spring up overnight.  It was not a drunken idea dreamt up in the pub with my mates and it is not a vanity project funded by rich husbands.  One of my main goals from the very beginning was to provide a platform for artists, craftspeople and small businesses to showcase their wares and build up their high street presence.  The ultimate goal was always for people to do well enough in our shop to go on to open their own shops, thus rejuvenating and improving the high street further.  I have always wanted the shop to help to improve the lives of like-minded people who have worked hard to build up their businesses, but I would have always expected honesty and openness from people who we work hard for.

We treat our traders very fairly and we know that our business plan focusses on ensuring that people who sell their wares with us make a good profit.  Our business model might be different from the norm, but it works well; being different is always better.  And it’s only going to continue to get better and better all the time.

Sometimes in business, as in everyday life, people do things which shock you.  Sometimes in life we all get treated in a manner which surprises us and makes you question the whole do-as-you-would-be-done-by philosophy.  Sometimes in life you just come across very selfish people and that’s just the way it is.  I have wanted to write this post for over a month now but I couldn’t find the words which weren’t swear ones.  Then I simply remembered the wise words from a dear old friend – he had a theory that when you want to be a better person when dealing with arseholes, you should think of John Cusack’s character in Stand by Me (the flashback scene where he gives his brother the baseball cap).  So, when I’m feeling pissed off about a situation, and when I would quite like to speak my mind, I tell myself: “Be more like dead Cusack”…and it always helps.

As ever we will continue to work hard to make the CAMhub the very best shop it can possibly be.  After a lot of hard work over the last few days, our Baby & Child section is better than it ever has been, with a much wider range of giftware and affordable high quality clothing than we have ever had.  We have listened to and acted on customer feedback from over the last 18 months and we are very proud to be bringing you our carefully selected collections of 100% cotton dresses and babygrows, as well as fairtrade wooden toys from Lanka Kade.  All this as well as our ever-evolving mixture of artwork, handmade crafts and vintage clothing.

So come and visit us tomorrow and see our beautiful shop for yourselves.  And I promise to continue to be more like dead Cusack.

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

Well, 2016 is already turning out to be a pretty action packed year, full of surprises and with some rather exciting things in store for the CAMhub.  Although we’ve not been able to see much of it, I think the beautiful sunshine we’ve finally had this week has reinvigorated us.

March was a tough month to get through for me – after limping along for a while, I had a day when I realised that I hadn’t cuddled my 3-month old baby all day and it suddenly hit me that my work/life balance was totally wrong.  I genuinely spent more time thinking about the shop than I thought about my children and this realisation made me really sad.  So I spent all of March in bed with my baby watching all 8 seasons of Dexter (I did still do plenty of work stuff – but just the sort of things you can do on the laptop in bed).  For a while I feared I was suffering from post-natal depression, but in hindsight, as I hadn’t really taken a breath since Sidney was born, I think it was just plain old exhaustion.

So, I gave myself a one month time limit to get back on track and it worked – once I’d got to the end of season 8, I was able to get out of bed and feel positive and excited about the shop again.  To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, un-slumping yourself is not easily done, but I got through it with the help of my baby and a loveable serial killer.

The funny thing about life is that just as you think things are on a level and you’ve got everything sorted, something else is thrown into your path to create further obstacles, which equals more work.  More work requires more time which is something that even the greatest artists and craftspeople can’t create.  Sometimes I wonder if there will ever be a time when we can properly relax and have a bit more time to enjoy life rather than just working all the time.

Over the past 18 months we have dedicated our time to promoting the shop and its individual traders and we have kept true to our original ethos – to provide a platform for artists and craftspeople to sell their work and to make good money.  Since I used my experience from selling my own work in other shops and at markets, my goal has always been to work out a better way for everyone involved to make money.  Being a self-employed artist is not an easy life, but I always knew that a shop like ours had the potential to work well for the people who understood our vision…and it’s a nice feeling to be right about things.

June will see some very exciting changes to the CAMhub, which will include a massive revamp of our Baby & Child section.  Along with our wonderful handmade baby clothes sellers, Clothlogy and Belle Amelie, we’ll be expanding our current ranges to bring you a world of gorgeous delights for little people.  And we’ll continue to dedicate our time to sourcing a great range of giftware and everyday items for all ages. The CAMhub will always be a one-stop shop for all your vintage, art, giftware and baby needs and we’d just like to thank each and every one of our loyal customers – if you thought the shop was good before, it’s about to get a whole lot better.

Loving my Nemesis

”Hello, my name is Alice and I hate Facebook and Twitter and all that social media stuff”.

Up until very recently, this was how I usually introduced myself to new people.  Or at least within the first five minutes  I would find a way to mention my dislike for all things social media.  I only reluctantly joined Facebook 3 years ago when I became self employed and I always saw it as a bit of an addictive annoyance. Sometimes I had to just ignore it completely for weeks on end just to maintain my sanity.  Twitter and Instagram followed soon after and suddenly I was part of a world that I had blissfully resisted for years.

I could go on about the things that annoy me about social media, but I won’t.  I have done that enough.  And anyway, I think I’ve had a bit of an awakening.

I know its obvious to anyone who doesn’t class themselves as a wannabe Luddite, but its taken me all this time to properly realise that social media is not the enemy, and can if fact be a very useful, if not essential, advertising tool.

This realisation had already started to reveal itself when I was pointed in the direction of a great little blog which gave me much clarity on the whole subject.  It relates brilliantly to our shop and it gave me the drive to keep pushing on with maintaining our social media for the CAMhub.  http://www.onmysideoftheroom.com/getting-started/how-to-support-small-businesses-without-buying-a-thing/

So, I am pleased to say that there will now be a much more consistent social media presence, especially as we are now clearly seeing the effect it is having (barely a day goes by without a customer telling us they have seen an item on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram when buying it).  We see doing it now simply as part of our normal daily routine, rather than a bothersome chore.  And really, since I am getting to take photos of beautiful things and share them with people, it’s really not much of a hardship after all.  Definitely better than gutting fish, as my old college tutor used to say.

Two bits of exciting news – now that I am a fully paid up member of the techie revolution, I am now proud to announce that we have a shiny new website.  Thanks to the computer wizardry of Mark Wallis Design for giving up so much of his time to create this thing of beauty.  We’ll keep it updated with new photos so keep checking back – http://www.chorltonartmarket.com.

Also, from next week I’ll be handing this blog over to the CAMhub traders so they can tell you about themselves and their work.  Keep an eye out each week to find out what inspires and motivates our artists and vintage traders, and what pitfalls they have come across and the lessons they have learned.  We’ve got such a fantastic variety of collections in the shop so it’s going to be really fun to learn more about it all.

 

 

 

We got through it!

These last few months have been wonderfully manic.  It is only now that I am able to reflect on all that has happened and take stock of the present.IMG_20160202_175835360

Running a shop is a lot of work.  Running a shop that involves over 60 other people requires a lot of time and effort.  Running any shop at Christmas is hard work.  Having a baby at the end of November made being able to cope with all this seem virtually impossible.  I admit to having one 5 minute breakdown the day after I had my baby, sobbing uncontrollably in my hospital bed as I wondered how on earth I was going to cope with a new baby right at the beginning of the busiest 4 weeks of the year.  I knew I had traders takings to pay a few days after and I knew how much some people relied on that money.  I couldn’t let my standards slip, despite the agony I was in during that first week.  I am not proud of the fact, but I had to actually shout at a doctor to discharge me.

We got through it, Jay and I, with a lot of help from some of our fantastic traders.  We managed to keep the shop pretty much open as normal and I was able to start working in the shop a bit after a couple of weeks.  I’m proud that we got through it, despite how hard it felt at times.  It seems we are lucky enough to have a chilled baby who just likes to drink and sleep so we’ve been able to get on with things as normal, just with a small and very cute companion.

I felt utterly shite the entire time I was pregnant.  I made this very clear to anyone I came across during those 9 months.  As with my first child, I felt awful every single day.  What made it so much worse this time was the fact that, no matter how rough I felt, I had so much I always had to do and it did, at times, feel utterly insurmountable.  This was when it was truly hard running the shop.  But despite all this, I still believed completely in my vision and I knew that no matter how hard things were, we would always find a way to work through it.  I have never believed in anything as much as I believe in the CAMhub.

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Like I said, running a shop is a lot of hard graft.  In no way did I ever expect it to be easy, but it is certainly harder than I really imagined.  There are certainly a lot more costs and factors that I didn’t take into account initially, and many new things have cropped up along the way.  It is a never ending job – I know this is the case for all self employed people, certainly in the first couple of years at least.  The business is on my mind 24/7 and I feel that horrible guilt when I’m playing with my kids because a nagging part of me is telling me I should be working, but then when I’m working I feel guilty that I’m not with the kids.

Despite all this, I understand that this is what it takes.  I have always believed that nothing good ever comes easy so I am prepared for the pitfalls and we will always march on.   2016 will be a very exciting time for the CAMhub as I will be able to dedicate more time to working, rather than being sick and crying.  The shop is going to get better and better all the time.

So, after all that ramble, all I really should of said is ‘come and check out our amazing shop’ – we have loads of awesome new traders joining us next month, including a stained glass artist and new vintage clothes traders.  We’re also going to have a bit of a play around with the layout of the shop to create a fresh new look for the spring.  And I can’t wait to give that floor a proper good clean cos I’m a weirdo like that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keep it Precinct this Christmas

This time last year I was in a wild panic.  I had spent weeks cleaning up a filthy shop unit, lined up dozens of artists and craftspeople to sell their work in the shop and advertised the opening of the Chorlton Art Market Hub for Saturday 1st November…but I hadn’t even actually signed the lease.  I didn’t even know for certain if I was going to get the shop at all and, as it turned out, I only managed to get everything sorted the day before we opened.  It was all pretty nail biting stuff.

When all this was happening, if someone had told me that the shop would still be open a whole year later I don’t think I could have believed it.  It was of course what I wanted to happen, but it seemed like such a hard to reach dream, especially after all the hurdles I had faced just to get to that point.

The initial plan was to open the shop for a couple of months, just to have a share of the Christmas madness.  I signed up local traders on a week-by-week basis, many of whom who had sold at my other CAM events and I trawled charity shops and skips for temporary shop fittings to display their work.  Other than a tiny bit of money I had saved from running the market for the 12 months prior to opening the shop, I had virtually no money so everything had to be done on the cheap – contrary to what some people thought, I received no grants or loans to get the shop running.

It has been a very eventful and interesting past 12 months, with the shop continuing to evolve every day.  Our goals have not changed since the initial concept – we still strive to promote and sell local people’s work and we are still very proud to be a permanent fixture in Chorlton precinct (it continues to amaze us when customers tell us that they never used to come into the precinct before we opened – something we still hear at least once a week).

As we approach our second Christmas season we hope that people will remember to Shop Local – by buying from local independent businesses you are putting that money directly back into the local economy.  There are dozens of other economic and environmental reasons to shopping local, especially during the busiest time of the year.  Nevermind Keeping it Chorlton – we say Keep it Precinct!  Get your veg from Elliotts, your meat from Frosts, your Boxing Day mint Vienetta from Cool Trader and all your gifts from the CAMhub.  Job done.

Jay and I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all our wonderful traders, especially those of you who have been with us since we opened, and also huge thanks to every single one of our customers for supporting the shop – your positive comments and continued custom gives us the drive to overcome the difficult patches.  Please come and visit us this Saturday for a Bucks Fizz and raise a toast to our first year of being a real shop and get your Christmas shopping started!

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