A slightly different take on the ‘piss up in the brewery’ conundrum, but it is a question I was faced with earlier today. Our local independent retail haven, Afflecks Palace, has offered my university a retail unit.
It was excellent news, last February, when Manchester learnt that it was not going to loose its last bastion of independent retailing. With its punk and retro fashion, new and second-hand records, tattoo and piercing parlours, veggie cafes and fancy dress Afflecks Palace is pretty much the only place in Manchester where you can browse through products and buy services that you won’t find on the ‘high street’.
The building started life as a department store (Affleck and Browns) and was ‘repurposed’ under lease by a local entrepreneur about 25 years ago, to provide low-rent retail space to independent retailers and other businesses that would now be called creative industries (galleries and designers etc.)
This lease expired in June 2007 and the whole venture looked like it was going to be another victim of the creeping gentrification of the area (the Northern Quarter) as the building’s owners were expected to ‘sell out’ with Afflecks Palace morphing into yet another collection of luxury flats, trading on a iconic brand name (think the Hacienda).
Nevertheless, after a well-coordinated campaign, including on-line petitions and the support of the local press, the owners (Bruntwood) decided to take over the management of the business, renaming it Afflecks and doing some refurbishment and general ‘tarting up’.
From a place-management perspective, Afflecks is important for different reasons. Firstly, a place needs low-cost space to incubate small businesses. Many of them will fail and many of them will only survive as small-scale business, but a few of them will go on to be tomorrow’s big businesses and brands. For example, Urban Splash’s boss Tom Bloxham worked in Afflecks Palace before founding his property business, Urban Spalsh, which has been instrumental in transforming Manchester’s appearance over the last 15 years.
Secondly, Afflecks is different, it gives Manchester something unique, which adds to its identity. In contrast to the modern-day homogenisation of retail areas, it is good to walk around somewhere a bit quirky and chaotic, much more middle-eastern bazaar, than middle-of the road banal. Afflecks is a place in itself and needs to be managed as such. The new management will need to consider what will get people visiting and spending money, not just manage the space as a collection of disjointed retail units.
So often, with markets, the opportunity to manage the collective is overlooked, the market manager sees their job as a cross between health and safety enforcer and debt collector rather than someone who can coordinate the activities and resources of a wide range of stakeholders, to attract people to the location.
So, if I was manager of Afflecks, what would a university-run retail unit do for me, for the overall offer of the location? Does a university brand bring credibility? Would having our art and design students showcase or sell their work bring added creativity and/or innovation? Time to pick up the phone, I suppose and find out.