Once an iconic fancy dress store frequented by broke students looking to fuel another weekend of Otley running, the decades-old petrol station sitting on Headingley Lane has now been home to Hyde Park Book Club for two prosperous years.
I head there on Saturday morning – armed only with a rumbling stomach and an open mind – ready to help this fine establishment celebrate its second birthday, and enjoy some of their notorious vegetarian brunch.
I’m excited to learn a little more about HPBC’s story. Having sprung out of nowhere into the cramped space of a former garage, the venue-come-café has gradually made a name for itself on the Leeds cultural scene.
This is the place where gigs, DJ nights, film screenings, fine-dining dinners, open mics, comedy shows and panel discussions happen behind doors and under floorboards. It’s where vegan chicken meets very reasonably priced craft beer, and racks of ancient fancy dress costumes hang beyond the hundreds of second hand books – yours to read or buy as you sip your morning coffee, beer, smoothie or cocktail.
We’re lucky enough to be given a tour of the venue by owner, Jack Simpson, who’s grown HPBC from its roots as a one-room café, to its current spacious dominance as a platform for all things creative in Leeds. He tells us how expansion has always come organically here, how his background in events gave him the urge to start putting on gigs, before buying space from the fancy dress shop, and clearing out hundreds of boxes from the basement to create a gig/rave/stage area underground.
Jack talks about wanting to give young, budding creative performers a place to showcase what they can do – a space to generate a buzz and break into the arts scene. As we head downstairs to explore the cavernous downstairs space, he laughs about the early days, when 200 people would turn up to party for the night, with only one toilet and a small outside smoking area.
Now though, things are much improved on the facilities side, with brand new loos and a bar in the basement, ready to serve the hundreds of students and gig-goers who come here at all times of day. And the calendar is packed, with regular jazz nights, Sunday afternoons of board games, evenings of spoken word, art and craft sales, plus live music in every genre of you can think of, all on the agenda for the coming months.
When it comes to food and drink, HPBC boasts a comprehensive, wholesome selection. Everything’s veggie, and with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and increasingly plant-based options, there’s a great choice – whether you’re after breakfast, lunch, dinner, or something in between.
As brunch ‘o’clock swings round, it seems only fitting to get stuck into a feast. We opt for the Breakfast Bagel – a towering stack of spinach, avocado, vegetarian sausages and a fried egg – and the classic Book Club Brunch, a vegan option featuring more avocado and spinach, plus grilled cherry tomatoes and olive oil on thick cut toast.
The menu also offers up a range of tangy, freshly-made fruit smoothies, and a mouth-watering array of plump pastries and hunks of homemade cake perch on the counter – vegan options available at all times.
HPBC is one of those places that seems to almost defy its own odds. Staff are humble, smiley and infinitely welcoming – greeting guests like old friends as they step over the threshold and move through the rambling three-room space that links up improbably yet wonderfully into the hub of culture and creativity it’s become.
With two years under its belt and no signs of slowing down, Hyde Park Book Club has the audience, the location and the attitude to reach the centre of the Leeds’ cultural scene. Check out their website or follow them on social media to find out what’s coming up, and be sure to head over for a beer to see for yourself what’s happening on the frontline and at the grassroots of arts, independence and inclusivity in the City.
Photographs by Kate Ryrie.