The United States of America might have its Independence Day on 4th July but here in Leeds at the Corn Exchange there was the first Independents’ Day.
Don’t worry, this magnificent old building has not decided to break away from the United Kingdom. It is just a day to celebrate the independent retailers who occupy the units here.
I must begin by explaining that the Corn Exchange, as its name suggests, was originally built to trade in said cereal crop and is not, contrary to the urban myth, the place where I go for my jokes. Now we have that straight I can continue. The building was designed by the architect Cuthbert Broderick (who also did the Town Hall) and was opened in 1864, but during the 1950s the trade declined and it closed its doors. In 1985 a company called Speciality Shops won the contract to redevelop the structure as a shopping centre and a staircase was added for internal access to the balcony. In 2007 there was another refurbishment and the following year it opened again.
The latest chapter in the story began in 2017, when it was acquired by Rushbond plc, the company who is currently renovating the old Majestic Cinema in City Square, and another sprucing up was undertaken. This has resulted in a funky interior with brightly coloured doors to the individual units, a mural up the staircase to the balcony and various artistic installations and events taking place.
When I went along to the Independents’ Day event I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time talking with the Centre Manager, Adam Warner, who generates enough energy to power a small town. He is a man on a mission, and that is to make the Corn Exchange a springboard for new and expanding businesses to develop in an environment which suits their specific needs. You will not see any of the usual suspects normally found in ‘malls’ (urgh) but people with their own dreams and schemes to make a mark. Some of the tenants are not strictly speaking new but have had an on-line presence which they now want to turn into a tangible concern. The way in which this is put into practice is by offering an empty space policy, which Adam likes to call ‘try before you buy’. This enables them to set up shop in a unit for a favourable rent on a month by month basis until it has been ascertained whether it is a viable concern or not, at which time a formal lease is negotiated. As he said, it is one thing to have a dream but it has to be backed up by a bit of business acumen rather than just being a hobby. He went on to say that the tenants should offer an experience rather than just somewhere to sell and buy, the meaning of which I discovered later.
I was interested to find out what would happen if a business outgrew the Corn Exchange, to which he replied that he would be delighted if that happened so that the unit could be made available to discover the next big thing. Fortunately, it is only the exterior of the building which is listed and so the internal units can have walls taken out. In fact, there are several doubles and triples already. Some of their success stories are MKI Miyuki Zoku, a men’s fashion store which has a massive online presence, has introduced its own label, and sells its clothes not only in the Corn Exchange but also in Selfridges. Probably the most spectacular rise, as far as we foodies are concerned anyway, is that of the hummus and pita bar, Humpit. When it opened in the Corn Exchange it garnered numerous awards and now has several other eateries. I was shocked the first time I saw their stall in York Railway Station, but that is just one of the other seven in the chain.
When I had finished my chat with Adam I took a minute or so let my metabolism slow down to its normal rate as the assault of his enthusiasm had been absorbed by osmosis and I could not live my life at that speed for any length of time. Once I was duly chilled I was taken by my host, Ellie MacDonald, to be introduced to some of the tenants. This was not a put-up job as I was asked to choose the ones I wanted to meet.
We began with the weirdest, well it was my choice, which is The Plant Point. Adam had mentioned that this was run by someone who had come to him with half a business plan – not recommended – and a dream, which seemed viable to him. As its name suggests, it sells plants but is not really the place to nip into for a last minute bunch of flowers when you have forgotten an anniversary. Their Instagram account describes the owners as Sisters, Plant Lovers and Jungle Builders. I can certainly vouch for all of the above after a chat with one of the sisters, Sonia Pounder, who said that she turned heads when moving into the unit bearing a thirty-year-old yucca tree. Before long, the place looked like a particularly dense corner of Borneo undergrowth. I could have sworn I saw David Attenborough and a camera crew creep through a small clearing near the back office. Despite the shaky premise on which the business started, they have already branched out – geddit – and opened a second shop in Ilkley.
The next port of call was Simcha Gallery, a mother and son business with the former, Anne Roper, making clothing accessories, art cards, mixed media artwork and jewellery; and the latter, Stephen Roper, specialising in jewellery, both bespoke and own design. Anne has supplied stores such as Liberty and Selfridges and was one of the original stallholders in Camden Lock back in the 1970s. Stephen loves making jewellery inspired by nature and showed me a piece in the shape of a fern which had been done by hand and had taken about three days to make. He also enjoys up-cycling jewellery of sentimental value but which is not worn, and re-fashioning it into something more appropriate and personal. Again, they were only too pleased to break off their work and chat away about their passions. This was not just for my benefit as they were equally attentive to a lady and her daughter who popped in to look around. Attentive without being pushy.
Finally, I asked to see the newest business in the Corn Exchange, EyeKit, which only opened at the end of May. It grabbed my attention as it is an optician and I have worn glasses since I was six-years-old, so I wondered what twist there could be on the familiar. The twist is that they specialise, or should that be special eyes, in sports, leisure and prescription eyewear. Surprisingly for a man of my finely honed physique (for darts) I am not the sporty type any longer and so have no need of specialist specs and it therefore came as a total surprise that each activity has its own range of glasses: cyclists will need a different model from mountain climbers and they will have alternative demands from runners.
I also wear varifocals with photo chromatic lenses and here again, there are separate requirements. Wrap-around lenses present a problem with varifocals and the proportion of each prescription within the lens is sport specific, as is the degree to which they darken in the sunlight. Fortunately, Phillippa Park, the co-owner with her husband Stephen, has over twenty years experience in optics and holds a Masters in Optometry and a Diploma in Sports Vision. We had a really good conversation and she also showed me the high tech consultation room where she performs the eye examinations. Once again, the commitment to their chosen business is palpable.
One unit which I passed but where the owner was not about, was Fabrikk, an ethical fashion store who use vegan friendly cork in place of leather. What really caught my imagination, however, was a handbag. Hey, my weekend accessories are no one’s business but mine. The bag had concealed LED lighting sewn into the interior, giving off a soft glow when opened so there is no more feeling around in the dark for those elusive keys. I imagine that it would also frighten the life out of muggers.
Having brought you up to speed with the past and the present, it is now time to let you know about the future. During my conversation with Adam, he told me that the currently empty lower ground floor is about to be turned into a food court. Again, there will be no trace of the Golden Arches or the Southern American Colonel, but small independents committed to making a success of their visions. He said that there will be eight kitchens installed which, like the other units, will be on a try before you buy basis, meaning that the major cost of fitting out premises is taken care of and they can just move in and turn on the cooker. I can’t wait for that one.
I know that I am always repeating myself, I said I know that I am always repeating myself, but we are so lucky in this magnificent City of ours to have the people who show the foresight to invest big in iconic buildings, put them to a use which benefits everybody and also gives the others with a similar vision but not the financial clout, an opportunity to live their dream. Long may we lead the way. We don’t need fireworks and marching bands for our Independents’ Day. This is Leeds and we just get on with it.
All photographs by Stan Graham.
Look out for Part 2 of The Corn Exchange on 9 July.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.