Text by Jono Coote
Illustrations by Martyn Hill
Last Thursday, I decided to brave the UK’s private rail network despite talk of heavy frozen precipitation and said network’s well documented inability to deal with that form of weather (alongside non-frozen participation, leaves and ‘the wrong kind of sun’), in order to attend the Welcome Skate Store skate pub quiz taking place in Tall Boys Beer Market – a craft beer shop/café occupying the same small arcade in Leeds city centre as Welcome. The success of the night got me reflecting on how many collaborations between independent businesses, freelance artists/musicians and generally creative types take place throughout Leeds – a network of decidedly ‘grass roots’ partnerships which obviously take place in cities all over the country, but which I’m way more connected to in Leeds than other places due to the amount of time I lived up there for.
Independent businesses offer up so much of what makes a city unique besides just putting on these kind of events, I decided that while I was there it would be worth talking to the guys from Welcome as well as two of the other shops in Thornton’s Arcade operating similar but distinct businesses who have worked with Welcome in the past –Tall Boys and OK Comics. The three groups’ regular work together - both in the skate scene through Welcome and in the wider network of creatives operating in Leeds - made them seem like the perfect group to examine the network of community which can stand in opposition to the bland, prefabricated store fronts of big businesses on the high street, as well as the unashamed corporate greed which is the driving force behind the majority of them.
We (me, Sam Barratt and Tom Brown from Welcome, Jared Myland from OK Comics and Cody Barton from Tall Boys) convened our varying levels of hangover in the upstairs café area in Tall Boys, where the Skate Pub Quiz of 2017 had taken place the night before, to talk about how they all came to know each other and work together within the arcade. ‘Through their customers’ seemed to be the general consensus.
Cody: A lot of our customers are the link between us. The fact that we all get on is just a bonus, and makes anything we do easier because we’re all quite casual about it, but it is all customer focused. It’s giving them something to do or buy or even just show an interest in.
Tom Brown: I think we all appreciated that each of us was involved in a culture – whether it’s craft beer, comics or skateboarding, they’ve all got a scene around them. A scene where people appreciate something a little different, like a collaboration board, beer, book or whatever.
It is those involved in these cultures who are offered a space to meet, lurk and formulate new ideas and projects by shops like these - something which, even if you wanted to do in a chain store, would be unlikely to go down well. Imagine explaining to the security guard at TK Maxx that you had ‘just popped down to hang out with your mates’, or sitting on a sofa in Waitrose to skin up.
Sam: If you don’t have the independents then you have the same fucking shops in every city. What does that offer? There’s no character, no personality, those companies don’t bring anything to the city other than commerce.
Cody: The thing I like about independents is that they always bring a sense of locality to a city. You can go into any major store and buy something, but you go into a skate shop, a comic shop, a beer shop, have a chat and sit down and you know that when you come back, you’ll probably chat to them again.
"If you don’t have the independents then you have the same fucking shops in every city. What does that offer? There’s no character, no personality"
Jared: No one goes to Manchester and comes away saying ‘What a fantastic Primark’, but people will come to Leeds and say I’ve been to that awesome skate shop, awesome beer shop. I was talking to a guy yesterday who said that 95% of stores of businesses on the high street are big businesses and the rest are independents – it’s that 5% that makes any city different to any other city.
Those 5%, made up of record stores, skate shops, bars, comic shops, cafes and the like may be an integral part of a city’s make up, but they can often become victims of their own success – improving an area with their presence and in the process causing landlords and councils with an eye for profit over community to start hiking rent prices faster than you can say Brixton. If, as Ocean Howell’s much quoted essay posits, skateboarders are the ‘stormtroopers of gentrification’, then the independent store is surely the logical next step and more than one skate shop has been lost to rising rent prices in recent years. Speedway Mag’s recent interview with Dave Mackey sees him list rising rent in Liverpool as one of the reasons for Lost Art’s brief closing of doors (before re-emerging as The Useless Wooden Toys Society), as does Parlour’s shop closing statement earlier this year.
Cody: It’s interesting, they shout about us when it suits them but they never look after us…
Tom: We’ve no negotiation for rent, when the landlords put the rent up we don’t have a team of lawyers to consult. That goes on to sharing information – for all of us this is our first business. But our sales system, the only reason we use that is because Cody and the guys Tall Boys started using it and showed us how to. We share information and we’re so open and honest about what rent we’re paying...
Cody: When you’re struggling too, it’s good to know what’s going on with the others – it lets you know where you are.
This is not the Welcome Video (2015)
The sharing of ideas and information amongst small businesses is clearly key to survival in a city centre seeming at first to be built on large scale department stores (Harvey Nichols, John Lewis, Primark) but on closer inspection offering a few more homegrown labours of love.
Jared: The question could be not ‘Why do you work together?’ but ‘Why doesn’t everybody?’
Sam: It’s not like you have a huge amount of resources when you’re a small business either – we’re not a huge company where we can call on people to do shit, so it makes sense to reach out.
Sam: I feel like there should be more of this shit going on, more collaboration between independent businesses. I guess the other thing is that we’re not in competition at all – there’s crossover with our customers, but not with our business.
Tom: And if anyone comes to visit these two stores it benefits us, because there’s more bodies in the arcade and they might stop by to look at us. I suppose the events, products, collaborations we’ve done have all been relatively easy to organise. A few casual conversations, an email or two, a flyer that someone maybe checks over first and then it’s done. Once you’ve done one collaboration then you know how the other person works…
Tom: On the other end of the scale we did a collaboration with Welcome to Yorkshire, the tourist board, and it took so many meetings and so many people to get clearance from.
Jared: When you’re dealing with a big company like that, no-one really wants to take responsibility to make a decision because they don’t want to get in trouble, they don’t want a disciplinary for whatever reason. Because we’re not really accountable to anybody we can be really casual with how we do stuff.
Tom: With the arcade, there’s an arcade management that we pay service charge too but any event we do in the arcade – live music, stalls, book signings, skateboarding, all kinds of shit – not once has anyone been in touch with the management because we know that there would be those blocks there. We’ve taken ownership of the arcade.
It is these events and the range of people that get involved which highlight the place of shops such as these right in the midst of the local community as well as their obvious retail focus. It also blurs the lines between consumer and activist, employee and customer, when the art form on display is as likely to be created by someone involved in putting on the event as by part of their wider network. This, as much as anything, is a huge reason for you to get up on your soapbox and shout ‘shop local’. Talk soon turns to some of the projects with which the shops have been involved and how it comes about.
Sam: We just did a collab with OK Comics and it was a guy who went to uni in Leeds, he’s pretty well known now and respected in the comic world but I knew him through skating about 15 years ago. We definitely try to work with people from here or people who have experience of the city as much as possible. It’s like with Jon Horner when he started out, we did those comics with him. I knew him through another business, we sold his comic books then years later we ended up collaborating with him. You meet a lot of people just by being in a public facing business and building those relationships.
Tom: Also these people are usually willing to do stuff most of the time for nothing – if we’re putting an event on and Serious Sam Barrett is free then he’ll come and play, because he appreciates what we’re doing as a skate shop…
Cody: People like Poppy who used to work here – she’s started working with pottery and when she went full time, we said we’d buy stuff off of her to sell in the shop. It’s a two way thing isn’t it, helping people like that – why get someone to do a random thing for you when you can get someone who’s talented, local and a good friend. Someone might see it and be like ‘Wow, who did that?’ and it could push them on to something.
Jared: It’s interesting for customers as well – we get a lot of people visiting from out of town and they want something made by local people, because it’s not something they can get where they’re from. It’s nice to have stuff on the shelves that’s produced by local people.
Tom: When we premiered the Welcome video ‘Paul’ at Hyde Park Picture House, Wendy who works there was really easy to deal with and helped us out in any way that she could. And the Brudenell, we always do video premieres there. With Nathan I’ll text him with a date to do a video and he doesn’t ask what video it is, just texts me back 30 minutes later and tells me it’s in the diary. It’s like a dream…I’ve spoken to other shops about how they put on premieres, maybe with places they don’t have that kind of relationship with and it sounds like an absolute nause! Also all the skaters know where it is, most of them living within spitting distance and are there most nights anyway…
I wonder if perhaps the transient nature of the city’s heavy student population can work against someone trying to build a strong base within the community, but the appeal of these shops appears to transcend spatial boundaries and the constant renewal of faces acts in their favour.
Jared: We tend to keep transients as our customers – we’ve got so many mail order customers who used to be customers in the shop while they were students here. They make up 90% of our mail order customers.
Cody: That’s the thing isn’t it – if they’ve been coming in for three years, you’re their comic shop. It doesn’t matter where they are.
Sam: It’s definitely good, it just means there’s more people coming through – you’re exposed to more people…
Jared: It’s not like you’re losing customers, you’re gaining another year’s worth.
Tom: It’s kept the Leeds skate scene fresh. Because the city and skate scene are only a certain size, when new people come in September then by October or November a good group have filtered in, they’ve visited the shop, they’ve skated Hyde Park a few times…
"It’s nice seeing 18 year old students come in, find the skate shop and start to make friends through that."
Sam: And it gives local people a big network, they know skaters across the country because so many people have been through the city. I guess it’s how it used to be with people going to events and making friends with people, but now there aren’t so many events.
Tom: It’s nice seeing 18 year old students come in, find the skate shop and start to make friends through that. Then as they grow they start to get involved in the other things in Leeds – start working in an independent bar, finding an outlet for their artwork. Blinky is the perfect example of that; everyone knew him as a skater from Sunderland living here and skating Hyde, now he’s doing his own stuff with Village or with these guys.
Welcome Promo (2016)
It’s definitely a sign of how passionate these guys are about the local community of how many ideas are vaguely pencilled in within five minutes of me asking about upcoming events, alongside reiterations of regular projects likely to reoccur next year.
Jared: We’re regularly involved with Thought Bubble, the big comic convention which grew from a tiny thing in the basement of the Town Hall to this massive, internationally recognised thing. They moved it into the city centre from just on the outskirts of the centre and it pretty much dominated life in the city for that whole week. That’s a really cool thing for us to be involved with. [Pointing at Cody] We’ll probably do a beer collaboration again next year, we did last year…
Cody: We’ve got the night market coming up…
Tom: Oh yeah, that’s happening – loads of stalls in the arcade, Cody will get in touch with all the creative types that he knows. There’ll be some music playing, some DJs.
Cody: It’s cool, I like using a building like this and totally flipping people’s perspective on it – how we’ve put bands on, markets and stuff. It changes people’s perspective of what it is, it’s not just a boring arcade and it also shows that the shops up here are actually doing stuff.
Sam: We’re only ever one project ahead at a time, we just did the quiz and the OK Comics/Joe Decie collaboration. We’ll get Christmas out the way and then try to think of something.
Tom: We’ve been talking about having a gig in here for ages, a little festival almost in the summer. It would be the perfect spot.
Cody: We’ve put a gig on before and it was amazing. It would be cool to do it properly, with more preparation.
Tom: We’ve talked about doing an outdoor cinema seated then – because of the gradient of the arcade it would be perfect for the sloped seating.
Cody: It would be cool to do a film in every shop.
Sam: We should do something for the film festival next year.
The chat comes to a close with a raft of ideas to get stuck into in the New Year, ensuring that Leeds will have plenty of events and projects coming up. It sums up perfectly why these kind of stores are the lifeblood of a city centre – not to labour the point too hard, but I can’t imagine the heads of John Lewis and Harvey Nichols are currently sitting in Wetherspoons working out what events they can put on to fire people’s imaginations in 2018. Skater owned Saturdays is a neat buzzword to counteract the consumerist onslaught of Black Friday, skater owned every day is even better and independently owned every day, both within and without skateboarding, is vital. If our city centres are to be kept even partially ‘ours’, then this network of passionate individuals offering something more than just a consumer experience are one of the first lines of defence and we should support them as such.