Pop-up Independent Trading

My feature in the latest edition of The Leeds Debacle looks at the collaboration, and competition, between independents and corporates in Leeds.

On the first Saturday in December, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year, I took a stroll around a drizzly Leeds city centre. It wasn’t just a feeling of Christmas cheer that gave the old place a bit of a glow; it really does feel that new and exciting independent pop ups are, well, popping up all over the place.

Coincidentally, Saturday 7 December saw the UK’s first ever Small Business Saturday, encouraging shoppers to ‘buy local’ where they can. Leeds certainly seems to be championing independent businesses; even, whisper, collaborating with corporates to increase footfall. And for this new hybrid of ‘independent’ and ‘pop-up,’ don’t necessarily read ‘fringe’, or ‘hipster’, either. It’s all very mainstream these days.

Another first this December is Winter WonderLeeds – a pop-up marketplace from Leeds City Council – setting up stall for 17 days in the centre of Briggate; prime retail space that independent traders could ill afford otherwise. Inside the marquee, 20 stalls jostle for business: students from The Food Academy at Printworks selling deliciously smelling freshly-baked sourdough; the Bierkeller selling craft ale and novelty steins; Gateways School raising funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust by selling soaps. It feels very much like a local village Christmas fair (or “fayre”, for added Dickensian-inspired-Yuletide-spirit) brought into the heart of the chain-store metropolis that is Briggate.

This, some say, is how the Christkindlmarkt (the German Market in Millenium Square) should be – a chance for local traders to showcase their goods. But this argument misses the point: the draw of the German Market is the fact that you can pick up a proper currywurst or pretzel that you just can’t get anywhere else in Leeds. It’s less about competition and more about complementing year-round market traders for a few weeks each year. Really though, for many, the German Market is less about the craft stalls and more about the steins. Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on whether you managed to beat the queue and bag a coveted pew to perch on in the bier hall this year. I’m still to succeed.

Lower Briggate is getting in on the independent-led shopping act too, with the newly opened Lambert’s Yard. The Grade II listed house, yard and arcade is one of Leeds’ hidden treasures, and has been restored to house a pop-up department store showcasing art, canvas prints, homeware, jewellery and fashion from emerging designers in Yorkshire and beyond. Hopefully, Lambert’s Yard will fill the void left by the closure of the fantastic Bird’s Yard on Kirkgate. It certainly provides a welcome breath of fresh air from the usual present-purchasing-suspects found in Leeds Trinity (more on that, later). I was particularly impressed with the Leeds Soap Company (the lavender and rosemary bath melts will make the perfect stocking filler). I’ll definitely be back.

Development of the vast space is ongoing. I was lucky enough to be shown the floor plans – and Lambert’s Yard is HUGE. It’s such a hidden space smack bang in the centre of the city, and it’s great to see it being utilised so well. The pop-up is just the beginning; it will close at the end of January before the space re-emerges as a permanent department store for independent designers and brands, as well as creative exhibition and event space.

Lambert’s Yard Manager Isla Brown explains: “We wanted to open the building one stage at a time, using each stage as an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, how we can work with other local independents and what this city really needs from a space like this. The building deserves to be seen and it deserves to be used – we want to do it justice.”

Lambert’s Yard has, hopefully, got the recipe for success. “We are lucky in that we have a large building, close to the high street and a landlord who supports creative, sustainable use of the space,” she adds. The pop-up is joined by a Telegraph Magazine style photography exhibition on the second floor, and on the ground floor, steak restaurant Rare.

The mention of steak takes me nicely on to a new food venture which sees independents and corporates collaborating, rather than colliding. Trinity Kitchen, the first of its kind in the UK, has seven permanent restaurants, cafes and bars, which sit snugly alongside five pop-up street food vans, rotating on a monthly basis. Selected with the help of Richard Johnson, food journalist and curator of the British Street Food, the aim is to make authentic street food available all year round, whatever the weather. It’s an innovative concept, and the reception so far has been overwhelmingly positive. You only need to visit on a Saturday afternoon to see what I mean.

My initial impression of Trinity Kitchen was that, while undeniably A Good Thing, given the alternative food court scenario of KFC and McDonalds, I’d sort of seen it before. Westfield Stratford’s food hall has been transported up the M1– Chicago Rib Shack, Chip+Fish, PizzaLuxe, Pho, and Tortilla feature here, too. But these chains are all new to Leeds, and it’s great to see them choosing Trinity Kitchen as their first port of northern call.

Some of the street food traders are local – the Marvellous Tea Dance Company, and the soon to be ensconced Fish& (currently popped-up at Belgrave Music Hall). Others are from further afield – Big Apple Hot Dogs, which featured in the first wave of street food vans in October, for example, can usually be found catering for the hungry workers of the Big Smoke. But does this, or should this, matter? Is combining emerging chains with independent traders the future of retail development? Or is putting street food traders inside a corporate setting taking away potential footfall from stores not lucky enough to be situated inside the golden triangle of Boar Lane, Commercial Street and Briggate? I don’t know the answers, but it will be fascinating to see the concept of combining independent and corporate develop and replicate. For the moment, at least, this city seems to be big enough for the both of them.

Leeds Trinity is by far the big ticket item added to Leeds’ shopping list this year. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny its regenerative influence – recent figures show that it is set to catapult Leeds into fourth place in the UK retail league table over the coming year (we’re in sixth place at the moment). But can you quantify an area’s retail success by identikit high-streets, filled with shoppers wearing the same things, shopping for more of the same? I don’t think you can. Neither does Lambert’s Yard Isla Brown: “The future of our high street is not about big corporates, it’s about spaces that work with and for the people that use them. The independent scene in Leeds is thriving and there are many great people behind it.”

To me, the real sign Leeds is on the up again is the space that is constantly being found for innovative and independent traders – whether it be in Kirkgate Market, the Corn Exchange, Lambert’s Yard, Winter WonderLeeds, the city’s long-established arcades, or the street food vans in Trinity Kitchen. These places give Leeds its quirkiness and its spirit. And on that note, I’m off to Belgrave for a bottle of Quaffing Gravy (brewed in Shipley) and a slice of Dough Boys Pizza (charcuterie from The Reliance over the road). Beats Pizza Express hands down.

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