The story of a locked-down high street

'I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t even looked at it because I don’t want to'

Good morning Millers — this post is about a local high street and its traders.

Over the next few months, we will publish a series of stories about how Greater Manchester is going to emerge from the pandemic. The first part of that is assessing which parts of our local economy have survived, and what kind of shape they are in. 

For today's story, our reporter and photographer Tom Taylor visited Prestwich and spoke to some of its small business owners. His interviews show the emotional and financial toll of the past year, but also how resilient and resourceful these traders have been: using government assistance to diversify their businesses and helping each other out in a big group chat.

If you have ideas for what we should cover in this series, please get in touch. And if you would like to contribute to the Letters Page in Monday's briefing, either about this story or another recent one, please hit reply to this newsletter and sign off your email with your name and where you live.

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By Tom Taylor

The shutters are mostly closed on the Prestwich stretch of Bury New Road. Only the occasional newsagent and off-licence shows any signs of activity. “Closed” signs hang in most of the windows and no one answers when I knock on the doors.

This was an area in flux before the pandemic — changing in character as rising house prices in Chorlton and Didsbury sent middle class buyers north to Prestwich. The high street reflects that: trendy bars and cafes exist alongside more traditional hardware shops and pawnbrokers.

But the virus has put all of these businesses into survival mode. They have experienced long periods of closure during the lockdowns, fierce competition from the supermarkets, and periods of deep anxiety about whether they will be able to survive.

They have also been helped by the various forms of government assistance, and by the trend for people shopping locally while working from home. Those factors might have saved thousands of shops, cafes and salons like these from closure.

After photographing their empty shops, I got home and started trying to contact them to ask how they have fared during the pandemic — economically and emotionally. I got in touch by phone and email and Instagram, and many were happy to talk.

Starting with Mike, who opened his bar, Cuckoo, almost eight years ago after noticing the influx of BBC workers and other professionals into Prestwich. Soon after, All The Shapes opened on nearby Warwick Street and a fashionable bar culture started to form in the area.

The impact of the first lockdown in March last year was massive, Mike told me over the phone. “It was a real worrying time in terms of completely closing the business which we’d never had to do,” he says. Left-over stock, such as beer, was wasted although they did manage to donate food items to a local homeless charity. Cuckoo had to close completely from mid-March through April and May, missing out on important trading dates such as Easter and bank holidays. “Year on year, we are significantly double figures down on profit,” he says.

Yet, Mike stresses the importance of looking forward and adapting the business to face each challenge. He invested the government’s small business assistance grant into a new takeaway option and built a seating area at the front of the bar. And he says the street has banded together in a time of crisis. “Early on, there was a WhatsApp group set up for all the independents and bars in the area to communicate with each other and help each other out,” he tells me.

Warm lights have been strung up outside Cuckoo and wind their way to Rose & Lee, a cosy interior design shop next door. Fiona says the lights were a joint idea between the two shops. Giving the street a more cheerful atmosphere in dark times like these is important. Fiona opened the shop six years ago, and before the pandemic hit, she was thinking about how Brexit would affect her business. “Little did we know,” she laughs.

When the first lockdown began, the business “all but died,” Fiona tells me. “My family are very vulnerable, particularly my dad and gran, and during the first lockdown we didn’t really know what to do.” Despite this, she was cautiously optimistic, believing that because all shops had to close, they would all be in the same boat.

As the pandemic progressed, however, Fiona became increasingly aware that this wasn’t the case. “You’ve got your big garden centres,” she says, “they go and buy some of their stock from the same places we do, but the grey areas of the law allow them to keep [trading], while we have to sit there and pray we get click-and-collect.”

Fiona, too, is looking forward and thinking of more ways she can adapt Rose & Lee during the current lockdown. She tells me about the online classes she’s been running on interior design to stay connected with her customers and hopes for more collaboration with independent businesses on Bury New Road in the future. “We seem to have this vibe where we all work together and innovate,” Fiona tells me. “We might not be Didsbury, but we’re our own slice of North Manchester and I think it’s a bit better to be fair.”

One trader, who doesn’t want to be named, shares Fiona’s frustration about how some businesses have benefitted from loopholes in the law regarding essential and non-essential trading. The trader doesn’t have a website and relies on the in-person patronage of customers they have built relationships with over twelve years. “My worry was if they went online, because they couldn’t get hold of me, and got a good job from one of the supermarkets that had started delivering flowers, they would continue using them,” the trader says.

As Greater Manchester moved into the tier system, business started picking up and the trader’s regulars returned with messages of support: “Quite a few stopped me, saying: ‘I hope you’re going to be OK and that you’ll survive.’”

Maureen and her sister own Kelly’s Hair No 1, a salon that has been operating since 2003 and has spent the last eight years on Bury New Road. She tells me about the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of her staff. “There’s nobody who’s not been affected by the pandemic in one way or another,” she says.

When the salon is open, stylists have to work fewer hours so that clients can be spaced out in line with social distancing legislation. The staff work on a self-employed basis which has meant that they weren’t eligible for furlough payments and two members of staff were not able to get the self-employment grant.

Maureen argues that not enough attention has been paid to the positive effect salons can have on their clients’ mental wellbeing. “They might spend an hour in the hairdresser having a cut and blow, but they’ve felt relieved because they’ve gone out somewhere fresh,” she tells me.

I speak to another trader who has experienced the health impact of the pandemic first-hand. They have lost two friends during the pandemic, both young men. The trader pointed to the closure of gyms and postponement of sports competitions as factors contributing to the mental health crisis.

Before the lockdown, Farah Naz Hair was going from strength to strength. It has been on Bury New Road for six and a half years and employs four members of staff. “It felt like I was shutting the doors permanently,” Farah explains regarding the March lockdown. “I knew I wasn’t, but it did feel like that.”

She says the government’s financial assistance was helpful but that it didn’t cover anywhere near what her takings would have been and what still has to be paid out. “We are at least 50% down on where we should be,” Farah says.

Yet, the support and feedback from her clients has kept spirits up. I scrolled through comments on the salon’s Facebook page after the short-lived relaxation of restrictions in December. ‘Thank the Lord’, one comment read, another simply: ‘YIPPEE!’

Shabana owns the framing shop Gallery 786, alongside her husband, Kamran. The shop has been on Bury New Road for over twenty years and has built up a steady stream of regular customers. She thinks the rules regarding retail were unclear in the first lockdown period, during which the shop closed for all trading, only to find out later that similar traders were finding alternative ways to move their stock.

She welcomed the small business grant and the self-employment support program which helped Gallery 786 weather the storm. As restrictions relaxed, Shabana was able to continue trading again and started running click-and-collect. “I’m just so grateful for every job I get in now,” she tells me. “It’s feeding my family. It’s not feeding anybody else. It’s me and my husband and we have three kids. Without customers shopping locally, I wouldn’t be able to put food on the table.”

I ask how her finances are looking. “I can tell you that I’ve gone down at least 50% in my sales,” she says. “I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t even looked at it because I don’t want to.”

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Coming up, we have a special Sunday morning story for members: We speak to a local plumber who came to Manchester from Cameroon as a child, grew up in Wythenshawe, and will be lining up against Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup tomorrow…

If you missed our weekend last Sunday, it was about the Seven Sisters tower blocks in Rochdale. You can read it here. The rest of our stories this week were for our members - you can see them here.


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