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Independent markets, districts or quarters can create a whole world of discovery for locals and tourists alike, bringing even more custom for the businesses involved and regenerating an entire area through culture and retail combined.
When you’re an independent business in a world of chains, there’s always strength in numbers, so joining with other indies in independent markets and quarters can be a great way to survive and thrive together.
This is the same principle behind The Oi Card, which brings indies together as a network which rewards loyal customers. That’s why we wanted to shout about some of the best independent markets, quarters and districts we know.
Independent markets and districts around the UK
We’ve gathered some shining examples of independent markets and districts around the UK, but we want to know about any others that have impressed you too.
Tell us in the comments if we’ve missed anything you think should be in this list.
Custard Factory – Birmingham
If you visit the site of the former Bird’s custard factory in Digbeth, Birmingham, you won’t find any custard, because the factory has gone the same way as many large UK factories over the years.
What you will find instead is a colourful district dedicated to independent shopping, eating, drinking, entertainment and enterprise, showing that the closure of a large factory doesn’t have to mean the end of jobs and opportunity.
Closing its doors as a producer of egg-free custard in 1964, the site was redeveloped from 1992 onwards with a combination of grants and private sector funding raised on the back of the initial public investment.
Unlike some of the indie distracts in this list, the Custard Factory is as much a place to create as it is to sell, with artists’ studios and workspaces amongst the shop fronts, galleries and eateries.
Although there are some larger chains here and there around the development, the Custard Factory is best known for its small and unique businesses, including media companies, boutiques, restaurants and creative enterprises.
Turning the loading bay into a lake has transformed a formerly functional part of the site into a laid-back social space where visitors and workers can relax.
The Custard Factory hosts entertainments of all kinds, including live music, club nights and theatre, making use of this wonderful space in the evening as well as during the day.
You can even get married here, with the spectacular function rooms perfect for more formal occasions.
The Shambles – York
The ancient and beautiful city of York is a tourist attraction in itself, but one road in particular is a must for every visitor.
The Shambles is a picturesque street full of historic buildings dating back as far as the 1300s.
It used to be an open air meat market in days gone by, making it a central and important shopping street, and was known as The Great Flesh Shambles for exactly this reason.
By the 1800s you could still find 25 butchers’ shops down this single street, but nowadays it offers far more variety and is much more suitable for vegetarians than it used to be.
Food, gifts, works of art, furniture, clothes and artisan breads are just a few of the treasures you can buy from independent artists and retailers down this bustling and atmospheric street, although you’ll still spot some meat hooks if you look closely.
Many of the shops along The Shambles are a return to craftsmanship reminiscent of what would have been sold in York at the time the street was first built.
You’ll find independent businesses throughout the ancient streets of York doing the same sort of thing, making the city a living piece of history.
When you’re not looking in the shops, restaurants, galleries and tea rooms, you can also join ghost walks and tourism trails through and around The Shambles as you explore York’s ancient charm.
The Corn Exchange – Leeds
In a city full of very modern shopping centres housing every chain retailer and restaurant imaginable, the Corn Exchange is a real gem for those looking for somewhere unique to spend a day shopping.
Originally built in 1861 as a hall to – you guessed it – exchange corn, the Corn Exchange was once packed with traders buying and selling the precious yellow stuff.
Now Grade I listed and a hub for small independent businesses, the Corn Exchange one of only three former corn exchanges in the UK still used for trading of any kind.
The shops in the Corn Exchange are now chiefly boutiques selling clothing, vintage wares, jewellery and household items as well as gifts of all kinds.
It has undergone a character transformation after many of the original shops were asked to leave in 2007 to make way for a refurbishment and a food emporium.
This was controversial at the time, because many of the previous retailers were favourites with younger shoppers and drew a regular alternative crowd.
With the refurbishment came new businesses and a large new restaurant on the lower ground floor. The restaurant closed in 2013, but this has opened up new opportunities, leaving a large space which is now used for events and artwork.
There are cafes and a barbers shop among the photogenic units around the grand circular building, and lately there has been something of a return to the independent market feel and the alternative spirit of pre-2007.
Depending on the time of year you visit, you might find fairs, sculptures or live music filling the space alongside all these creative independent businesses.
It all adds up to make visit to the Corn Exchange a memorable experience, so much more fun than a trip to your average shopping centre.
North Parade – Bradford
North Parade was just any other street in Bradford city centre until 2011, when it began its surprising and rapid transformation into one of the UK’s official top 5 Great British High Streets.
Already the home of the Bradford Camera Exchange – one of the city’s oldest and most beloved independent businesses – it was the arrival of European style bier cafe The Sparrow that marked the beginning of North Parade’s reinvention.
Once The Sparrow proved a success, other independent bars began to open along the street, every single one tiny and with its own very distinctive personality.
The Record Cafe serves beer, vinyl and ham; Peacock has Indian street food; Al’s Dime Bar is a lively, American theme bar; Plonk is a relaxed wine bar; Rumshackalack is a rum bar offering Caribbean street food; the Muddy Puddle is a newly-opened cocktail bar; and the Beerhouse is a stylish alternative to chain pubs.
Amidst all these bars is Fork’s, a social enterprise and high quality cafe for anyone wanting to sit in comfort with a hot drink or fill up for breakfast.
Weekends and match days at nearby Valley Parade are particularly lively down North Parade, with new bars opening in the nearby area to build on its success, including Bradford Brewery.
The independent businesses along North Parade work together to make the area a success, and this community spirit is celebrated with an annual summer street party.
North Parade has been placed in the top 5 of the Great British High Street awards for the past two years in a row, and it’s incredible to think it all started with The Sparrow putting their faith in Bradford just a few years ago.
Sunbridge Wells – Bradford
Another Bradford example, but one that can’t be overlooked because of its vision, boldness and high quality execution.
Sunbridge Wells is an underground bar, food and shopping complex in a network of tunnels beneath the centre of Bradford.
Four storeys high, with four separate entrances, it’s been excavated and filled with stalls and units housing independent businesses of all kinds.
With a vintage and industrial feel, and winding tunnels to get lost in, it’s the perfect antidote to the newly opened Westfield shopping centre nearby.
Quiggins at Grand Central – Liverpool
Unlike other independent markets in this list, Quiggins isn’t tied to any one particular space or building, because it’s moved around several times from one part of Liverpool to another.
Quiggins first opened in 1986 in Renshaw Street as an antiques business, and then moved to School Lane in 1988.
It quickly became a cultural hub, with many independent retailers, artists, craftsmen, music venues and even a radio station based in the building.
This made it all too ironic when – as part of Liverpool’s Capital of Culture bid – Quiggins was forced to close when plans were drawn up for a new development in the area.
Despite a 150,000 signature petition and much protest, the building was demolished in 2007, leaving just the facade as part of the Liverpool One shopping centre.
But that wasn’t the end of Quiggins, and many of the original stallholders reopened at Grand Central Hall in Renshaw Street, collectively naming the independent market ‘Quiggins at Grand Central’.
There then followed a dark time when Peter Tierney – one of the previous owners of Quiggins – stood as a National Front candidate in Liverpool, after he had ceased having anything to do with the independent market.
The ‘Quiggins’ was later formally dropped by the traders from the name ‘Quiggins at Grand Central’, and the market is now more often known simply as ‘Grand Central Hall’ or ‘Grand Central Shopping Emporium’.
A trip round Grand Central Hall reveals more than 30 independent businesses including alternative clothing, retro games, record shops and more.
They’re all ready to be discovered in various creative nooks and crannies around the building, joined up by colourful stairwells, ceilings and artwork inspired by nature.
Afflecks Palace – Manchester
Afflecks Palace packs 73 independent businesses into four floors of a single building, right in the middle of Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Boutiques and stalls sell alternative clothing, records, games and other weird and wonderful creative items, and you’ll also find cafes and social spaces so you can easily spend a full day wandering the aisles and stairwells.
Formerly Affleck & Brown drapery business, the building first opened in the 1860s but declined and then eventually closed in 1973 after a failed attempt by Debenhams to revive it as a department store.
It reopened as Affleck’s Palace in 1981, offering week-by-week rolling rental contracts for all stallholders, enabling small independent businesses to try their luck without committing to a long-term lease.
The market attracts an average of 24,000 visitors per week, with 7,000 of those visiting on a Saturday. The multitude of venues, bars and cafes in the surrounding streets also helps to attract a huge number of visitors to the Northern Quarter in general.
But despite its popularity, there was a moment back in 2008 when rumours suggested Afflecks’s Palace would close. At the end of a 25-year lease, property developed Bruntwood took over the market amid speculation that they would close and redevelop the building.
Thankfully, Bruntwood quickly made it clear that they considered Affleck’s Palace far too important for that, saying that they had made a special exception for the building because “Afflecks is a Manchester icon that we wanted to protect”.
The market has continued to operate as normal since then, and is a must-see for anyone interested in the ways independent businesses can join together to create a cultural phenomenon.
Piece Hall – Halifax
Although it’s not open right now, the Piece Hall in Halifax deserves an honourable mention because it’s a very exciting development.
First opened in 1779 for weavers to sell the ‘pieces’ they had produced, the Piece Hall is a huge and unusual Grade I listed building which is perfect for small, independent businesses.
It eventually became an independent market, with businesses housed in all the small units throughout the building, as well as cafes and outdoor social spaces.
The Piece Hall is currently closed for refurbishment, but due to open this year with big plans to become a major visitor attraction and entertainment venue.
We’ll be among the first to go, and we’ll report back as soon as we can.