Can independent shops survive on the high street?

Independent retailers are meant to be the lifeblood of the high street, but one group of traders fear a new development will force them to shut up shop. Sarah Freeman reports.

Alan Capes, owner of Rare and Racy in Sheffield's Devonshire Green.

When Alan Capes closes the door for the final time on the book and music shop which welcomed its first customer back in 1969, there will be an inevitable feeling of sadness. There will also be at least a faint sense of relief.

Rare and Racy has always been more than just a business to Alan. It’s been a labour of love, but the Devonshire Street site in Sheffield has been earmarked for demolition. The bulldozers may not move in for another couple of years, but when they do he suspects it will mean the end not just for his shop, but for a number of other independent businesses.

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With the axe about to fall, many of his customers have asked why he doesn’t move. Alan admits he’s always been the kind to live in the moment, but even if he did go in for long-term planning he says he would have no option but to stay put.

“The rent here is cheap, that’s one of the reasons we moved here. I doubt I could afford anywhere else, so that will probably be it. I suppose it was inevitable. Back in the 1980s, a compulsory purchase order was placed on the building, but before anything could happen the developer ran out of money, so we ended up staying.

“However, since then nothing has been spent on the place. It has gradually become more and more dilapidated and it’s always been a bit of a worry. People ask why I haven’t moved out, but I can’t. I’m stuck. The contract I’ve signed means that I am financially responsible for any structural repairs.

“A few years ago I had to rebuild the front of the shop, but now the back is in a pretty bad way. To be honest it’s a bit of a building site. If I moved now I would have to pick up the repair bill. I dread to think how much that would be, but it would be thousands and thousands of pounds. It’s money I haven’t got, so I am trapped.”

Alan originally ran the shop with his brother, but he left a few years ago to concentrate on the online side of the business. A self-confessed technophobe, the internet has never interested Alan, who still believes there is a market for those who want to browse before they buy.

Rare and Racy is the oldest surviving business on Devonshire Street, but Alan’s passion for the place and the need for a thriving independent sector in a city like Sheffield is shared by one of the area’s newcomers.

Kirsteen Hardie and Lucy Jo Newell, who met at college, launched their independent fashion label Syd and Mallory nine years ago. Up until August last year, the pair rented space nearby in The Forum. However, as their reputation and sales grew they knew they needed a shop to match their higher profile.

“We’d always had our eye on Devonshire Street, because we really wanted to be in the independent quarter,” says Lucy. “The Forum was good in the beginning, because we were surrounded by lots of other start-up business, but even now a lot of people don’t know it’s there and for us it was really time to move on.

“The business is doing really well, but finding the right space, in the right location for the right rent is really hard when you’re an independent.”

When the pair heard premises occupied by a bookbinders was about to become vacant, they signed the lease before it could go onto the open market and when they moved in last summer the friends assumed they would be settled for years to come.

“Devonshire Street is perfect, it’s on the way to and from the university and many of those students are our customers,” says Lucy. “Our website trade is really important and for the last three years we have been building the wholesale side of the business, but we sell an awful lot through the shop and we need a physical presence in the city. Yes, the building is a bit old, but structurally it’s fine.

“To be honest it’s exactly what we need, but I don’t think we will get to enjoy it that long. Our lease comes up for renewal in a couple of years time and even if they haven’t finalised the redevelopment, I suspect the rent will be increased so that it may well become uneconomical for us to stay.”

The planning application, which would change the site forever, has been submitted to Sheffield City Council by Primesite Ltd on behalf of the architect and design consultancy Coda Studios. The company has been responsible for a number of sympathetic refurbishments and conversions of existing properties, but its proposals for Devonshire Street involve demolishing the current building and replacing it with a brand new three-storey block of apartments.

The proposals also include space for new restaurants and cafes and given the current state of disrepair, the company has said that this is the only sensible way of guaranteeing a long-term future for the site.

However, while no one doubts that the designs will fit in with the rest of the architecture in the area, it seems certain there will be no room in the new development for businesses like Rare and Racy or Syd and Mallory.

As news of the proposals spread, a number of Devonshire Street regulars decided to take matters into their own hand, launching a petition to test the strength of feeling.

The online campaign, backed by the likes of Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders, is being spearheaded by local poet Jonathan Butcher and since its launch a few weeks ago it has already attracted almost 19,000 signatures, just a few short of its 20,000 target.

“This area is a hub of creativity and independent entrepreneurial talent,” he says. “These businesses support both artists and creative endeavours which in return attracts investors, students and visitors to the city. These local businesses and retailers are an important part of our economy, character and identity. If we lose these cherished aspects to our community it would be damaging both economically and culturally.

“For example, Rare and Racy is one of the few independent traders left in Sheffield who support local and national underground record labels, publishers and magazines. Syd and Mallory is also highly respected. They designed the costumes for the Channel 4 mini-series This is England and as well as promoting their own work, they are also helping to train designers of the future.”

Many fear that when the new development is completed, the only businesses able to afford the new premises will be one of the big high street chains of the likes of Costa Coffee.

“Honestly, I’m trying not to think about it too much,” says Alan. “By the time this place is demolished I will be 64 and may be I should be thinking about retirement. However, I haven’t got a private pension, so I will have to find other work. Maybe I could become a manager for one of the bookshops run by Oxfam. They’re the only ones which can survive to be honest because they get their books for free. The rest of us are hanging by a thread.”