Austerity bled wealth out of us for a decade, Trussonomics haemorrhaged prosperity like blood in a splatter movie, and Rishinomics … well, best hide behind the settee. However, in Wakefield, people who actually work for a living and run businesses are finding better motivations to try and turn a buck and create real prosperity.
Wakefield entrepreneurs do things differently
Alan Nutton runs Wah Wah Records, a vinyl shop in Wakefield. In May this year, he moved to larger premises near the city’s cathedral after eight years in a much smaller shop. Has it made a difference?
“The move has been great, lots more custom, it looks great and more importantly, it feels like a proper record shop. Not many of those around in my opinion now. The move hasn’t come without its challenges and I’d definitely say I’m financially worse off now than we were at Brook Street, even though custom is brilliant and probably better than I had expected.”
What challenges face small local businesses?
“There were a few, shall we say unexpected bills. For one, business rates are a killer. I currently am paying £650 a month just on them and I’m not sure what I actually get in return. At the previous shop I didn’t pay any business rates and the rent was only £500 a month. Also, because I’ve hit a threshold in takings, I am now VAT registered which means I have to pay 20% of all takings. Not earnings, takings.
“Of course I can claim back 20% on my invoiced items now (like new vinyl) but cannot with used records, so there’s basically a 20% hit on those as I refuse to put my prices up to accommodate. I had always wondered why the bigger independent shops didn’t deal with used records; this is probably a big reason as to why.”
Does running a business this way make financial sense?
“Having said all of these things, I’m so glad I made the move. I’m living my absolute dream and in a weird way. As a person I need these challenges, wouldn’t want things too easy and genuinely wouldn’t want to make money above a living. My dream is that in four and half years when our lease is up I can renew long term and have my three kids work with me in the shop, especially my boy Stanley who is obsessed with music.”
One customer at a time
If baccy’s your thing, cross the road at the light and find the Black Swan Shoppe: an old-fashioned tobacconists run by Gareth. The one-in-a-shop rule many adopted during lockdowns has always applied here – it’s so small, there’s only room for one customer at a time.
Here is a world of Navy Rolls, Flake or Ready-Rubbed and the only place in Wakefield where you can buy a safety razor, a shiny briar pipe, or a good shaving brush “made out of a badger’s arse”, as the old lads used to say.
Trade has dipped with the recession but, like Alan at Wah Wah, Gareth’s on the move. The new premises are 20 yards away, in what was Townsend’s jewellers. It’s a prestige location, the first shop you notice when you drive down Westgate. It’s bigger. It’s swankier. It’s more expensive.
In a move that says more about small, local businesses than about Rishi Sunak’s platitudes to the CBI about innovation, Gareth is defiant:
“It’s three times the rent, much more expensive to keep warm but I want the challenge. I could just stay comfortable in this. I’ve just lost a bit of my get up and go, so let’s give it a whirl.”
Community and quality
And there’s the thing: this is not the cut-costs-make-vast-profits model of the likes of Amazon. Instead, walk into Wah Wah or The Black Swan Shoppe on any given day and there’s conversation, there’s a welcome, there’s a familiar face. In short, there’s COMMUNITY.
Not only that, but the people behind the counter know what they’re talking about. How to mend a Zippo. Why Wilko Johnson’s HH transistor amp made him sound different. How many games John Stones actually did play for Barnsley.
What’s so good about it?
The other thing you’ll get is quality. The second-hand albums are ones Alan’s had a look at and judged that someone will want to buy. The Black Swan’s range of pipes evoke a bygone age. Fifty yards up Wood Street, the Vanilla Bean Café’s coffee is from top notch beans and roasteries.
And this matters. In an era where us northerners are supposed to be grateful for the greasy dregs that might eventually trickle down from the plate-scrapings of the super-rich, this is the North as much as a pit-wheel memorial. We’re surely allowed to make our own rules and our own version of a better future. We don’t seem to have a choice.
Breaking out of the stereotype
Across the Bull Ring, another innovation. Geek Retreat is a city centre hangout for people who like comics, gaming and all things nerdy. It differs from the other businesses in this article in that it’s part of a nationwide operation. But being a franchise setup, it’s run by local people.
I’ve seen Wakefield on the telly: it’s all shut down shops, isn’t it?
Down the tattier end, but in the same vein as the rest, is Wool N’ Stuff, a haven for lovers of knitting and crochet that forms an oasis of craft and creativity amidst Kirkgate’s shuttered desolation. Workshops are a part of their offer and it’s a safe place to come and talk yarn, and you’ll probably learn something.
What is the real picture?
They’re all part of a picture of quality against the odds; of community over bare commerce; of people breaking out of stereotypes. This picture is not rose-tinted. The numbers are against them. Our leaders’ talk of high-wage, high-skilled economies, evaporates on contact with the reality of de-unionised, gig-economy workers wearing electronic tags to measure how fast they pack parcels.
During the Wakefield by-election, we had posh-boy camera crews, desperate for us to show them a bit of Northern Rough. They wanted gap-toothed extras from Shameless with tattoos swearing at Boris Johnson. When we suggested a nice local café for lunch, they wanted a Hogarthian boozer full of idiots. They wanted something which would confirm all our worst prejudices and go viral.
Which is a shame, because they missed what Wakefield – without their help, thank you – is trying to be. ‘Bollocks to ‘em’, as they say round here.