Bristol: the local city

What began as an exercise in supporting her local economy quickly turned into a full exploration of independent Bristol. Rin Simpson explains why the city’s indie culture makes for a fine model that could be replicated nationwide

When I decided to ditch the supermarkets and high street chains for a year, I had no idea what to expect. Would I be able to source everything I needed from the butcher, baker and greengrocer? Or would I have to bankrupt myself in posh delis? Where would I buy my clothes without access to my favourite big-name brands, and would I have any money left for treats if I couldn’t build up points on my loyalty cards?

Luckily I live in Bristol, one of the most independently minded cities in the UK. It has 47 separate retail centres and as many as 5,400 retail properties – 70% of which are occupied by independents.

I also chose a really great time to make such a big lifestyle change. Within the last year, Bristol has introduced its own currency, elected an independent mayor and seen the opening of The Bristol Shop, the city’s first online store dedicated to local indie retailers.

The Bristol Pound (£B) is a great example of the city’s ‘outside the box’ thinking. Launched in September 2012, its main aim is to strengthen community connections, both between traders and their customers and between the traders themselves.

“Bristol has a wealth of independent traders and the Bristol Pound’s primary aim is to support them by leading customers to their door, providing free marketing and creating a community for indie Bristol businesses who are linked up and trading with each other as much as possible,” says the group’s communications manager Katie Finnegan-Clarke.

“The Bristol Pound also provides an effective ‘thinking’ tool for the city; it challenges Bristolians to think about what they want their city to look like.”

Today there is £B110,000 in circulation, with more than 500 stores accepting it – including the online Bristol Shop. The new mayor, George Ferguson, receives his salary in the currency, and the scheme has generated an estimated £3m worth of worldwide media coverage for the city.

“Independent retail has many benefits, from tackling environmental problems like food miles, to maintaining a level of creativity and innovation and preventing high streets from becoming generic”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that people are pleased with the results so far. “The Bristol Pound has been dubbed ‘happy money’ because people using it have noted the cheerfulness the local currency brings to monetary exchange,” says Katie.

It’s not often that you hear financial transactions being referred to in positive emotional terms, but there’s something about dealing with individual retailers, suppliers, designers and artisans that just feels better than sticking to faceless chain stores.

Everywhere you turn in this city there is innovation and independent thinking, whether it’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s magnificent suspension bridge or Banksy’s world famous street art. It’s part of the very personality of the city and its residents.

“I think that Bristol people like to believe that we have a common spirit of anarchic independence; we want to do our own thing,” says Rudy Millard, co-founder of The Bristol Shop, which went live in January 2013. “You get that feeling across all sorts of different areas in Bristol, not just retail but music, theatre, dance, clubbing, restaurants and cafes … it’s in our blood.”

To understand the spirit of its people, it is important to understand Bristol’s history. As a port city it has traditionally had a regular inflow of immigrants, bringing with them a raft of innovative new ideas. But it also owes much of its wealth to the slave trade, and high levels of social inequality have often resulted in uprisings, from the Corn Riots in Queen Street in the 19th century to the recent Tesco riots in Stokes Croft, which saw local residents protesting violently against a planned new supermarket.

Chris Chalkley is founder of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC), a community group and social enterprise set up in 2007 dedicated to promoting the interests of an area of the city that has suffered from dereliction and neglect. He takes a philosophical attitude towards the events that took place in April 2011.

“Voice has been at the centre of the Stokes Croft phenomenon, right through to the Tesco situation,” he says. “The majority of the community said they didn’t want a large supermarket with rapacious tendencies in the community and it ended up in a riot. The riot had a real reason and it was about a specific issue.”

“Every pound spent buying local produce from a local retailer puts twice as much money into the local economy as one spent in a national store”

Because of its dereliction, Stokes Croft has been a major centre for street art – or graffiti, depending on your viewpoint. A colourful and visual representation of Bristol’s independent spirit, it makes a fitting start to the stretch of independent stores running along the Cheltenham and Gloucester Roads, one of the city’s key indie shopping destinations.

Just across from the PRSC headquarters on Jamaica Street, for example, is a huge wall mural of a Japanese-style wave in bold red and white, accented with cartoon forms.

“When we got here, it was just a beige block,” Chris explains. “It was being painted out every week by the council – it was tagged and painted out, tagged and painted out. We finally managed to negotiate with the guys that owned the building and painted this mural, which is the Hokusai wave; it’s completely designed by local people, done by local people.

“We started to tidy up our own environment,” he adds, “to do things completely illegal that were so much better than what the council were doing, so that it was hard to prosecute. It was one step on from Banksy, to actually do it and actually stand firm and say: ‘Yes, we did it and this is why it’s here; bring it on!’”

Acting outside conventional social norms is something Chris certainly isn’t afraid of. In fact, he believes we need to rethink our model of society as a whole.

“The way we are is clearly not fit for purpose,” he says. “The model we have at the moment is something we’ve been sold as ‘the only one’, but it’s only been in existence for 250 years. It’s not part of natural law. We’re clearly making it up as we go along. If Stokes Croft has a role, it’s beginning to ask some of those questions that will prompt change.”

Whatever the future holds, many of Bristol’s residents are positive about the example the city is offering. The latest Quality of Life survey, which is undertaken by Bristol City Council each year, showed that satisfaction had improved in the majority of the key areas, from safety, air quality and leisure facilities, to a sense of belonging in communities and being able to influence neighbourhood decisions.

But independent retailers face many challenges. Although there are numerous support mechanisms in place, from small business rate relief to campaign groups like Bristol Independents, it’s still not easy for individual shop owners to go up against the multinationals with their economies of scale, the late night opening times of the supermarkets and the out-of-town malls that offer thousands of free car parking spaces.

The biggest problem, according to The Bristol Shop’s Rudy Millard, is a simple lack of awareness among consumers. “One of the common complaints we hear from local traders is that people here often don’t realise what they have on their doorstep,” he says. “Honestly, you can ask people about a shop that is two streets from where they live and they will never have heard of it, which is heartbreaking.

“I suppose if you are on foot you have the time to see what is around, but most people are zooming from place to place in cars, and it’s just easier to stop at an out-of-town place where they know everything will be on hand. And if you’re in a car, you often can’t stop anywhere near your local shopping street.”

“Bristol people like to believe that we have a common spirit of anarchic independence; we want to do our own thing” – Rudy Millard, co-founder of The Bristol Shop

Why is this a problem? Well, independent retail has many benefits, from tackling environmental problems like food miles, to maintaining a level of creativity and innovation and preventing high streets from becoming generic.

“Indie retail can play a big part,” says Rudy. “It can provide products that reflect the local character of an area as well as helping to keep money local, and this only serves to inspire other people to be more creative too. When you walk down a street filled with indie shops like Cotham Hill or Gloucester Road, it makes you want to be an active part of supporting the community in a way that browsing the shelves of a supermarket simply cannot.”

And, of course, spending money within the local business community makes more economic sense for the city. According to a report by the New Economics Foundation (nef), every pound spent buying local produce from a local retailer puts twice as much money into the local economy as one spent in a national store.

“The indie sector demonstrates a more sustainable model of business for Bristol,” says the Bristol Pound’s Katie Finnegan-Clarke. “We need indie businesses to flourish, especially with the current economic climate and the very real threat of massive climate change.

“Local currencies present a form of systemic change, which anyone based in the city can get involved in. Supermarkets have been described as ‘mining’ wealth from local communities; the Bristol Pound stops this from happening, making Bristol a wealthier place. The indie sector also employs more people per pound made and the Bristol Pound stops money disappearing into the global financial systems and tax havens.”

But it’s not all ethics and ‘doing the right thing’ – encouraging an independent culture also makes for an incredibly fun city to live, work and shop in. Sofia Lisowski, 29, moved to Bristol 10 years ago to study, and now works as a marketing account executive. She loves shopping in the city, particularly at the eclectic mix of stores on offer.

“Every area you go to is different,” she says. “So, for example, I know if I go to Gloucester Road I can get anything from decent bread, to Liberty fabrics, random furniture or a turkish flatbread. If I go to Clifton it’s usually for the quirky boutiques and good charity shops. Bedminster’s North Street is an area I haven’t explored fully, but I hear it’s good for bargain furniture finds. And St Nick’s market has the most amazing food. I also think that each area has its own distinct ‘flavour’. I love it!”

I couldn’t agree more. It only been a few months since I made the decision to become an indie shopper, but they have been transformative. I never knew how much my city had to offer until I took the time to really look. I’ve discovered incredible variety, surprising value, and some of the most wonderful people I could hope to meet. My original challenge was to avoid the supermarkets and big name brands for a year, but now I can’t imagine ever going back.