I wasn’t exactly enthused about moving to Stockport. Since relocating to the North I’d enjoyed a Manchester postcode, but Stockport was synonymous with the Merseyway, a 1960s grey brick shopping centre, and far too many steep paths for my liking. Three years later and, while I wasn’t wrong about the gradient, I now know that there’s more to the town than first meets the eye.
In 2016 it was announced that £1 billion would be invested into transforming Stockport town centre and the surrounding areas. Fast forward and there’s a brand new cinema, a £45 million leisure complex, a new bus station in the offing and the recently opened (and controversial) Produce Hall. But it’s not the huge developments that interest me. The most exciting changes are being made by local people keen to pour their time, energy and creativity into giving the historic town centre a much-needed face-lift while placing an emphasis on community. One such business is Rare Mags, an independent magazine and book shop owned by Holly Carter and Martin Wilson.
Carter says: “One of the most common questions we get is ‘why Stockport?'”. Wilson, who previously worked in the book-selling trade, adds: “There’s still not a huge amount of creative jobs in Stockport. There’s a lot of people living here, who find it a lovely place to live, but just default to Manchester because of work.”
Wilson grew up in Stockport and, when I reveal that I live in nearby Edgeley, he laughs and says: “Just hearing that people live in Edgeley is really weird. You’d never think about people living there. It wasn’t dynamic. It was just an area.”
So, how did the idea for Rare Mags come about? “We spent a few years going to things like Bound Art Book Fair and talking to people about the zines they’ve created or what projects they want to do,” says Carter. “And then we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if there’s an outlet for this in Stockport?’ because there are so many people here who are creative. We wanted to explore that and bring it to Stockport as opposed to being Manchester-centric.”
“We wanted it to be more than a shop,” adds Wilson. “We wanted it to be a platform for a community that could be built around it.”
They were also inspired by small businesses like hardware shops and tapas bars discovered while holidaying in Europe. “Martin, being a classic homeschooler, his idea of perfection is independence and he wanted to bring this idea back to where we live,” reveals Carter. “It’s about having pride in your home town and saying you want to improve where you live.”
Wilson had always wanted to open his own small shop and had lots of ideas. “One day we were talking about small press and selling magazines and books, and collecting,” says Carter. “Martin was saying ‘if I did this then…blah, blah, blah’ and I turned around and said, ‘well, why don’t we bloody do it then?’ and then we came to Stockport and looked around.”
When we look at the rapid regeneration and development currently happening in Manchester, it’s great to see young professionals investing their time and money into property in Stockport.
“It’s hard to find a space for yourself [in Manchester],” admits Wilson. “But then you can go somewhere like Stockport which, in a lot of ways, is like a blank canvas. You can do anything here because there is very little, so you can make yourself heard quite effectively. Even if you make mistakes. We have been able to do this surprisingly simply. That’s not to say it’s easy at all, it’s really hard, but it’s quite fun at the same time.”
“It’s really honest,” adds Carter. “No-one is pretending to be something they’re not here. We have both worked in Manchester city centre and you just don’t get that communication, that sharing of information and helping each other.”
With a tattoo shop next door, a vegan baker called Hillgate Cakery across the street (which offers some of the tastiest plant-based cakes I’ve ever snaffled) and adult shop, Harmony, just down the road, it’s an eclectic bunch.
“There’s no way on earth that if we all sat down in a pub together, we’d all get on,” says Carter. “But ironically it all works because we’re all on the same street and we all have a vested interest in looking out for each other.”
Carter proceeds to tell me that there’s even a community PA system used by all the shops in the neighbourhood. “It just helps people out,” she says. “It’s a reciprocal arrangement. We’ve not found anybody to blockade it. You even get big dogs like Robinsons wanting to get involved. That’s what you can do in a town instead of a city.”
Wilson adds: “In Stockport, there are so many great spaces. The concept and the physicality of the space were important [to us] because it can be a terrifying idea if you have an idea to open a shop and you were just looking at a big city. It’s how you slot yourself into that financially, trying to make yourself heard, trying to find a space. That’s quite difficult. But if you come to a smaller, emerging location it’s a lot more doable. We wanted to bring together a lot of the ideas we’d seen.”
“We’re constantly growing,” says Carter. “When we first opened, we had so little stock, but now we’ve come in this morning and we’ve got a new coffee machine. Last year, we were looking at the Christmas Lights switch-on [where the Independent Traders of Stockport teamed up to bring festive treats including late-night shopping and in-store events] and decided to get the back room open and that we should sell more objects and books. We’re motivated by being excited by it all and wanting to be part of something.”
Wilson adds: “We come in every morning and talk about what we can do, what we can improve. Here, our successes can be really strong, but our failures aren’t so big that they kill us.”
Rare Mags has just celebrated its first birthday, complete with a big shindig that involved the whole community. So, what have been the highs and lows?
“The highs have been our events, hands down,” says Carter. “Events and meeting people.”
Wilson says: “The amount of people who feel like old friends round here who we’ve just happened upon because we’re all doing the same thing, it all connects. It’s like a village.”
He continues: “The lows are relatively standard. It’s just that fear where the weeks go by and you think ‘are we ever going to see another customer?’. It’s undeniably terrifying but that’s the reality. It’s just about finding a new way every day to say we aren’t Amazon, we aren’t Tesco, and we are giving something back by being here. The negatives have washed off us.”
“It’s hard,” adds Carter. “But you just get back up again. You have to just go home, come back the next day and think, ‘right. How do we get better? How do we improve?’ and then do things like develop the website, plan new things and go to meetings about events that we’re planning.”
The duo have also launched a subscription service, offering a finely-curated set of titles for magazine lovers who want to discover new periodicals. In addition to a magazine each month, the subscription includes a limited edition mini-print from featured local artists. There’s certainly an increase in people wanting to shop more locally, and consumers are more concerned with the origin of the goods they buy. With independent stores like Rare Mags on the rise, perhaps we’re witnessing the rebirth of the British high street. What do Carter and Wilson believe?
“I think people are willing to give a little bit more effort and time to shopping,” says Wilson. “It is slightly more difficult to take the trip into a place [like Stockport] than to order online.” Carter adds: “The Good Life [a waste-free mini market] in Heaton Mersey has just opened. People are thinking more about packaging and what they buy stuff in. People are genuinely thinking more about everything.”