Retail's hidden rooms: history and hope behind the scenes

From the old ballroom on Primark Manchester’s top floor to The Gaffer’s Office at Blackwell’s Oxford, Ben Sillitoe investigates retail’s hidden rooms.

Manchester’s Central Library is a Grade II listed construction designed by classicist architect E. Vincent Harris and first opened in 1934. There is nothing else quite like it in Manchester, and – until 26 April 2019 – it is the home to a unique retail exhibition too.

Consumers were invited to submit their memories of the city’s shopping heritage for a ‘100 Manchester Shops’ initiative, and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) led research to help further map out the city’s commercial history. The curation has fostered local debate and conversation around the city’s shopping history, raising questions about the current state of shops and the outlook for today’s retail landscape in the process.

Hidden spaces

The old Lewis’s department store on Market Street, which has been home to clothing retailer Primark since 2001, has prompted more memories than most.

Among the stories shared include details of the top-floor ballroom with a sprung dancefloor, which was used for Lewis’s staff parties and public dances. The room still exists – although not in its former glory as it was stripped back during refurbishments.

Primark in Manchester’s Market Street (image by Chris Webber)
Primark in Manchester’s Market Street (image by Chris Webber)

The upper floors are now off limits and only opened up when building maintenance work or urgent access is required, but it provides a reminder of a different age of retail, when department stores invited consumers to attend tea dances, and other special events.

The Central Library expo also references an underground tunnel used to link two separate buildings historically owned by Kendals on Deansgate. The store, which is now owned by House of Fraser, used the tunnel for moving stock from one location to another, and is just one of several hidden retail spaces that exist across the city.

Another lurks next to Tesco on Market Street, and is the entrance to what was Market Centre, a popular underground site for music and fashion shoppers in the 1970s and 80s. It is now concreted over but the subterranean space is home to many retail memories, and is considered to be the first place in northern England to have sold Levi’s jeans.

Jon Stobart, professor of history and a retail history expert at MMU, says retailers and town centres could make more of these hidden spaces and their histories to attract modern-day shoppers at a time when high street footfall nationwide is in decline.

“If people are going to be attracted back to a high street it is likely to be because there is something interesting there – not just a big box with stuff in it,” he argues.

“The architectural aspect becomes key, but also the experience part becomes more important again. Moving stores away from bland boxes and highlighting additional reasons for people to visit is a way of reviving interest in physical retail.”

Former Sex Pistol John Lydon at an author signing event in the gaffer’s office, Blackwell’s
Former Sex Pistol John Lydon at an author signing event in the gaffer’s office, Blackwell’s

The gaffer’s office

It’s not just Manchester’s shops with intriguing history to tell and intriguing spaces away from the public’s gaze.

Bookseller Blackwell’s in Oxford’s Broad Street first opened as a kiosk-like store in 1879, but over the years it has expanded significantly, including below the neighbouring Oxford University’s Trinity College. According to the retailer, the bottom floor Norrington Room is the biggest single space selling books in the world, with circa 3.5 miles of shelving.

But it is upstairs and out of the direct glare of customers where one can locate the “very soul of Blackwell’s”, according to David Kelly, the store’s sales manager. The restored office of former owner Sir Basil Blackwell features original furniture dating back to 1879, uniquely designed for the man who liked to be referred to as “the gaffer”.

“The gaffer’s office fell into disrepair and in 2001 it was restored to its original state by Symm & Co,” says Kelly of a room containing artefacts used by Sir Basil, and where JRR Tolkien reportedly signed for his first published work, the poem ‘Goblin Feet’.

“Julian Blackwell, the retailer’s current owner, had retained a piece of original William Morris wallpaper from the room, so we had that restored. It’s unique and we do get William Morris fans coming to see it.”

Writer and environmentalist George Monbiot at the gaffer's office
Writer and environmentalist George Monbiot at the gaffer's office

Kelly says the room is now opened for author signings, internal YouTube video and podcast recordings, and ad hoc customer visits, as well as being a preferred photography venue for the marketing team who use “the fantastic light” to create social media imagery.

The juxtaposition of using such a historic space for 21st-century endeavours sits well with Kelly, who adds: “It’s a quirk of our history that we’re proud of and we want to retain.”

Retail’s hidden history

Quirky back stories exist in retail stores around the UK. Boots in Reading’s Broad Street is built into the old Vaudeville Cinema, which originally opened in 1909 and was renamed Gaumont in 1953 before making way for retail space later that decade.

Boots in Reading’s Broad Street in 1973
Boots in Reading’s Broad Street in 1973

Meanwhile, Apple took over the old Waterstones store in Birmingham New Street in 2016. It was previously the home of one of the inaugural Midland Bank branches, and contained hidden vaults and passageways accessible to staff well into this century.

Hotel Chocolat runs its School of Chocolate tasting sessions and regular events from the basement at the company’s Monmouth Street store in London – a hidden space known as the Cocoa Vaults and previously an Oddbins wine cellar.

Down a spiralling staircase positioned at the back of the shop, customers can enter a softly-lit space – decorated with beaten metal, rough wood, hessian sacks and hurricane lamps reminiscent of the Caribbean plantations where the brand sources its cocoa.

A graffiti artist was commissioned to paint wall messages related to the history of cocoa and the brand’s philosophy, and the overall space was put together by an in-house team in conjunction with long-term design associate partner Terry Moore Design.

Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Vaults in its London Monmouth Street store
Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Vaults in its London Monmouth Street store

Angus Thirlwell, Hotel Chocolat co-founder and CEO, says the Monmouth Street store makes a third of its revenue from retail, a third from a café and a third from these special events. He’s a keen advocate of retailers branching out from pure retail and utilising their physical assets to provide better customer experiences.

“It amazes me how lacking in imagination many retailers are,” he notes.

“You look at all these architectural assets, these spaces under their control where they are paying rent and rates. I urge them to use them and tap into their teams for ideas – these store spaces are jewels and assets to be nurtured and valued.”

As the Manchester exhibition neatly illustrates, retailers in the last century used their spaces for all sorts of events to entertain and engage customers. MMU’s Stobart says modern-day retailers might want to take inspiration from the past, especially at a time when there appears to be a growing demand for experiential stores and retail design.

Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Vaults in its London Monmouth Street store
Hotel Chocolat’s Cocoa Vaults in its London Monmouth Street store

“A look back to how department stores functioned from when they appeared to the post war period, shows they were doing lots of things – not just selling stuff,” argues Stobart.

“The ballroom, the tea dances, the fashion shows or a Santa’s Grotto. They used their premises and lots of additional techniques to create an experience.

Hotel Chocolat's Thirlwell adds: “Up and down the country there must be hundreds, if not thousands of these rooms that could be used to greater effect.

“Get a licence and put a bar in there – sell coffee, or run special shows and customer parties. There are so many things retailers could be doing with their hidden spaces.”

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