What does heritage mean to you? The Futurist? Something you get angry about on Twitter? Something you visit once a year in the Museum of Liverpool?

Fact is, heritage isn’t history. Heritage is every uncool shop and cafe, every nondescript little pub. Everything deemed irrelevant by our current, self-appointed custodians of cool, quietly building their brands. And this shit’s got real. So we better pay attention.

We’ve long since passed peak beard, but what’s happening next – ‘hipsters’ morphing into contemporary yuppies (yuckies, if you will) and fashioning the city in their image – is terrifying. Don’t think it’s happening? Take another look.

It’s time to take back the city from these counter-culture conformists who hate gentrification in theory; but who, in practice, Instagram their artisinal doughnuts and spirulina smoothies. People who are really, really socially conscious, but who frequent barber shops where it was illegal to menstruate. Because it’s a scientific fact that periods can curdle beard wax at ten paces. People who eschew empty-headed materialism but who can’t go a day without reading a think piece on cufflinks.

Take exhibit A, from a Liverpool gentlemen’s publication. Published for people in Liverpool. That’s us, I guess.

Our average customer is cash rich but time poor. He doesn’t enjoy shopping, but wants to look good. We solve that problem for them: we help them create their own style using traditional, strong brands without them having to walk the high-street. With every order a customer makes, the data gets crunched by intelligent software.”

I’m guessing – and it’s a wild punt here, so bear with me – that Looks Luggage on Bold Street, which closed after 30 years last week, didn’t have intelligent software. I’m guessing they helped people create their own style by handing them a suitcase and saying ‘do you like it’? Those same brave people who somehow found the time to walk the high street, risking a close-shave with the the evil incarnate of chain stores, dangerously un-cropped trousers and gin without a single foraged botanical.

But Looks has gone. And, I’m guessing too, the modern urban flaneur has sauntered past, rubbed his beard and thought: “Hmmm. This might be the perfect spot for my Nicaraguan barbeque cantina with Cuban cigar smoke-infused toilet rolls, and a festival of Bourbons specially aged in Charlton Heston’s rifle barrels.”

We need to develop new strategies for protecting places with intangible cultural significance, stuff that, right here, right now, because of passing whims, we don’t see. But we’ll be poorer for its passing. Our city’s silent heritage that doesn’t qualify for formal historic designation. To save before they’re shuttered. Not all of them, of course.

In San Francisco and other cities, they call it the legacy movement. “Every day we hear about new restaurants appearing,” Mike Buhler, from SF Heritage’s lobby group says. “But there’s this small minority of mainstays in San Francisco that are beloved and really define the city’s culture and character.” Our ‘alternative landmarks’, if you like.

I’m guessing Looks wasn’t even, officially, an independent Liverpool shop. Because it sold stuff that we, you know, need. And what happens when we say goodbye to all the shops selling stuff that we need? The dandy modern gentleman’s work will be done. And we’ll all be living like hairy kings. Feasting on risograph prints of 1970’s coupés, Nordic trenchcoats that cost as much a Welsh Street and watches (sorry, timepieces) hand-assembled by steampunk wizards in a bothy on the Isle of Man, with precious jewels anchored in place with tweezers and artisanal, single-origin phlegm.

A world where The Importance of Being Earnest is a blog post about the correct pose to strike when you’re taking your fixed gear bike for a spin to the apothecary for some digestif bitters.

Don’t get us wrong. We love the urbane contemporary hipster gent schtick. When we grow up it’s probably a phase we’ll go through too. Just like the phase we went through trying on our mum’s lovely Lanvin strapless peplum dress and Avon lip gloss. But let’s not kid ourselves – this is playacting. And this city ain’t a sandpit.

The commodification of individuality has never been a Liverpool thing. In the past, we used to kick-start, not copy. Believe in truths deeper, even, than a Harris tweed pocket square. So we should kick back wherever this nonsense threatens to break out of social media and into the real world, where people work.

Because this is a conceit that’s blindsided us into not seeing the bits inbetween. The other side of Bold Street. The heritage businesses that have doggedly kept on. They need someone to champion their causes, because if we don’t, they go. True, they’ll never elicit the instant headrush of retweets and ‘likes’ – that cynical proxy for real engagement our our current city heroes are content with.

But the Tutill-Nicol stationers (deceased), the St John’s Coffeehouse (deceased) the Freshways (deceased), and the TJ’s (hanging on). The deeply unreconstituted St John’s, the Rapid Hardware and the Greatie – they’re more us than anything else we got. But they’ve become our dirty secret. The mad relative in the attic we don’t show to our new friends.

We’re not bashing new businesses, the jobs they bring and the hard work they plough into it (heck, we write about them enough.) More the unchecked subset of hangers on, seemingly in love with their own narrow narrative. And of the subtle way they’re maneuvering their worldview – their version of events – into the centre of the city’s agenda.

It’s been written before of how gentrification ruined Paris – “their Organic grocers… quietly displacing the pharmacies and scores of seedy bars that have for decades have defined the neighborhood” We know how that goes. Spike Lee’s raged against the more sinister side – its clear subtext of white middle-class gentrification. A so-called liberal world view that, when examined closely, is anything but. Spearheaded by marketing agencies with ball pits, lifestyle publications or, god help us all, professional mixologists with a ‘passion’ Because everyone needs a passion these days. It’s not acceptable to just, y’know, quite like something.

I have a confession. Sometimes I don’t look to see where my coffee beans are sourced. Sometimes I drink Nescafe. Admittedly it’s only when my ceramic coffee grinder is being re-tooled in Leipzig. Sometimes, I actually use a rucksack for carrying stuff home from Lidl, not just as an knowing accessory to my urbane ensemble. Sometimes I want a city that dials down the cynicism and is just comfortable at being what itself. Not an ersatz appropriation of some idealised Monocle-ville. A city where shops are built, not curated.

In the online magazine Slate, Luke O’Neil, says the US has witnessed something similar: “I’ve even noticed what I call the meta-hipster – a person who sidesteps the traditional requirements and just wants to skip ahead to the status. Like putting on glasses and getting a tattoo somehow makes you a hipster,” he says.

I think it’s time to call their bluff. Because, hiding in plain site is a city we used to know. But it is fast disappearing, as what was once a genuine counter-culture that stood against something, now will stand for anything if there’s a lucrative contract or a sponsored tweet in it. And where the urbane, the able and the connected build a new city, where the one percent reproduces itself.

Lately a darker side to this new breed of Young Urban Creatives has started to reveal itself around the globe. Oh yeah – they’ll speak the socially-liberal talk alright. But they walk the economically conservative walk.
And despite how tight their jeans, how thick their beard or how mindful their meditation, the fact remains, they’re still conservative.

Let’s look at what we should protect before it’s too late. Assets of community value – for every community, not just those fluent in social media. And let’s do it before we can’t find our way home, eh?

21 Responses to “Liverpool’s Forgotten Independents: Our Disappearing Heritage”

  1. Jane Nolan

    It took a while to understand what a risograph print of a coupe was – so I’m guessing I’m no she hipster. I’ve never been too cool for school and I felt real tears in my eyes when TJ’s almost went completely. Therefore I know why I love this piece. Whilst I am delighted at the indie vibe in Bold Street I’m also concerned about the far too sophisticated “Thai infused with Jamaican veggie pizzeria” kind of eateries popping up (Ok I just made that one up. Really). They are becoming exclusive and intentionally superior. Great article

  2. Squirrelnuts Jones

    Yuppies/yuckies? The time rich, cash poor hipsterfarian refashioning the city in his own image as he has in DUMBO or Dalston? We should be so bloody lucky. We don’t have the jobs to keep these guys in town. Some larval forms among the student cohort just post-pubescent enough to grow a decent beard maybe? But probably fewer options for those who want to stick around the city after uni than any major metropolitan area in Britain. It is amazing that we have any gentrification going on at all on balance. What we have is probably simply down to changing fashions (the bars will be different in style again in 5-10 years time – by the time we hit peak beard that scene was close being the mainstream) and the fact that more students live downtown nowadays.

  3. I’m probably a bit old to be on here but I follow Seven Streets because I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s and now have two of my children living there.

    The city – because of its status as a port to the world – has always been different. Always been on the edge… sometimes at the front of the line and occasionally at the back.

    In my era there was a really strong Motown buzz. Nowhere else in the country had a place like the Mardi Gras; nowhere else dressed like us or danced like us. And it seems that has continued – through the recessions – and to this day. There were always those wanting to make money (and that may even be part of the scouse make-up) but they were outnumbered by those that just wanted to have a good time.

    Whilst this remains the case the place will be ok. But its worth recognising those who are not in it for the city but only for themselves. And if you meet one of them you should tell them where they can go. I dont swear but it begins with an F and ends with two of them.

  4. Sam Meech

    Tutill Nichol was a great stationers run by a lovely staff of ladies who
    were deeply upset that it had to close. It’s demise though was brought
    about simply by markets and landlord / agent greed rather than craft
    beer. Their rent was doubled overnight as the landlord felt he / she
    could tempt another betting franchise onto Richmond Street (there were
    several already, as there still are). That never came to pass though and
    the shop remained vacant for well over a year. In the end it was taken
    by a noodle takeaway which has been there a few years now.

  5. Paul Rooney

    Wow, you really are a sad bitter poisonous man out of time. I’m embarrassed for you and the painful drole of this article. Time moves on, so does fashion, so does taste. Liverpool has always been about the hip, the happening, the groove! But sadly the 80s happened and we all got sent to the sh*t pit. Now in our revival we see new and interesting things popping up all over the city. I think Liverpool has never ever been this diverse in all of history. I welcome the beards, and the urban creatives, and whatever other labels you want to force onto people. It’s a fantastic time to be in Liverpool and great that the money is coming in. TJs is a terrible place lost in time, a relic of the old times. We don’t live there anymore. Liverpool can either live in the past and decay, or it can welcome the future with open arms!

  6. Totally agree. It’s not that these bars are bad it’s that they’re all anyone talks about in the media and on Twitter. And as for taking things for granted well that’s true. I wanted to go to Valpariaso and it had closed down. Always thought it would be there forever. Gentrification isn’t the issue, but getting the balance right is.

  7. I think that the weak media is more of a threat to the city’s unique identity than anything else. From print to radio, the mass output broadcast that binds us as a city, which propagates news and culture, binding it into and weaving it through Liverpool society is more and more being replaced by outfits that simply want the highest returns possible for their national paymasters, eradicating the truly local in favour of syndication and tokenistic efforts.

    If Liverpool is on its way to Generic City, it’s not because some beardy wants to make a living through selling coffee.

  8. Rosanna Hynes

    I can’t help but feel that if it’s ‘authentic’ independents (and no decent places to eat) that you want, Birkenhead might have what you’re looking for.

  9. D Hope-Smith

    I don’t really agree with much of this. Keeping the status quo because of fear of losing some sort of sense of place, even though in many cases the status quo is out of touch and hasn’t moved with the times, would be folly. Agreed, the men-only barber shop is petty exclusivity and morally repugnant, and the number of bars and restaurants popping up for the young is increasing to replace closing old ventures, but this is progress. What this article misses the point on, and SS has gone off the boil with, is the importance of pushing the transformation and renewal of St John’s Market and other out of town marketplaces. Focusing on town, St John’s is a place where true independence can flourish if given the chance and opportunity. A renewed market could give budding entrepreneurs who don’t have daddy’s start-up capital readily available a place to cut their teeth in enterprise and to build their own brands. It could become a type of indoor Borough market without the pretentiousness, and it will breathe new life into a dying market place. SS please stay focused on the prize rather than taking pot-shots at things and people that are keeping Liverpool city centre relevant.

  10. Amy Faith

    Hmm… well, I have lived in Liverpool for 34 years and I have never once needed a Radley bag from Looks. Can’t say I have ever rushed down to Bold St to see what suitcase they’re selling for £250… Old independent shops selling things no one uses anymore close, I think that’s something we just need to get over.

    And I’m not sure where your deep seated hatred of “hipsters” or “men with beards” comes from, perhaps you were denied entry to an open mic poetry night at the Shipping Forecast, I dunno; regardless, it’s quite disturbing!

  11. Nah, SevenStreets have mentioned MANY times about St John’s – and Metquarter – as potential spots for new independents to head to. I’m not sure why it’s still not happened – it seems like a no brainer to get more people through the door, especially in Metquarter’s case which is a bit of an embarrassing ghost town.

  12. Er, I think you’re overreacting a bit. What I got from the article is that those things are fine, and push a city forward. And if you take a cursory glance SevenStreets has covered MORE than enough of them on the website. But by simply embracing this fairly generic idea of ‘independence’ – which has its own tropes in terms of design and feel and style, and can be seen in ANY British city now – we are sleepwalking into a strange kind of characterless future within the city. We need to be supporting ALL of the independents, not just the ones that give us a really lovely flat white and where we can prop up our Macbook.

  13. Youngster

    Great article. I love Liverpool’s new independents as much as anyone but it’s important we really don’t froth ourselves into excitement and remember there’s actually another side , independents who have been going for years and still need supporting.

  14. I normally agree with just about every word that gets written on this site, but I have to say that I think this one is slightly off the mark. I agree with parts, of course – I don’t want to see Liverpool gentrified to death either. But the simple fact is that shops like Looks don’t close because of men with trendy beards or artisans touting their niche, obscure products. They close because not enough people want to spend their money there.

    I’ve walked past Looks a million times but I’ve never once been in, even when I’ve needed something they probably sold. It looked like exactly what it was – a shop which hadn’t received any kind of update since the 1980s. Maybe this SHOULDN’T matter, but it does. People like to shop in places which look and feel nice. Even M&S, with all its chain-store might and marketing budget is struggling with its clothing sales because the clothes shopping experience in their stores is poor (and women in particular don’t like many of their products).

    If TJ’s closes, it’ll be very sad for the city, but it can’t really come as a surprise to anyone. It’s a bargain basement shop that FEELS like a bargain basement shop and doesn’t even sell stuff most people want. Market forces will tell in the end. Same with Rapid. Sadly, the whole place just feels cheap and nasty. It’s very sad to remember Lewis’s and dwell on the fact that it no longer exists, but we tend to do that whilst remembering it in its heyday. In its latter years, it had that same chaotic, stack-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap feel that TJ’s has now, and that was never going to last.

    Of course the city needs a variety of retail and dining offerings, not just for the young, cool and reasonably well-off, but for everyone. However, even those places which aren’t catering for the new wave of skinny-jeans-wearing youth need to be appealing and keep up with the times to an extent.

  15. david_lloyd

    Thanks Phil. Trouble is, one person’s ‘feels cheap and nasty’ is another person’s favourite shop. It’s all relative isn’t it? And I think we (me, you) are too selective, subjective, in our tastes. I mean, a pub that hadn’t received any update since the 1980s might be considered retro, A shop? Who’s the arbiter of that? But you’re right, market forces will win out in the end. But we’re the market.

  16. Sandgrounder

    TBH I am amazed that store was going for so long.

    As a regular visitor to Liverpool since 2006, but whose visits have become less frequent over the last 18 months, places like Bold Street have definitely become less interesting. Liverpool for me was exciting because it was different, it wasn’t like Manchester or Leeds, but it the centre is starting to feel like any other city. Of course to a certain extent this is the inevitable result of gentrification, and lets face it there are plenty of other interesting places outside the city centre, but the city centre has definitely lost its edge for me.

    I now spend a fair bit of time in Nottingham, and whilst that city is both stuffed full of chain shops and has more than its fair share of bearded hipster twits, the council has at least tried to retain an independent quarter around the old Lace Market with some interesting independent shops. And the Victoria Market in the city centre is what the St Johns market should be.

    And for those of you who complain about the number of student accomodation blocks being built in Liverpool at the moment, you should go to Nottingham. The city centre is one big student accomodation block, it is the only growth business in town. The difference in Liverpool is the city is big enough to absorb them, smaller cities like Nottingham are overwhelmed and the place is a ghost town in the summer.