Isn’t it rubbish that the world’s so slippery. So hard to simplify. So reluctant to be summed up in a tweet? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if all the stuff that surrounded us was reduced to a thumbs up, a rallying cry or a crafty business model?
Imagine if every independent was, like, great and cool and, like, so much better than the nasty, money-grabbing chains that lay waste to our high street, and enslave our people?
Wouldn’t it be better if we could say fuck off to Liverpool ONE’s Apple Store, with its shiny stuff that just works – we’d much rather go to Computer-factors of Bebington, and get a tower PC built from cast off parts and flickering VDUs that just didn’t. Fuck off John Lewis, with your enviable staff perks and your eye-wateringly good profit shares, we’d rather work for one of those local beauty parlours on the Wirral that have just been outed for paying below minimum wage. Because at least that £3.40 an hour stays in the local economy.
But the truth is – thank god – life is way more complex than any Pinterest manifesto to save the independents. For every Hope Street Hotel there is a Hotel Inspector horror. And good independents know this. And while the independents movement makes noises about caring for the little man, it’s actually promoting a very shallow and narrow definition of independent trade. There’s no mention of independent carers, cafes in North Liverpool, plumbers, therapists, anything remotely un-hip just falls off the map in favour of coffee and cakes. Life just isn’t all jam, sorry.
And the truth is – it’s always been so. There was no golden age, when an independent shopping trip was like a bucolic dance along sunlit sidewalks, where shops’ awnings shaded reasonably priced and locally sourced foodstuffs. Where customers were always right, and where Britain’s nation of shopkeepers ploughed all their profits back into the local community.
Get fucking real.
When Napoleon spluttered out the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ line he was onto something. British power, unlike our continental cousins’, has always risen from commerce. We’re still a nation enthralled by entrepreneurs – managers of businesses, who are driven by the simple desire: to make a profit.
Nothing wrong in that.
But let’s not kid ourselves, eh?
Tesco started as an independent – Jack “the Slasher” Cohen’s “pile it high sell it cheap” model is the same guiding principle behind the store today – with its 260,000 employees, and global profits of more than £2bn last year.
Yeah, it would be great to live in Kirstie Allsop’s world, to bounce along to the office, nipping into your local sourdough baker’s shop to break off a Poilâne quarter, and enjoy a single estate frappuccino at some rough-edged table scattered with zines. It would. But the truth of the matter is, what we want now is what we’ve always wanted: value. And sometimes, we get that from chains, and sometimes we get that from independents. And Liverpool ONE has boosted this city more than anything else in living memory – and, in doing so, helped spread that good fortune to Cow and Co, and Baltic Bakehouse and a legion of great new indies.
So, really, it’s about championing the best, isn’t it? About saying we love Byron Burgers (we do), and Waitrose (we do) and Home Bargains (we do), as well as Bold Street Coffee (we do) and Berry and Rye (we do) and Lucha Libre (we do). And about saying, if something’s worthy of my custom (or not) no amount of discounts will change my mind. And no amount of small-town love will stop Lucha (or Moose, or Almost Famous) from eyeing up their next city location. And their next…
Take Radio 4 award-winning Edge and Son butchers – they’re an independent, in New Ferry: a shopping centre made, almost exclusively, of independents. They’ve survived, ooh, just a couple of hundred years, while independent after independent around them have faltered.
And why? Not because they offer 10% discounts, or free pork pie Wednesdays. They survive because they do what they do brilliantly. And people travel to buy their (relatively expensive) cuts of meat, willingly. They travel because they get value.
“Few people are willing to put the effort in,” Callum Edge told us on a recent visit, “their shops aren’t welcoming, the pavement has dog dirt outside, but they think it’s the Council’s job to clean it. If you want to survive, you have to go the extra mile.
“In our situation it would have been easy to say we’re all doomed. But if I decide that Aldi is my competitor, I’m not going to do it. If I decide that Waitrose is my competitor, I won’t beat that either. So you look for your advantage. It might not be price, it might not be range. We say that supermarkets can’t compete due to their commercial demands and the margins they need.
“We say they’re limited in their flexibility from the animals they buy. They’re driven by cash flow, we’re driven by true quality in breeding, and butchery.”
Nowhere, of course, is this disparity better observed than in the food industry. And this is what most worries me about any campaign – no matter how well intended – to try and bolster up a blanket definition of ‘independents are best.’ Yes, many of the businesses on the Independent Liverpool card are great. But there are a few which, frankly, I’d never choose to spend my money in (Tapas Tapas immediately springs to mind).
Because nowhere is the independent road more rocky than in the city’s restaurant trade. And here’s where the original point of this feature lies:
We visited What’s at 62 recently – the new Liverpool venture by local indie outfit, What’s Cooking? And I was planning on posting a regular feature. But the event highlighted a nagging issue that I’ve been putting off airing for too long. Because, last time we looked, we’re an independent too. But it needs saying: to build a truly great city offer, we need to be way more nuanced about the causes we snag our souls to. It’s trite and wrong-footed of us to blindly support someone else’s notion of what’s worth preserving and what’s beyond the pale. Each of us have a duty to preserve the Liverpool that gives value to us. And to do so without the lure of a free coffee. That’s what makes a city. And that’s sort of the journey we’ve been documenting these last few years.
Billed as a “southern soul” menu (an odd concept, when you think about our city’s less-than-appetising historical ties with the American deep south), inspired by Memphis and the Deep South of America, What’s at 62’s located in that troubled spot on the corner of Castle and James Street. And it’s to soul food what Rick Astley is to soul music.
The point? It sits almost directly opposite Salt House Bacaro – the city’s best (in our opinion) new independent restaurant. It will never need an incentive to lure people into its buzzy, assured and just spot on offer.
The two couldn’t be further apart if they tried. And yet, if you follow the independent lobbyists’ mantra, the two are essential assets, worthy of our time and money.
Sure, if you want stale bread, cheap-as-chips ingredients, ice-cream tasting like a frozen chemical spill, deep fried chicken mutated into something slimy, sinewy and suspicious and a general cluster-fuck of bad geography (so, when exactly did New York, New England and, er, Nova Scotia move below the Mason-Dixon line?) head on down.
We love many, many independents. But What’s at 62 (and the £80 bill) made us wish we’d eaten at Pizza Express. And its deep home cooking revealed an uncomfortable home truth: sometimes it’s good to be back in the chain gang.