The Grainger Market in Newcastle is the kind of place you crave when you’re away: the sort of place that makes Newcastle unlike any other city in the country, and when you visit, you know you’re back home. It celebrated its 181st birthday in October and seems to be thriving. According to some of the traders, it has seen footfall decline a lot less than other shops in the centre of town.
So what makes it so successful? How has a Victorian meat and veg market been transformed into both a community staple and a “hipster” destination? And what can it teach us about urban renewal?
My Mamam – that’s grandma, to most people – used to take me to the Grainger Market on our weekly trips into town when I was little. We’d wait for Grandin to finish at the football, pick up some meat or vegetables for tea, get a Mark Toney’s Ice Cream and weigh ourselves for fun on the giant scales in the weigh house, once used by vendors and customers to weigh goods.
I used to enjoyed my trips: there was always plenty to see, and navigating the hanging cow carcasses outside the butchers sometimes led to a Spice Girls t-shirt I could spend my pocket money on. But it wasn’t somewhere I thought to hang around with my friends, and I wouldn’t usually head in there of my own accord. It was a nostalgic place – nice to visit, but the home for a different generation of Geordies.
I started going to the Grainger Market regularly again in 2012, when I was working round the corner at Waterstones, after a fellow pizza lover mentioned there were amazing slices to be found at Grainger. I’m embarrassed to admit that I eyed them with scepticism. The place with full dead animals on display? The place Mamam used to buy cheap tights from?
They were right, though – and alongside my new favourite pizza place was a sprinkling of new traders. A new bakery, craft beer shop and salad bar had set up shop in between the old fruit, veg and meat places. The new shops were fantastic, and offered choice in the market which was bringing in a new customer base; but I was worried that the old places, still with so much to offer and a customer base of their own might get pushed out.
Luckily, that doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Today there’s still a smell of raw meat from the butchers that takes me straight back to the Grainger Market of my childhood. The cheap veg stands are also still going strong, amidst the new street food style stalls.
Grainger Market in 2006. Image: Lhoon/Flickr/creative commons.
The success of the new and old places is not mutually exclusive. When I spoke to John from Oliver’s Bistro, a cafe which has been trading in the market for 14 years, he described incidental footfall as one of the perks of being based in the Grainger market. New customers visiting to pick up a high quality but cheap lunch from Nan Bei, a new dumpling place, bring added footfall, and contribute to business at the older places, too.
A number of factors have contributed to the Grainger Market’s success. Firstly, there’s been little attempt to overhaul the character of the building: someone who shopped there 30 years ago wouldn’t feel out of place coming today. The newer shops still offer some of what the market has always offered, quality products for a decent price, and there’s not a Costa or Starbucks in sight. The Grainger Market proves you don’t have to completely wipe away the old to start a process of renewal – and that it’s important so serve the whole community in the process, not just the newcomers.
Secondly, the mix of shops – different not just in age, but in purpose – make the market incredibly vibrant, persuading people to stay under one roof for longer. It’s a place you can go, get some lunch, buy some stuff for your tea and get your shoes cobbled or your watch fixed all under one roof. All this makes people likely to explore the whole market rather than popping in for one thing and out again.
“I think the mix of old and new is the reason [the market] has periodical revivals,” says Emma-Claude, who trades from The French Oven, which has just had its 11th birthday at Grainger. It’s also why you’re likely to see an 80 year old Geordie shopping alongside one of Newcastle’s many students taking advantage of cheap produce, and families sitting alongside young couples in the market’s seating areas. It’s still a home for an older generation of locals; but increasingly becoming a home for a new one too.
Enabling all of this is that it’s cheap to set up in the market: it is, as Emma-Claude describes it, “a city centre location with rural rents”. This is enabled by the fact it’s a council facility, looked after by the city of Newcastle itself.
But perhaps the greatest secret to the market’s success is the culture of collectivism that dominates it. Votes by its traders association have been instrumental in persuading the council to improve or refit some units. The association has also voted to keep the market closed on Sundays and bank holidays – important for those businesses that have only one or two staff members.
This collectivism is also apparent when you visit any of the businesses’ social media accounts, which are tireless in promoting each other. They know that bringing people into Grainger will benefit all of them – that a regular visit to one shop might lead to a first time visit to another.
Cities and the places that make them grow, progress and inevitably change. We can’t let cities stagnate – but we do have to think about how progress can benefit everyone. At present, regeneration is so often about creating places not just for a new generation, but a new class of people.
The Grainger market, though, strikes a delicate balance, and represents Newcastle’s diverse population as well as its culture and attitude. It’s the sort of place that makes a city both liveable and affordable. I think we have a lot to learn from it – and I hope it’s still trading and successful on its 200th birthday.