Walk down the main street of almost any UK town and you’ll see the same chain stores.
Most high streets have a McDonald’s or KFC, Starbucks or Costa and a small Tesco or Sainsbury’s. Hebden Bridge’s main street has none of that and that’s how many townspeople and small business owners want it to stay.
This is not a parochial or traditionalist position. It’s the city’s lack of generic chains and, more importantly, the abundance of unique, independent shops that make it so appealing to tourists and residents alike.
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The city has three main streets: Market Street, Bridge Gate and Crown Street. On or next to them you will find a Boots pharmacy, a Rohan outdoor gear store and a Fat Face clothing store.
Almost everything else is a one-store business or part of a small local chain; there is a Mediterranean restaurant Olive Branch and an optician Valli, for example. So how does an independent city, once commonplace and now an anomaly, function today?
Mark Wright is a BBC science fiction writer, but he also worked part-time for The Book Case for 30 years. The green sign of the shop with the bronze letters proudly announced that it was an “independent bookstore”.
He says, “It’s eye-opening to see the kind of customers that come into the store. It’s this mix of tourism and a very tight-knit community.”
In the shop – and agreeing – is former Hebden mayor Rob Freeth. He says the variety in the city is what attracts tourists and residents alike, though he worries about the groups of drinkers who come in for a drink on the weekends.
Josh Fenton-Glynn represents the Calder ward, which includes Hebden Bridge, on Calderdale Council. He says Hebden freelancers aren’t afraid to try new ways of working.
Clr Fenton-Glynn (Lab) says: “We have a really supportive local business community supporting each other, for example the bakery bought flour for the Zero Waste store when there were pandemic shortages. there’s a lot of hard work and innovation and a community that values and supports local businesses.”
He adds that larger companies might not realize the value of opening a branch in Hebden – to the loss of the business and the benefit of Hebden.
Clr Fenton-Glynn says: “Some of the things that make Hebden Bridge special are things a channel might not be able to tell from a head office in London. A market town of 5,000 people doesn’t tell the whole story .”
James Wilthew owns the Afghan Rug Shop, which has outgrown its current premises and is moving to a bigger one across the street. The Afghanistan war veteran says the city’s spirit of cooperation is a key factor.
He says, “It gives you a position against big business.”
There are a handful of chain stores, but these are the to the right kind of chain. Or as James puts it, “You can’t avoid a Boots or Co-op, Fat Face or Rohan but they don’t harm the city.”
Speaking of chains, I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room yet. There is a prominent non-independent store in the town center in the form of a cooperative supermarket. But that’s hardly an elephant because, as Co-op points out, the company is owned by its members, not its shareholders.
Co-op says: “Our Hebden Bridge store aims to function as a cornerstone of community life, and in addition to access to food, additional services include parcel collection, support for farmers, growers and suppliers local and regional offices, a free cash machine and a collection point for the local food bank. add up to a big difference to the environment.
“The Co-op membership program also ensures good things happen locally when people buy from Co-op, with 2p on every pound spent on own brand products donated to community organizations to make a difference locally .”
Hebden Bridge has long resisted becoming a ‘Tesco town’ and it is this resistance to large corporate chains and its continued support for small businesses that has allowed it to thrive. Not only that, Hebden has long been at the forefront of new high street and that can teach other towns that you don’t need the help of big business to thrive.
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