I’d never planned to make a national event in Halifax, West Yorkshire. I have an internet shop. I’d moved up from London to sell things from home around the meals and sleeps of my two toddlers. But my new town made clear the differences between the city I’d left and the towns I’d grown up in, and Townstock started from there.
I’m a Burnley girl. We all lived, to quote my GCSE French oral, in a petit village industriel on the side closest to Accrington. Our village’s wikipedia page notes the M65 motorway, Leeds Liverpool Canal and BNP councillors. I was enormously proud of the Leeds Liverpool Canal (Leeds seemed unfeasibly glamorous) and that milk advert where they say “Accrington Stanley, who are they? Exactly” (Accrington on national TV!). I was less proud of the BNP notoriety; Burnley’s 2001 race riots were a devastating low.
It’s hard to explain just how much I loved, and still love, Burnley and Accrington. Specifically, and this is the crux here, their shops and markets. I’m going to say that again with the capitalisation and archangel trumpets deserved: Shops and Markets. Not the Saturdays feeling poor and ugly trying to find a school skirt in Etam (pre-New Look) or River Island (posh). I mean the shops and markets where I felt a primal, to-the-bones joy of finding something that’s mine. For me, these shops and markets are my towns, and they made me.
I want to be buried in Revival on Warner Street, Accrington. I spent the best days of my most awkward years amongst its fur coats and silk dresses. I clung to little pieces of Revival at college, clothes that stood up to the scrutiny of more metropolitan friends, concealing a little pride within their stitches of coming from a Northern mill town. I visited the shop on trips back home, seeing the shops around it close, and owner, Ian, struggle with falling trade and seeming council apathy. I bought my wedding dress there with my Mum. Accrington fell into decline.
In Burnley there was the glamour of the Flea in the upstairs market on Wednesdays. My Portobello Road, set out with stalls of East Lancs riches to make the real Portobello seem overpriced and tame. I bought leather-bound books and fantasised about the paste jewellery. My family got dusty Christmas presents. I loved that the traders called me “love”.
Revival, the Flea and places like them are an important part of my identity. I can’t be alone in believing that our shops and markets shape us and ground our pride in our home communities. I want my boys take the shops and markets of our new hometown of Halifax as their own, places where they find their independence and sense of home.
But I can’t rely on others to support these places. In Halifax, Burnley and Accrington shops lie empty, trade is hard and people like me, at a laptop in my back bedroom, are making it harder. We can throw money at town centre developments, shiny arcades and fountains, but shops and markets are complex, fleeting things. They mushroom up from people who want to create, be active within their communities, and support themselves and others with their businesses.
My own business gave me the space to get involved with social enterprise Totally Locally. I saw this free initiative give communities positive ways to help their shops and markets, and the confidence to talk about the things that make their town home. Townstock is my response to the pressing need to share support like this more widely. We shouldn’t limit the ideas that work to membership groups or a few select towns. So at Townstock, inspirational people like the Empty Shops Network, Retail Ready People, Totally Locally and Street Angels will meet the innovators in local government, high-street chains, supermarkets and think-tanks. And as importantly, they’ll meet the creative people making our shops and markets. By sharing what works, inclusively and openly, we can do great things for the towns, shops and markets that made us.
Jane Johnston is an internet retailer, school governor and Teach First ambassador (http://www.teachfirst.org.uk). She made Townstock 2012.