WORDS: JOANNE BARRETT
PICTURES: CHRIS BOOTH
If you pay a visit to Stockton today, what will you find?
Well, the answer might well be just as wide as the historic Teesside town’s High Street.
The area has, of course, been in the news just lately with the loss of stalwart Marks and Spencer and the impending closure of retail giant Debenhams.
Yes, they might leave a gap – but look again.
What you might not see at first glance, and what shoppers, residents, families and the people of Teesside at large are just beginning to notice, are the sprouting shoots of a different type of retail offering in the town.
It goes under the hashtag #BigUpStockton and is being driven by Stockton Business Improvement District – or BID for short – a partnership between more than 400 local businesses and organisations with the ultimate aim of making a difference to the town centre.
A simple walk around on a weekday morning will reveal that much more is there than you might have thought – from niche and unique shops to destination watering holes, cafés and eateries tucked in the nooks, crannies, squares and streets of a town famous for pioneering the world’s first passenger railway, not to mention the invention of the friction match.
The nature of high streets all over Britain is changing – and the business community in Stockton is well aware of it. What it has to offer, similar to neighbour Yarm, for example, is its very uniqueness in the shape of these 21st century high street pioneers.
And it is time to shout about it.
Jason Maxwell is Stockton BID’s manager. “We are here to do what we can to help. There’s more and more of a focus on what the local shops, businesses and services have to offer,” says Jason.
“Just look around, there’s lots here. We have 400 businesses in this area. Any other smaller or narrower high street with that number would be crowded.”
Our meeting place is the Hope and Union pub in Green Dragon Yard, a leafy little square just off the high street that is also home to places including entertainment venue, The Georgian Theatre. Pop round the corner and there’s a little flea market in full swing, while a few steps away is pedestrianised Silver Street, full of unique shops and independent businesses.
Poppy Rose is one of them, a craft and pottery store that sells handmade and individual gifts and items. Owner Louise McGrogan-Wright also runs pottery classes teaching people how to make and create.
She’s been on Silver Street for a few years and loves what she does – her charming pieces are made with heart and soul, and are things you cannot buy anywhere else.
“I make them because I love to make them,” says Louise, whose talent is self-taught.
“I run classes for all kinds of people as well as selling handmade items – I’ve never had anybody come in who hasn’t produced something they love from one of the classes.”
A few shops down is iStation, run by Brian Holmes and his partner Kelly. Got an iPhone that needs repairing? An iPad in need of attention? Repairs are their specialism – but there’s more to it than that.
As a certified independent Apple support specialist, the business uses its IT expertise to provide companies across Teesside with hardware and software support.
“We are licensed by Apple to display their logo, we repair Apple products but also serve other businesses,” says Brian.
Customers often seek iStation out on the internet but the store also sees footfall from people who need repairs.
“We are seeing repeat customers, so we also have a loyalty scheme going,” says Brian.
“We’ve also just taken on an apprentice – someone who we were put in touch with by the Daisy Chain charity.”
That very local nature is something reflected in many of Stockton’s other High Street trailblazers.
Claire Dalkin owns Claire’s Blooms, a florist on Dovecot Street. She’s been open for seven months and has already done eight weddings – one with just four days’ notice.
She’d love to see more shops coming into Stockton.
“I enjoy all of it,” says Claire. “There’s lots of creativity to it, which I love.
“I had a customer who wanted a four-foot snooker table display – I ended up carving out all of the base for the flowers by hand using a spoon, it looked really great when it was finished!”
Ditto for Top of the Hops. Owned and run by husband-and-wife team Steven and Laura Claxton, the craft beer shop is in the town’s Regency West Mall.
As well as selling a range of specialist and craft tipples, the premises sells its nectar on draught and looks and feels just like a cosy Bruges beer bar – which is where Steve got the inspiration.
A former upholsterer, he always loved craft beers and on his stag do in Bruges came across bars that doubled as retail shops selling the stuff too.
“There was nothing like this in Stockton and I thought ‘We’ve got to do it before anyone else does.’
“We sell specialist craft and bottled beer, and you can come in and enjoy a beer on draught too. It is great just being able to see your customers enjoy something and know that you’ve found it,” says Steve.
“Customers know they are going to get good service, good beers and they love the fact that they can come in and we’re here to serve them.”
Steve and Laura’s knowledge and sheer enthusiasm is infectious and is the very essence of Top of the Hops – and perfectly sums up the warm welcome that Stockton is keen to offer.
• Pictured top: Laura and Steve Claxton (Top of the Hops), Claire Dalkin (Claire’s Blooms), Brian Holmes (Station) and Louise McGrogan-Wright (Poppy Rose) are all part of the Stockton BID team.