Dan Thompson founded the Empty Shops Network in 2008, to share the knowledge and skills we need to make the High Street and the town centre part of the community again. We are delighted to be able to share Dan’s Pop Up Shop Toolkit.
The problem of empty shops in our town centres is nothing new, and neither is the solution a radical one.
Town centres have always shifted and changed, but over the last 30 years they became dominated by big chain retailers, with the end result that everywhere was the same. Internet traders seemed to be the final act, and ten years ago the experts were certain that the curtain was coming down on the High Street.
But people like me, running small arts organisations and involved in community organising, were seeing something different. Around the country, there were other – more exciting – models that still worked.
North Laine in Brighton had lost its Tesco years ago, and that space had filled first with a crazy, anarchic indoor market and then with a cabaret theatre. Around it were independent clothes stores, vintage shops, and successful record stores. And artists were filling the spaces that were empty.
Margate was planning a bold new art gallery to attract tourists, and to test the idea had filled a vast former Marks & Spencer store with contemporary art. A whole festival grew up around the smaller empty shops in the Old Town. Coventry was home to one artist-led project after another, facilitated by a city council that owned vast amounts of the city centre – inspiring a successful City of Culture bid. And elsewhere in the world, people were finding similar solutions.
And all of these interventions – from a small group of artists working together to stage a show in one shop, to the public funded interventions transforming huge spaces, from pop ups that last a weekend to semi-permanent occupation of old spaces – are united in trying to answer one question: What’s next?
Town and city centres will survive as long as they provide a mix of activity that appeals to a broad range of people. We need a balance of retail and workspace, of places to live and spaces to play, of formal civic uses and informal social ones.
What we’re seeing isn’t a reinvention of the High Street. Nothing we’re seeing is new, from the baker to the pottery studio, the sewing room to the maker space. These aren’t new ideas, but ones which had been priced out of the High Street by big retail chains.
What’s happening is a rewilding of the High Street. An ecology that had been damaged by big box retail is being allowed to revert to its natural, balanced state. We have to take care to protect that.
This guide – rewritten from a toolkit originally published in 2010 – will help you to add some fertiliser and plant seeds, rip up the concrete, and find the wildness underneath. Dig in, and let’s rewild the High Street.
This guide is designed as a prompt, to help you get started – for more detail, you might like to find a copy of Dan’s book, Pop Up Business For Dummies (published by Wiley): your local independent bookshop can order it or you can borrow it from your local library.