Manchester first became prominent in medieval times as a market town. In its industrial heyday, as the hub and financial exchange of the surrounding textile towns and their new-money masters, it became a major centre for novel, highly specialised retail trades and the ancient, unsubtle art of conspicuous consumption alike. Something of the same atmosphere survives in the post-industrial present. Manchester’s self-fashioning as a retail destination is almost aggressively upmarket, a vision of swish department stores and chic boutiques (frequented, or so the popular cliché has it , exclusively by the wives and girlfriends of Premier League footballers). The reality, of course, is more diverse and more interesting.
Visitors may find some knowledge of Mancunian shopper geography useful. The prime retail zone consists of several interlinked areas covering, roughly speaking, most of the north and west of the city centre (downtown) area.
Many mainstream and more upmarket stores stand on or around Deansgate, the ancient Roman road around which the city grew up. Notable sites include the old-established department store, House of Fraser (formerly Kendal Milne, and still Kendal’s to locals); Great Northern, a multi-unit site tucked into what was once one of the world’s greatest railway goods warehouses; and Waterstones, the largest bookstore in the city.
On the west side of Deansgate, the Spinningfields development is new and glossy, with a landmark Armani store. On the east side, King Street and the surrounding streets are home to many fashion stores and jewellers; assuming you are not mesmerised by the window displays here, lift your eyes to the upper storeys and you may be able to get some sense of the character of a genteel Georgian Manchester street. Also on the east side further up is Barton Arcade – a small but beautiful Victorian shopping precinct, which should be seen for its use of cast iron and glass alone – leading out into St Ann’s Square.
The second major concentration is around Market Street, running eastwards at a right-angle to Deansgate. This area was changed out of recognition in the 1970s with the coming of the Arndale Centre, a vast (for its time) covered precinct which now houses over 240 stores, plus an unhelpfully hidden market with an excellent food section. Beyond the Arndale, and on the south side of Market Street, are several department stores and smaller shops, including a few upscale boutiques, but with more of a focus on everyday purchases.
Manchester has always found it hard to love the Arndale, which is often exhibited as a nightmarish example of ‘Seventies Planner Syndrome’. The local joke that the Irish Republican Army actually did Manchester a favour with the 1996 Corporation Street bomb, which largely destroyed the Arndale’s eastern frontage, carries at least a grain of reality. Subsequent redevelopment work has included the removal of most of the ‘lavatorial’ yellow tiling which once cloaked all sides of the building, in favour of a more diverse and sympathetic range of styles.
The post-1996 redevelopment also made possible the creation of Exchange Square, between Deansgate and Market Street on the fringe of the old medieval quarter, and new buildings home to Marks and Spencer, the quintessentially and almost unbearably British upper-upper-mid-market department store, and flagship branches of the London icons Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. On the opposite side of the Square stands the Corn Exchange, the former building of one of the industrial city’s major trading floors, now focusing on fashion, beauty and food.
Those in search of alternatives to the chichi, the corporate and the commercial may prefer the Northern Quarter to the north of Market Street and Piccadilly. Once a manufacturing area, on the fringes of the original industrial suburb of Ancoats, the area has been consciously promoted as the acme of agreeably run-down fashionable bohemianism since the 1990s, as part of a civic zoning strategy as clear-cut as anything from the Arndale era. The area’s alternative scene has older and more authentic roots, however, and its specialist independent record shops in particular have an international reputation. Afflecks (formerly Affleck’s Palace) on Tib Street, an icon of the Madchester era, remains a fascinating maze-like centre for vintage fashions, kitsch and cult ephemera, body modification and other pursuits popularly assumed to be inappropriate for chartered accountants.
The most recent major change to the city’s shopping landscape came with the opening of the Trafford Centre, a vast complex some 8km outside the city. Beyond the (disputed) charms of its remarkably bold sort-of-rococo architectural scheme, the Trafford Centre is at heart a fairly standard example of the kind of large out-of-town strip mall now found in most corners of the world, and so is not an obvious priority for visitors. It has a somewhat greater appeal to Mancunians, less for the visual aesthetics than for the enormous overarching roofs which allow them to do their shopping out of the rain.
A random list of interesting shops in Manchester
In Situ Manchester, Chester Road. Vintage, reclaimed and antique furniture and ornaments.
Magma Books, Oldham Street. Visual arts and design book specialists.
Manchester Craft and Design Centre, Oldham Street.
Micro Bar, Arndale centre. Bottled local beers to take away.