Finding Communities; Magdalen Road
By Rebecca Broad
Photos supplied by Rebecca Broad
When a small street in a quiet area of Exeter was featured alongside Montmartre in Paris and Toronto’s distillery district (in December, when The Guardian asked its readers for their top 10 cool places to shop around the world), Devon was delighted. Those of us who know Exeter’s Magdalen Road, however, weren’t too surprised.
Having recently moved to nearby Heavitree Road, I was keen to explore this row of mostly locally owned shops.
Fellow freelancer and social media specialist Matt Young has been living in St Leonards for a few months now, so I asked for his opinion.
“I love Magdalen Road simply because it has everything you need, literally. Apart from the obvious convenience stores, there’s a specialist fruit and veg shop, a chemist, a gift shop, and several awesome little cafes too.”
I can’t wait to frequent this mini urban village as I know Matt does. As someone who often works from home, getting out and about throughout the day is important for my wellbeing. I spend hours working on my laptop and phone, so seeing another human being is always welcome!
Daniel Taylor is also known as The Grocer on the Green, the ever-friendly face and owner of the independent greengrocer at 36b of the same name. Dan prioritises stocking local seasonal produce, whatever the season.
He understands the importance of those in-person conversations.
“It’s unique to pop in and speak to or shop with a business that deals with a particular type of product. And it’s much more sociable too! You get to know your customers better, they get to know about you.”
Stella and Phil at The Bran Tub, a health food store, agree.
“We treat customers as people and many as friends. We get to know our regulars and become part of their shopping routine. They’re not just a number passing through the door.”
So, what is it about independent business which, in itself, is important?
“Many traders receive comments from customers about the convenience of having such a varied number of local and independent shops within St Leonards. A strong traders group working together can strengthen and enhance local communities, making the area a much nicer place in which to work, shop and live,” explains The Bran Tub’s Phil and Stella.
It’s likely that you’ll have a better shopping experience in these local stores. As Steve and Rachel at St Leonard’s Flowers say,
“the service provided by indie businesses comes from experts and those that are passionate in their field.”
On a personal note, Dan adds,
“Coming from a big chain high street environment (Next for 10 years) I can happily say I love being an independent and could not ever go back!”
However, Dan is also eager to credit the team without which The Grocer on the Green wouldn’t be viable. Patrick is his helper in the shop; his mum and dad, Jackie and John, regularly help with cover or stock collection; and Kate, his wife, is indispensable: as those of us who are business owners know, support from family and friends is integral to our success.
300 feet west of The Grocer on the Green is Smith’s Wines, run by Iain. Like many along this street, he’s passionate about community.
“It’s thanks to the desire of the residents to support independent shops. If they all wanted to go to supermarkets, then they would, but they don’t. I feel like that community is here.”
So what’s next for Magdalen Road? St Leonard Flowers’ goal is simple:
“We’d like to see more people visiting Magdalen Road, and for the street to become more recognised in Exeter and beyond as a unique shopping destination.”
With that will come challenges and growing pains. The community, however, will face them together.
“We have recently rebooted our Traders Association to start tackling issues together,” says Dan, who is now Chairman of the Association.
“We are also aiming to work with others around the city where possible, and highlight this fantastic array of independents this city has – we are truly spoilt for choice!”
If they want to attract different audiences, these shops may have to adapt a little. I say I can see myself doing my weekly food shop walking down Magdalen Road alone, and Iain says,
“Not weekly – try daily! Pop into the fishmonger, see what you fancy to eat.” Then he admits: “For some people, obviously, this would be very difficult – say, for example, you’ve got both partners in a family working. That’s where the retail community has to be prepared to evolve.”
There are other players that could help in that evolution.
“I would love to see our Local Authority perhaps be more open to dialogue with its independents. Instead of aiming to draw in the big names, why not hold focus groups with the independents to see what they would like to see happen?” suggests Dan.
Rachel and Steve state,
“We’d benefit from improved parking and collection points. People like the convenience offered by supermarkets where there is always free parking and we find it hard to compete with this.”
Iain shares with me his journey to finding a shop on the street. Like many of the business owners I chat to, he wants to see commercial estate agents have “a greater understanding of retail.” Our interview is briefly interrupted by a bell ringing out cheerfully; a customer entering the shop. “Hi, Andy!” Iain exclaims. “You alright, mate?” Owners being on first-name terms with their customers might indeed take a bit of understanding from agents, and understandably so. I lived in Beacon Heath for 3 years, but highly doubt any of the Morrisons staff ever recognised me! Magdalen Road’s community is special, but rare.
I share my perspective with Iain about how 2018’s snow storms brought Exeter together in a way I’d never seen before. People walking miles to friends’ houses, farmers driving hospital staff to work through snow drifts, neighbours checking in on each other. It felt quintessentially British: communities pulling together in the face of adversity.“Absolutely!” he exclaims. “We’ve got it in our culture. We’ve got it in our souls. We just have to find it again.”