Could The Grafton Centre host a very large bookshop as a new anchor store?

It would be a mistake to think such a proposal would simply be another attempt to carve out a ‘Middle Class is Magical’ enclave out of an historic working class area. Just ask Marcus Rashford MBE.

The Manchester United & England footballer Marcus Rashford recently launched a reading club. This was following his campaign on free school meals.

And it’s something that has picked up support from all over the country. Here’s local musician and qualified librarian Minnie Birch talking about the importance of books

Urban poverty in Cambridge

In 2019, Fiona Leishman wrote an article for the Cambridge News looking at data on multiple deprivation using figures released from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The data was collected at sub-ward level – which means that each council ward is sub-divided so as to help identify micro-pockets not easily picked up with standard data collection. The top two most deprived wards were in Abbey Ward in East Cambridge – which is where Cambridge United’s Abbey Stadium is. It’s one of the reasons why Cambridge City Council supported the launch of the Abbey People group. A short history on Abbey ward has been published by HistoryWorks here.

One of Cambridge’s old industrial quarters.

Above (L) – a screenshot from G-Maps of the East Barnwell part of Abbey. Above (R) The old Cambridge Gas Works looking east, with the brickworks behind it on the other side of a once tree-lined Newmarket Road. One of the old brick pits later formed the first town dump – the start of the town’s use of landfill. Before that, the town’s sewage and waste was burned at the pumping station – where the big smoking chimney is, today the Cambridge Museum of Technology.

Pollution aside – and there was lots of it, 100 years ago Cambridge made its own bricks, produced its own cement, produced its own gas, processed its own waste (the residues of which was then spread on fields just north of the town), generated its own electricity, and supplied its own water…even though the source back then was outside the older, smaller boundaries.

Abbey ward historically was one of the worst hit during economic slumps – whether the downturn in the building industries in the 19th & 20th Centuries, to the closure of so many shops and retailers today. The human geography of Cambridge historically followed that well-worn pattern of the poorer districts being in the east of the city until the establishment of the housing estates of Arbury and King’s Hedges. I can’t think of an eastern ward in Cambridge that matches the affluence and high society connections of more than a few of the residents of say Newnham ward.

The Grafton Centre’s empty shop units in the late 2010s.

Over the past few years, even affluent Cambridge with its millions of tourists visiting every year, has not been able to hold off the economic struggles of the past few years. Again the Cambridge News reported on this in 2018 – so before the Corona Virus outbreak. There were a host of reasons for this – in particular The Grafton was hit badly by the implosion of some huge high street names (Mothercare, BHS), and the struggles of others (Debenhams). The owners then spent money trying to overhaul the empty units, which enabled a gym to move in, and a low cost clothing retailer.

Corona Virus outbreak hits an already struggling high street retail scene – and leisure scene as well

The Vue cinema brand which runs the Grafton has been struggling and has been forced to close permanently a swathe of cinemas already. Fortunately Cambridge isn’t on that list, but the point remains that it is vulnerable while cinemas are forced to remain shut by emergency legislation.

With so many retailers being forced to close, this has had a knock on impact on those who live in Abbey Ward (as well as other parts of town and county beyond) whose livelihoods were dependent on jobs at The Grafton Centre. With both the cinema and the gym forced to remain closed, people who might normally head to the centre (who are already struggling to get by) have even less of a reason to go. Recall too that the outbreak of CV in the USA has shut down the massive film making studios there, so don’t expect the movie-making industry to be up and running for some time to come.

Does the Grafton need a new anchor store to replace the old BHS? Does that anchor store have to have a model of high retail turnover in an era of a climate emergency?

The last reasonably large bookshop I can remember from the 1990s at The Grafton was the old Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop. It occupied the corner that is now where H&M is. Next to it was the old Our Price / Virgin Records shop. Remember those? One of the things that I’ve been pondering for ages, having taken a wander around an otherwise empty Grafton a year or two ago in the run up to Christmas. I think that was when it struck me that the whole financial model of high turnover retail was crashing down. Just look at how many had left Bluewater in Kent between 2017 & Jan 2020 – just before Lockdown.

Why a very large bookshop could be a game-changer

It’s worth noting that the bookshop market as a competitive market is utterly broken and dysfunctional. The struggles of independent bookshops are well-known. The public policy responses from ministers….less so. As far as offline retail is concerned, the market is an oligopoly, dominated by a small number of very large brands – Waterstones being the biggest. Blackwell’s effectively retails under the historic Heffer’s brand name in the same way John Lewis used to run in Cambridge under the Robert Sayle brand name. I still think it should. Then there is the WH Smith shop that since the 1990s hasn’t really worked out what it wants to be. When it opened it was new and lovely, but today it looks faded and worn. (Over the years, Books Etc, Borders where Eaden Lilley’s was and TK Maxx now is, all went, as did Dillons, which is where Waterstones now is).

“Didn’t you suggest Foyles of London setting up in Cambridge?”

Yes – but then I found out they were bought out by Waterstones in 2018. Which effectively means there is no large specialist bookshop with the resources to invest in the sort of large bookshop over multiple floors that the Grafton has a potential for. If it wanted to it could be a beacon for other, smaller shops that bookworms like me at interested in.

Either of the Waterstones or Blackwell’s owners could set up a large store at the Eastern end of The Grafton, under their Foyles or Heffer’s brands respectively without their existing stores taking a huge hit.

…although I’m happy to be corrected by the data!

Actually, and on a more serious point, serious consideration should be given as part of how Cambridge’s local economy emerges from the restrictions of the Corona Virus – and the recession that it as caused. The two main reasons are the housing growth nearby, and the presence of Anglia Ruskin University almost opposite. The student bookshop at ARU on East Road is very small. There is huge potential for a large bookshop to work with both the university and the student union to supply more, cheaper books for students and with student discounts. Even more so if it can be aligned with other user groups such as adult learners.

A rooftop garden

I’m of the view that the old rooftop car parks should be converted into rooftop cafes in Cambridge. I think it’s a huge missed opportunity because I think that enough people will pay the premium of expensive drinks if what goes with it are quiet, splendid views of the city.

Above – from G-maps here, you have two large potential rooftop sites currently wasted as underused car park space. With the very big assumption that ministers & local political institutions can ‘get their shit together’ on Cambridge’s transport problems (I’d put a metro stop at the Eastern End of the Grafton (which potentially helps make the case for re-opening the historic Barnwell Theatre to public performances).

Above – on the left is The Grafton, on the red balloon is the Cambridge Buddhist Centre with the theatre behind, and on the right edge is Midsummer Common. Hence useful for dispersing crowds following things like the 5th November fireworks displays. Note three places of worship also within walking distance of such a large bookshop & metro stop as well, including the historic Christ Church of Barnwell.

“How would this help the people of Abbey Ward?”

Potential jobs, and a large selection of affordable books, especially for children. The Newmarket Road Park & Ride, and the Citi 3 buses that serve Abbey Ward are the only regular bus services that currently serve the area. It’s one of the reasons I believe that the Grafton started struggling – Stagecoach over the years reduced the number of bus services from South Cambridge in particular that stopped at The Grafton. So really basic decisions such as which we might see a film at, would be decided by which buses stopped where.

There are more than a few assumptions in this though, hence only talking about the ideas as ‘in principle’. So for example in designing a children’s section, could the shop designers work with local communities at design stage? Are there other facilities that would make things easier for potential customers & visitors? Such as creches, baby-changing facilities – and even an NHS drop-in health centre? You can give people a reason to go somewhere that doesn’t have to involve buying things.

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