Discovering Kingston’s Gems
Kingston is home to a fantastic selection of independent businesses, which bring character to the town. Check out our local treasures on July 20, with a special day celebrating Independent Retailers Month.
While many of the UK’s biggest retailers have set up shop here, it’s the local independents that make the town different to any other shopping hub in the country. Many of these stores have a rich history, having been established hundreds of years ago, others are newcomers with a real passion for what they do. On July 20, shoppers can head to Ancient Market Place, grab a directory detailing all of Kingston town centre’s 150 independent retailers and head off on a trail to check them out. We caught up with some local faves to find out their story…
A MUST FOR MUSIC LOVERS
The music scene in Kingston is booming, in no small part thanks to Banquet Records, which has brought huge stars, including Bryan Adams and Nile Rodgers, to the town for gigs in churches, nightclubs as well as its small record store on Eden Street. Jon Tolley, who is also a local councillor, and Mike Smith took over what was a failing record store 15 years ago. Says Jon: “We have never had a five-year plan. We have just tried to react as things change. As music fans, it is quite an easy thing for us to do.”
The business has dealt with the threat from CDs when they first came in, and now music streaming. He adds that while independents face challenges such as rising high street rents, they often have the advantage in that they can react faster than the big corporates to how consumer behaviour is changing. And they are more likely to have staff passionate about what they do.
Jon believes that the independents that will do well are those that sell something that people buy for pleasure rather than necessity – ultimately they have a buzz about them. “Retail needs to evolve. We need to get the fizz into our town centres, and make shopping interesting and exciting and not just the cheapest possible. The local authorities have a role to play and as a councillor that is something I’m trying to be involved in. We also need to show people where their money goes, which is what we are doing with the Kingston Pound and other initiatives, so you go to an independent coffee shop and see that the money goes back into the community. You give money to a big corporate and that money might not even be staying in the country.”
The Fighting Cocks, which dates back to 1890, is also a huge part of the town’s music and entertainment scene. Jamie O’Grady has been running the venue since 2000, and is clearly passionate about the place. “I felt a strange connection with it the first time I visited and I know every floorboard, every nook and cranny.”
It moves with the times but some things will always remain the same. “I recently found an old copy of a newspaper that featured us on our opening back in 2000. The last quote of the piece read: “and they’ve even got a website”. Safe to say, we’ve come a long way since but the beauty of pubs is you can’t experience a great cocktail or feel the atmosphere of a band from behind a computer screen. I can’t see that changing.”
Jamie adds that more support for grassroots venues is needed. While Kingston’s music initiative CirKT is a step in the right direction in promoting new music and venues, we need to keep up the momentum going forward. “We’d love to put on some street events and mini-festivals and it would be great if the council could actively help with that,” he says.
A tour around some of Kingston’s top indies…
We are lucky to have the river on our doorsteps, and many of us will have enjoyed it from aboard a Turk Launches boat. The family company can be traced back to 1710; although records of Turk-built boats extend back to the 12th Century. Turk even built boats for the amusement of Queen Victoria on the Home Park waters. Richard Turk is the present owner and he describes how the company has evolved to not only ferry passengers from A to B but also as a party venue and has introduced gin and Bollywood cruises. “Competition is far fiercer now with private hire for events – there are so many venues locally. But a boat is unique,” says Richard. “Collaborative relationships with companies like Sipsmiths and Bingham Riverhouse help us to reach a wider audience.” He also hopes to extend its offering to schools. “Kids love the adventure of being on board and in turn it creates a memorable learning environment. We would love for more schools to get involved using Turks as part of their curriculum to study local history and nature.”
Specialist retailers include Fun Learning, which started out in the Bentall Centre in 1993. Its ethos is to give informed advice so that you get the right product for a child rather than the latest craze. Try Partica for fancy dress, and Natterjacks for street style.
Foodies are spoilt for choice. On your radar should be Beanberry Coffee Company, which specialises in organic fairtrade coffee. Head to 7000 Jars of Beer, a family-owned business with an emphasis on beer from small-batch producers. It also sells growlers of fresh draft beer- an eco-friendly way of taking your tipple home. We also love Chakra for its fresh vibrant Indian dishes and riverside location. Fancy a sweet treat but need gluten-free? Glutopia is a great bakery with a cafe. There are also egg-free cakes for vegans.
Marked by the tumbling phone boxes, Old London Road is home to a number of great independents. Stop in at the Antiques Centre to hunt for treasures, grab an on-trend haircut at Stone Hair Salon and catch a gig at The Fighting Cocks. That Vintage Shop is a great store for a unique outfit.
The town centre is home to many specialists dedicated to what they do. John Rose Eyecare on Eden Street, for example, has expertise in optometry, a passion for preventative care, and has specialist diagnostic equipment so high-tech it was chosen by Nasa to monitor the eye health of astronauts.
Independent Retailers Month is supported by the town centre’s Business Improvement District, Kingston First. www.inkingston.co.uk