Like so many others, LGBTQ+ owned spaces in the UK have felt the harsh economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, while the number of venues has already plummeted in the past decade. But one sector is providing a somewhat surprising bright spark: the local corner shop.
Independent convenience stores have long been the heart of the community but, over recent decades, many have struggled to keep up with growing competition from larger supermarket chains and online shopping, along with rocketing high-street rent and business rates, with the number of stores across the UK falling nearly 9% between 2015 and 2021.
Now, LGBTQ+ owned businesses are breathing life back into former corner-shop sites, moving out of city centers and embedding themselves into local communities. More than sites of exchange where goods and services are sold, corner shops have come to symbolize integration, cultural exchange and, perhaps most of all, entrepreneurial flair.
As Alim Kheraj writes in his book, Queer London: A Guide to the City's LGBTQ+ Past and Present, in the past decade, nearly 60% of London's LGBTQ+ spaces have closed. And that's just London. Across the UK, nearly 70% of all LGBTQ+ spaces have shut their doors.
Yet, when so much suddenly changes about everyday life, we're innately drawn to whatever's most familiar. One of the countless effects of the pandemic is that a lot of everyday life now feels hyper-localized; in contrast with panic-buying storms that consumed big supermarkets (certainly in the UK and the US), simple and steady landmarks, like the local corner shop, re-emerged. And it seems the Welsh capital, Cardiff, is leading the way.
Rethinking the corner-shop format
Based in the Roath district of Cardiff, Glory Stores is a provisions store and dining room. The building it's housed in was once a tea depot back in the seventies, before it was renovated into a garage. Shaun Houcke, managing director and founder, said it was a ‘no-brainer’ when the space came on the market. ‘There was a time that we'd have pursued a space on the high street but, with rising rent and business rates, it just didn't add up. When I looked at the convenience store model, I searched for spaces in the local area [that] we could transform.’
Located in a large residential area, with around 1,000 homes and 4,000 people, Glory Stores has benefited from a lack of other nearby independent businesses. ‘The nearest coffee shop is a global chain,’ Shaun says, ‘which, before, our customers were happy to go to. But now that we're here, they prefer us, as not only are they purchasing a coffee or lunch, they're engaged in conversation. We've gotten to know them.’
David Le Masurier and his husband Lee first opened Pettigrew Bakeries in 2015, renovating one of a row of Victorian buildings two miles outside the city center. Built in the thirties to serve the houses in the area, this particular site was formerly a well-loved hardware shop, which struggled to compete with the rise of online shopping and chain competitors.
‘We naively decided to open a seven-day-a-week artisan bakery offering a premium product at a fair price,’ says David. ‘We don't mass produce – it's not sustainable. We're finding that more and more people are preferring quality over quantity, even if that means spending a little more.’
Building a community
Of course, attempting to rejuvenate a former community staple doesn't come without its risks, but these owners have seen the potential of transforming these stores. Whereas traditionally, LGBTQ+ venues would be clustered in one particular area, such as Manchester's famous Canal Street, they're now branching out and achieving success in more heteronormative areas.
‘There's definitely a want for it. We host a monthly market, The Glorious Elephant, where several LGBTQ+ businesses, such as KelZo Jewellery, take part, establishing a customer base offline. Every month, we're fully booked with new and exciting vendors,’ Shaun says.
‘It's just great, isn't it? It's literally around the corner from where we live,’ says one customer at Glory Stores. ‘The service is very personal. They've worked hard to get to know us and it saves us having to go into town, where you're heckled and rushed. It's like popping round [to] a friend's!' says the customer, who came in to make the most of the shop's fresh oysters and Bollinger champagne.
Nathan Vaughan, founder of plant shop The Elephants Ear, says he knew it'd be vital to open a bricks-and-mortar store. ‘Having a space within Cardiff's suburbs has allowed us to directly connect with the local community in a way that wouldn't be possible in the city center. Plants are an integral part of people's homes, and being closer to our clients allows us to build relationships and offer a bespoke service,’ Nathan says.
Shops like these, along with others like plant store Eartha and store and cafe The Queer Emporium, have set the precedent in Cardiff, which is now a thriving scene of LGBTQ+ businesses. There's everything from a queer bookshop (Paned o Gê) to vegan pies (The Pie Box). The latter is online-only, but it's working towards opening its own premises.
It's starting to catch on
Similar business models with the LGBTQ+ community at the helm have started to appear across the UK. In England, there's The Queer Coffee Co and the Little Red Berry Co, a specialist gin brewery; in Northern Ireland, there's PaperXclips, a bookshop, cafe and barbershop due to open in July, and Memento Floral Design, a flower and plant store.
‘I walked past [the site] most days and, one day, a chord struck and I thought: “Wouldn't that be a great spot for a florist?”’ says Gary Connolly Close, the managing director of Memento Floral Design in Belfast. ‘So, my husband, Nigel, who's my business partner and creative director, scraped together what savings we had and went for it. It took four months' graft, where we relied on family and friends for help, as there was no budget for builders or contractors. Together, we built Memento from the ground up.’
Challenging the norm
There's a theory, explored in psychologist Alan Downs' book The Velvet Rage, which examines the impact of growing up and surviving as LGBTQ+ in a society still learning to accept all identities. Alan finds that the community seeks legitimacy as queer business owners by straying from the norm.
The LGBTQ+ drive to succeed despite having been ostracized may play a part, but that's dismissive of the business acumen of those interviewed. These are business owners, who happen to be LGBTQ+. Their difference, their queerness, doesn't define them. It's part of them, but it's not their whole identity.
‘I think we're just intrinsically better at spotting opportunities. Being part of such a diverse community as the LGBTQ+ community, we're able to approach things with an open mind and understand different perspectives,’ David says.
Shaun supports this: ‘When people come to Glory Stores, it's not because I'm gay – it's because [the store] is a celebration of diversity and inclusivity. It's a step up from what the traditional community businesses used to host. We've turned a model on its head and made it our own. People recognize the familiarity of it, but welcome the contemporary feel and the variety that's on offer. This, and our personal approach and knowledge of our customer base, has played a huge part in our success.’
So, whether it's to prove a point to themselves or to bring joy to their communities, the mourning period for sweaty dance floors and late-night ego boosts is over. These LGBTQ+ business owners are rewriting history to launch successful businesses in areas of Cardiff that have long been starved of community. And business is thriving.