It’s 2009 and I’ve just got off the train at Manchester Piccadilly. My two friends and I are on a mission. We’re going to a place we’ve only ever heard about from friends with older siblings. We have saved our pocket money for weeks. Our shopping list includes very specific bead bracelets, a belly button piercing and – go on, I’ll admit it – a Panic! At The Disco poster. We’re headed to the North West’s legendary indie bazaar: Afflecks Palace.
As I step inside this cathedral of alternative culture (it’s actually a converted department store, but I’m sticking with cathedral) I feel like I may be the coolest person in the world. Or, at least, the coolest person in my class.
Here, I walk among – and am only slightly intimidated by – emo kids, cyber punks and old musicheads so grizzled they might actually be telling the truth when they say they saw the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall. I stay all afternoon and spend everything I’ve saved – which, looking back, is probably about £15.
When I go home and, later, tell my aunt – the one I like because she gets drunk at family parties – I tell her about this mecca I’ve stumbled on in Manchester.
“Yeah, yeah,” she nods. “I bought my first pair of fishnets there.”
For 40 years now, Afflecks has sold clothes, records and posters – as well as crystals, cannabis oils and tarot cards – to the North West’s youth, creatives, and alternative communities. Today, there are more than 50 independent shops and stalls spread across its four labyrinthian floors. Among them, is the UK’s biggest pride shop and England’s only anime cafe, where waitresses serve bubble tea while dressed in cosplay outfits. Colour, character and non-conformity are everywhere.
Down the decades, Joe Strummer, Chloë Sevigny and Pete Doherty all shopped here. In 2014, Lady Gaga once spent an hour inside and left wearing an entirely different outfit to the one she arrived in. Matt Healy recently brought Zane Lowe here for an interview discussing his deep connection with Manchester. Kim Taylor – who runs the Charms & Hummingbirds shop – remembers Debbie Harry arriving sometime in the late 90s and, within minutes, a group of fans racing after her. She also recalls Mick Hucknall turning up. “No-one followed him,” she says.
What has always made Afflecks unique, though, is more than just shops and celebrities. It’s a hangout; a safe space for exploring one’s identity.
Manchester drag performer Liquorice Black – star of Channel 4’s Drag SOS – remembers once being called a vampire while walking through the nearby Arndale shopping centre. “I’m not a vampire,” the 29-year-old writes in the newly released Afflecks 40 book. “But I’m sure a vampire could shop in Afflecks and nobody would bat an eyelid.”
Yet, as this celebrated venue now marks its 40th anniversary, one might question if what is essentially a middle-aged institution can really continue to claim to be a beacon of youth?
Today, Afflecks – which was founded by husband and wife James and Elaine Walsh – is owned by a multi-million-pound property company, Bruntwood. It has become so much a part of Manchester’s mainstream fabric that the local council describes it as both a tourist attraction and economic driver. Where it once sat in a neighbourhood best known for petty crime, sex shops and failing streetlights, four decades of gentrification – bars! Restaurants! Shoebox-sized apartments! – have transformed the surrounding streets into one of the country’s most eulogised districts: the Northern Quarter.
In such a context, some may wonder if this pioneering emporium really remains, as the artist Mark Kennedy once said, a home for “individuals, mavericks, freaks [and] people who didn’t fit in”. As it enters its fifth decade, is Afflecks still at the heart of Manchester’s alternative culture?
These are all questions that Freya McGreevy has pondered. At 25, she is five years younger than GRIN, the store she manages.
“I think the idea that it’s lost some of its edge [because of its age] is just completely misinformed,” she says. “Walk around the place and it’s very obviously a safe space for people looking for something different. If you’re drawn to more alternative fashion and music in Manchester, I think Afflecks is the place you come to be around like-minded people.”
It seems clear that businesses here move with the times, too. Those that have been here longer – such as Zeffa, which opened on day one – are said to provide stability. But there is also a constant procession of new, fresh outlets – such as Hempology, Egoiste Gallery and Crystal Henge – opened by young entrepreneurs attracted by the cheap rents and the fact that only a fortnight’s notice is required for terminating the contract.
“You get people doing brilliant, creative, original things which – if they had to pay normal city centre rates – they’d never have a chance to get off the ground,” says Ian Welham, owner of the Gay Pride Shop here. “Afflecks gives you the room, financially, to experiment and be dynamic, while also offering a constant footfall. That’s when the magic happens.”
Certainly, the shoppers packing the place on a random November weekend appear to feel this is a destination still very much pioneering. Twenty-two-year-old graduate Chloe Keys only moved to Manchester six months ago but is already a regular who’s bought biker jackets, cargo pants and vintage sports tops here. “And plants!” she says. “I never knew how much I loved plants until I discovered Urban Greenbank. Now my flat is pretty much covered in cacti.”
In an era of climate change, she adds, it ticks another key box for Gen Z: the vintage, thrift and second-hand stores here offer a definitive alternative to fast-fashion. In a cost-of-living crisis, meanwhile, the fact that prices remain notably friendly to young bank accounts also helps.
For Rose George, from Stockport, the entire place feels packed with possibility. She’s 15 today and here with mum Helen, who, as a teenager, was herself a regular.
“She had dyed red hair, fishnets, strappy dresses,” says Rose. “I’ve seen the pictures – she was pretty cool.”
Mum considers this a moment and decides to let the ‘was’ slide. “I actually got that red dye upstairs here,” the 44-year-old says, instead.
Is it not a bit of a drag, though, to be shopping in the same place your mother did? Apparently not. “You can feel the history and the stories,” says Rose. “That’s pretty inspirational when you’re figuring your own style out.”
The affection for Afflecks spreads far beyond those who shop and run stalls there, too. The cool creatives of Manchester remain enamoured by it. Actor Adam Ali, 23, came regularly as a teenager to the upstairs Creative Space – a safe place for those wanting to meet and work with like-minded souls – and still shops here today. “So many good things have started in Afflecks,” he says. “Art, music, relationships, friendships, all that good stuff.”
But not everyone is convinced it is quite so central to Manchester’s youth and counterculture.
“I think it’s a cool place for younger teenagers looking for an accepting place to explore who they are and what they like,” says Manchester-based photographer Sara Carpentieri, 26. “But this thing you hear that it’s the heart of Manchester’s alternative scene – I just don’t recognise that. It’s fine for shopping sometimes – or a haircut – but for me, there are far more exciting places in the city where people are coming together to communicate and create.”
The fact that Afflecks was taken over in the late 00s by Bruntwood – that multi-million pound property company – probably doesn’t help its kudos. Although the Manchester-based firm has been as good as its promise to maintain the spirit of Afflecks, there is still a sense among some that it’s been compromised somehow.
And yet, and yet.
Teenagers and twenty-somethings do continue to pour in here. Some 1.5 million people visit every year. A significant proportion of those – like me all those years ago; like Rose George just this week – will be at the start of a journey to discover themselves. Long may it continue.