This piece comes from the view of a Birmingham local, an individual who has witnessed- and moved with- the commercial evolution of her city over the twenty-seven years of her life so far.
I can already feel the fever of internalised commentaries to this piece that will fiercely defend that I am ‘not allowed’ to hold or express the following points of view, as I am neither a business-owner, nor somebody who blindly and unquestioningly supports the purpose and practices of many of Birmingham’s newest independents. I use the word ‘new’ to denote the ventures that have sprung-up in the city within the last decade which, I feel, is a more than generous time-frame to use as a reference. My gripe, in particular, comes with a number of the businesses homed under the Independent Birmingham label and, the seemingly pro-independent venture itself- “seemingly”, as the majority of the brands supported by it cater to an exclusive, wealth-driven image of Birmingham that, in every way, rules out the independent businesses that have been thriving within the city for years, before a certain type of independent culture became fashionable and turned into something, allegedly, in need of a collective identity to define it. This unification of advertisement, inherently, is not what I am against, but rather, it is the insistent overlooking of businesses- often long-established, few-people or family-run- that is propelled as they may not fit into the image of Brum desired by those responsible for promoting it, including those like Independent Birmingham who vehemently defend that they are continually supporting the ‘underdogs’ of Birmingham’s commercial and cultural scenes.
In order to get a broad view of Independent Birmingham’s activity, you would have to follow its online movements pertaining to the businesses it promotes and supports, which I do, on various social platforms, as a Brummie and an enquiring mind. You have to admire its creator’s motivation for promoting certain facets of the city- a one-man operation founded in 2013 that remains a one-man operation at present- but there is a sense of self-inflated martyrdom that comes through which, I’m guessing, adds to the intended mystique of being a ‘lone champion’ of those like-minded and, supposedly, undermined. My observations of Independent Birmingham, from its inception to now, are that it appears increasingly focused upon denouncing ‘large, corporate entities’- predominantly coffee houses- within the city (your Starbucks, Costas etc), but exhibits a determined and agonising failure to view corporate seeds within many of the businesses it supports- or unwillingness to concede to its flagrant hypocrisy. We come to the word ‘gentrification’ and how it is used to separate Birmingham’s accepted on-trend-elite from the theatrical image of stuffy, sullen, old(er), suited figures, rich, but morose bastards sitting in board rooms playing their game of property monopoly in a bid to culture-wash the entire city in favour of luxury apartments and pub/restaurant/bar/retail chains, stripping our streets of soul, creativity and individuality and stifling the breath of independents, but you really are living far up your bespoke barber-groomed arsehole if you believe that this mindset cannot also exist, for example, within those enrobed in chequered shirts and tattoo sleeves, just because everything concerning their demeanour traditionally screams ‘ALTERNATIVE’ and ‘ANTI-CAPITAL’. It takes much more than an outfit and a surface-sign to truly be a non-conformist: the majority of the time, I find this outward expression to be very tribal and separating, pertaining to people who think they are different because they don’t dress like the conventional impressions of lawyers or bank managers, but carry superior and discriminating points of view towards others and, are just members of an alternative herd.
I have read numerous articles in recent years from Birmingham-based publications (independent, of course) lamenting how the city has become gentrified, however, when affluence and wealth are brought into an area by those who look like friends of these people, embodiments of an image that they support or a group with which they would like to be affiliated, then their ambitions are justified and substantiated from a personally-vested point of view, but they maintain that they are still the ‘underdogs’ as it helps their image- and business- to be seen that way. The truth of the matter, though, is that promoting anything where a bottom-line exists (businesses are there to turn a profit) means that you do recognise the need to monetise, so you cannot be selective and have a go at others for doing the same thing because their business model is not based on alleged artisanal product as their USP, and/or because the financial reach of an established company may currently exceed that of a starting endeavour, especially if you are supporting the perception of an image over a tangible and practiced ethos, which seems, in numerable circumstances, to be the case. The majority of businesses publicized through Independent Birmigham are aimed towards a demographic of fashionable young people whose inclinations are largely creative, but who are professionals with disposable income that are seen as a bridge between the artistic and conventional corporate worlds- or anyone with enough capital to frequent them. They are not inclusive or universally accessible, which is one of the integral reasons I am so averse to the Independent Birmingham banner, as it is, in no way, representative of the diversity that the city has to offer, but reinforcing of a marginal and, dare I say, sheltered mentality that is glossy enough to rival any UK city in a brochure- what you want to present of Birmingham- but that is not all of Birmingham to me.
A number of Brum-based independents are part of a chain that has extended its reach beyond the city, another opening branches around the city centre with impatient and insatiable momentum, yet these aren’t viewed in the same way as other corporate ventures- so, where do you draw the line? When does an independent cease to be an independent- do you continue to make allowances for your friends and associates? Is it okay to extort people under the guise of an independent business, to dupe or bully them into believing that paying more equates to both quality AND quantity- in spite of what they may discern- because customers may get the odd face-to-face with the people whose bank accounts they are paying into? Is it right to use the label of a comparably small business as a means of emotional blackmail for customers, to incite feelings of guilt in people who have chosen to go to a larger, more established place for their clothes/food/drink, when it is the conduct and attitude of your staff that has driven them away? And you must be dreaming if you think that independents aren’t in competition with other independents, especially when many of them serve the exact same products and promote a ‘distinctive’ experience that bears a remarkable resemblance to the other business down the road, and numerous others across the city. There comes a time when you should put into perspective what you do. I love living in a city that has as much to offer in pubs, bars, shops and restaurants as Birmingham does, independent and otherwise, but it is not these things alone that make the experience of living here so unique to me. In essence, all of these things are replaceable and, as I and many other longtime locals have seen, they are subject to change and we have learned to move with them- by and large and, for better or for worse, people adapt and that is the true measure of a dynamic environment, in any city or town.
It is not a shame to me when a hipster coffee shop closes down as the city is littered with too many that follow the same ‘fashionable anti-convention’ blueprint- promising much, but offering the same and/or very little, many decorated with the same exposed brickwork and pipework, unfinished woodwork and distressed, but reclaimed industrial-chic it took but a few months for me to grow bored of after I started seeing it everywhere- likewise with burger bars, barber shops that give everyone the same damn haircut and facial-fur trim and ‘vintage’ shops that profit unfairly from minor alterations made to largely shitty second-hand clothes, all of which make a decent amount of money from the image that they ascribe to and sell. You do think about the people behind the ventures, however, just as I don’t visit food or retail chains just because they are chains, I don’t and wouldn’t choose to support independents just because they are so if the products, price, décor, atmosphere and attitude of the staff aren’t something that I support. My husband and I had our first date in Druckers in the Bullring- should I hate it because it is part of a chain? Should we all sack-off our memories and enjoyment if they don’t occur in singular, but popular, independent establishments? There are various reasons why people choose to offer or withdraw their support of a business, you cannot be petulent and generalise about why they agree or, particularly, disagree with you. I am jaded by the overabundance of style over substance- what is increasingly lacking for me in this city is modesty, integrity, authenticity, honesty and quality and, overall, the unwavering support and promotion of all these things.
Independent Birmingham is not a social enterprise. The individual behind it repeatedly puts himself across like he is doing people a favour by choosing to do what he does and, that his venture is a necessary and innovative addition to the city (cries of ‘we are a small operation, I’m not able to be everywhere at once/respond to critiques of my conduct or of businesses I support’), which is true to a certain extent, but his work is only selectively beneficial: it comes over part ego-trip, part back-slapping, sycophantic opportunism which, I’m sure, gets plenty of recompense for promotion from a number of the businesses involved. I have seen too many expressions of grief in solidarity with independents that have gone out of business due to lack of support and custom, city-wide rent issues and, here comes that word again, being an ‘underdog’ in a world of corporate giants- but the proprieters are never to blame. Could it be naïveté and overambition that caused these businesses to go under, pretension over transparency and a lack of positive and nurturing interactions with customers and communities that were also their downfall? Of course not! Fashionable independents are never accountable for their actions or party to any responsibility for decisions they’ve made!! In my experience, the person behind Independent Birmingham seems disproportionately enraged at empty buildings being used for the gain and greed of large chains, rather than for independents with similar motivations (without consistently linking the discussion to property owners, who can come from both sides, or anyone within the chain that culminates in an establishment, rather than having a go at an establishment or company as a solitary entity), whereas my concern is more the volume of premises in the city being left in a state of disrepair and used by nobody at all, much less for commercial gain… but that is not a part of the IB agenda. In all its aggrandisement of independent businesses, I have never heard a breath of anything about the scores of independent market traders that have, for decades, been a part of the Bullring, which, many would agree, form a more fundamental and foundational part of our city’s commercial and historical identity and cultural heritage than some en vogue, boutique coffee shops or exclusive eateries ever will- this example is a drop in the ocean of independents left out of the bubble. What of the businesses that exist outside of the city centre’s limits- the veritable definition of ‘off the beaten track’- and in less popular and less cosmopolitan areas? What about the racial diversity that is such an ingrained part of Birmingham’s identity, that has, over generations, inspired such a vibrant and eclectic cultural scene and culinary heritage? Unsurprisingly, there is no mention or sustained overground promotion of these features at all. Birmingham did not earn its badge as ‘the city of a thousand trades’ by marginalising or homogenising its output: in order for the city to thrive uniquely and sustainably, it needs to diversify by drawing from what is already there and provide a balanced view of what is available, both from chains and smaller, independent vendors, not become an easily replicable blueprint for cities riding and relying on the trends of other cities from either side of the commercial or cultural spectrum. Every business exists to serve people and is defined by the individuals at its core- if your conduct is appalling, it makes no difference whether you are part of a chain or an independent: at some point, your behaviour will catch up with you and be your downfall. I think this subject merits serious discussion- I know I am not the only person willing to open up the conversation.