23/07/2014

Supporting Aberystwyth's local cafes


The announcement that Starbucks will be opening a cafe in Aberystwyth in September has sparked a Facebook and poster campaign against the international chain coming to town. At the time of writing, a petition in opposition has achieved  694 signatures.

Before I pitch my tent firmly on the side of keeping Aberystwyth distinctive and avoiding another small step towards becoming a clone town, just a couple of caveats. Firstly, their tax affairs notwithstanding, I don’t hate everything about Starbucks. A while ago I was staying for a few days in a part of America where the burger/pizza food choices were so abysmal that, in that context, it quickly became apparent that chains like Starbucks and Subway were actually the good guys, selling the only slightly healthy food around and with at least a surface attempt at some kind of ethical policy. Starbucks reps have already started phoning local councillors here asking for ideas about how they can 'contribute to the community' - a business strategy of course, but a better one than most chains seem to muster.

I also feel a little uncomfortable about the class and educational divide I notice in talking to people about the issue. Those from the less well-off areas of town seem delighted by the prospect of Starbucks, whilst opposition seems to come fairly exclusively from the better educated sectors of the population. There's no judgement implied in saying that and, of course, it's a classic dilemma for socialists like me. In trying to resolve it, we should remember that Aberystwyth is a big enough place to contain many different communities and we should maybe recognise the need to cater for more than one of them. 

Having said all those tolerant things, in the context of Aberystwyth we certainly don’t need a Starbucks and I won’t be one of their customers. We're blessed here with a plethora of absolutely superb independent cafes, to an extent that has been commented on in the London press, and which are full to overflowing at peak times of the day. 

When I started to think about listing them in this piece, I realised there are just way too many. My current favourites are Agnelli's, Bach and Ultracomida. Others definitely worth a shout include MG’sBaravin, The Treehouse, Y Siop Leol, The Olive Branch, Nick's... I could go on but there are over 25 locally-owned cafes in the town, not even including the more formal restaurants, with a character and variety that many much larger towns must envy.

The campaign against Starbucks will hopefully help to raise awareness and to solidify the stance of those who, like myself, weren’t planning to use it anyway. But If Aberystwyth’s small shops need a campaign of any kind then it’s surely a more positive one. 

Traders in Lampeter, a town in a much more dire financial position, recently got together to launch a loyalty card scheme to positively encourage people to spend their money in local independent shops.

Here in Aberystwyth, the Chamber of Commerce has, despite the best efforts of a few individuals, struggled for years to attract anything more than a smattering of participation from shop owners. The subdued response so far to the idea of creating a Business Improvement District reflects this. And yet, as Aberystwyth grows to a size where the large chains are increasingly casting their eyes over us, local traders need to be clever if they want to benefit from the increased footfall that the chains are likely to bring. 

Co-operation may not come naturally to business people who  are by nature individualistic, who already feel crushed by business rates and who tend to see each other as rivals, but there perhaps needs to be a greater recognition of the power - and money - they could generate by working with each other. 

Many people, like myself, instinctively use local businesses as a first preference, wherever we are. But there are many others, both local residents and visitors, who don’t think about the issues (like the independent shop owners that can be seen sipping cappuccinos in the window of Costa) and could have some of their shopping behaviour changed by a serious awareness campaign, maybe backed by  Lampeter-style incentives, citing all the thoroughly good economic and social reasons why it’s better to shop local. With work due to start on Marks & Spencer and Tesco in September, now is surely the time to do it.

I hope the local cafes that are fearful about Starbucks coming find in time that they didn’t need to be worrying and that the only place whose trade suffers will turn out to be Costa. But if we’re going to combat increasing interest from multi-national companies, then Aberystwyth’s still impressive array of local shops and cafes need to take a leaf out of Lampeter’s book and start organising together.

1 comment:

  1. Slightly out of context, but may help Aber travellers if you have to wait in Shrewsbury for a train, a small independent coffee shop has opened just up the road and on the other side from the station. Fast wifi, nice people running it, good cakes and a good vibe. Add in a couple of sofa's and it is far better than the station shop. Not sure when it opened, but I do help it stay around.

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