Bristol can be wilfully independent. Gloucester Road, for example, has the largest concentration of non-chain coffee shops, bars and cafes outside London and is claimed to be the longest independent high street in the UK. Bedminster’s North Street is equally proud of its indie credentials with its butchers, bakers and health food emporiums.
Venues such as The Fleece, Louisiana and Thekla have been single-minded in their uniqueness for years, while organisations like Howling Owl, Electric Harmony and others help showcase our strong, non-corporate music scene. Niche book-sellers Redcliffe Press, radical Tangent Books and the whistle-blowing Bristolian all wave the flag for indie media, whilst stalwart culture champion Venue is still missed.
If you’re a bit of a free-thinker or don’t like being told what to do, starting an independent business might be the way to go — no corporate identity; no HR department to complain if you’re off message and no decisions made by a head office miles away from where you are. Indies are often set up by a lone maverick or a group of friends with some expertise and a great idea (sometimes not even the expertise — they learn on the job, using trial and error). They often offer a local solution to a local problem, or are reacting to the vibe; the zeitgeist of what’s going on here and now, observing and adapting to trends. In the beginning they’ll be supported by friends and peers while word of mouth spreads. If they’re doing it right, they might just survive, even thrive.
The Spark, a Bristol-based magazine set up in 1993, celebrated twenty-one years of independence earlier this year. Founder John Dawson was reacting to a very personal situation: in his last year at university his mother committed suicide following years of depression and prescribed tranquillisers. John wanted people to know there were alternatives to mainstream medicine, that there were other, complementary ways to get well, and better ways to treat the environment too. The Spark became a distinctive, quirky, A3-sized mag, full of positive ways to change the self, the local area, and the planet.
You might say The Spark was a success — first produced on John’s kitchen table in Montpelier — at its peak it printed 34,000 copies per quarter and had a readership of more than 100,000. Free to its readers, the magazine paid for itself by selling advertising — but The Spark’s ethical stance meant no advertorial (articles paid for or written by the advertisers) so readers knew that what they read was honest and unbiased, and no ads from companies known for bad investments or dodgy practices. These high principles made things challenging, but the independence and commitment to integrity and editorial freedom were worth the hard work.
But things change; sometimes the time and the place just aren’t right any more. The Spark soldiered on through the worst of the recession but after years of advertisers tightening their belts eventually the deficit was impossible to ride. In July this year, the liquidators arrived. The Spark was no more.
In many ways John’s aims were achieved. A wacky idea back in the 90s, organic is now an everyday concept. Green issues and global warming were niche concerns, now the science for climate change is overwhelming, with the case for renewables proven; and John made his point with over-prescription of tranquilisers and antibiotics is frowned upon. Seeking help in times of difficulty is normal and the importance of nurturing oneself and one’s relationships is recognised.
For two decades The Spark worked to inspire change. Careers and communities were grown, knowledge and resources shared, new indie businesses set up. And people having a hard time found ways to feel and do better. But readers and the team were genuinely upset and felt the end had come too soon; there are still campaigns to highlight, issues to raise, a planet to save.
The moral of the story? If you love your local independent business ‘like’ it, tweet about it, support it, spread the word; it’ll be very much appreciated. But ultimately businesses need cash flow. If you are proud to be part of Bristol and love its odd-bods, mavericks and free-thinkers (hell, maybe you’re one of them), put your hand in your pocket and spend a quid or two.
Beccy Golding was writer and production manager at The Spark for eleven years.