Okay so this is a bit of a weird and mysterious one now and something that anyone who has lived in Manchester for a while will be a little perplexed about - it's the Withy Grove Stores round the back of The Printworks.
I’m sure most people have been down that end, either heading to the cinema to watch Shrek 3 or scooting round to Walkabout on a Wednesday night to get sloshed on cheap vodka and dance to the Vengaboys.
The shop itself is one of those oddities that make living in any city a rather interesting experience. It’s basically a safe shop that time forgot, one that is seemingly never open, has no customers and hasn’t had a lick of paint in about 50 years.
As someone who has been frequenting the city centre for around 20 years, I have so many questions regarding this place that I thought it best to do some investigating to try and uncover what is going on.
Is the shop even still in business? Who owns it? Why hasn’t it been bought and turned into a kebab shop like everywhere else near there? Is it being used as a front for the mafia? So. Many. Questions.
So to begin with during this investigation (and it is an investigation) I thought it a good idea to try and look into the history of the building (and the company) to try to shed some light on the whole affair and perhaps work out what the hell is going on.
For the record though – I actually really like the building and so I don’t want anything to happen to it – I think the huge letters on the side are brilliant and the building itself manages to uphold a certain character that most of the newer surrounding ones could never have.
So the history. A bit of digging has uncovered a similar safe and office interior company called Withy Grove Office Interiors who explain that the company began on Withy Grove in Manchester all the way back in 1850. They then later got offices in Leeds which is where the company operates nowadays.
The story goes that around the end of the 18th Century, 1799 in fact, a safe company was set up by a one John R Solomon (remember this name) – the Richmond Safe Co, who supplied iron branded and iron clad strongboxes for ships and general maritime clobber. Most likely gold doubloons, rum, hooks and elaborately carved wooden legs.
The Richmond Safe Company continued to operate until around 1840 when they located to offices on Withy Grove and renamed the company the Withy Grove Stores. From here the company expanded to have 3 sites in the North West – Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
For over 130 years the shop on Withy Grove continues to flog safes and furniture, while everything else around it either went into disrepair or disappeared altogether. The huge Withy Grove Printing House round the back continued to churn out the Mirror, before closing down in 1985, while the Arndale centre replaced a variety of shops (including the original Fred Aldous) on the opposite side of the road.
Around the 1980’s each site was still run by a member of the Solomon family, but it seems that they all fell out over something and so each site was broken up and given to a brother to look after. The Leeds site was sold off by Casper Solomon to private owners but it seems that the Manchester site is still very much owned by a Solomon to this day.
A quick check on Companies House lets you know that the Directors of the company are Brian Solomon and Anthony Solomon – both still owning and running the Withy Grove Stores on Withy Grove.
Their accounts from 2016 don’t look too healthy but that didn’t come as too much of a surprise to me considering I’ve never once seen the place open or even a customer trying the door to see if they can nip in for a quick Yale Value 8.5Ltr Electronic Budget Safe.
But if the company is still operating, why have so many people never seen it open and why does it look like nobody has touched it in about 40 years? Surprisingly they have a website, which says to give them a ring for opening hours – so I did just that.
The phone was answered by a lovely woman, and we were told that the shop is indeed open and she proceeded to bang out some rather erratic opening times for the week ahead. I mean, I don’t really want or need a safe because I’m neither a pirate or a drug dealer so I wasn’t really listening to the random times, but you can be assured – if you ARE a pirate or a drug dealer – Withy Groves Stores is for you.
It feels nice and satisfying to finally have a bit of information on the Withy Grove Stores – a very endearing and quaint part of the city that provides a lovely little window into the city’s past. I’ve heard thoughts that the place might be a bit dodgy and although the phone call was a little bit odd, there’s nothing to suggest anything untoward is going on.
As quite possibly Manchester’s oldest locally owned family businesses (around 219 years if my maths is correct) I think it’s somewhere we should champion and support.
At the end of the day, it would be a real shame to see it knocked down or turned into a brand-spanking new kebab shop for the pissed up punters stumbling out of The Lounge on a Friday.