The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Manchester's Off Licences

From the proliferation of large chains and supermarkets taking over our local shops, to a post-COVID landscape that's finally put the ‘offie’ back on the map as a place to champion independents...

By Emma Davidson | July 5th '22

It’s 4pm on a Thursday in 2009. I’ve just dashed off the school bus and straight into the local Off Licence, armed with my school dinner fiver that I’m about to waste on a Brainlicker and a packet of Hubba Bubba. 

Much to my Mum’s despair, it wasn’t the school canteen’s fish and chips that provided my daily nutrition, it was our local Londis that slowly became the place to be for 13 year-old anarchists with an excruciating sweet tooth.

Like many, the British Off Licence has been a core part of my life. From a tuck shop paradise in the early 00s to a place to purchase bottles of Buckfast and MD2020 before an evening out on the local field, it’s affiliated with British culture in ways unknown to those with a childhood that resided elsewhere.13-year-old

The Rise of the British Offie

The Off Licence has existed for years, but we can begin tracing it back to the 1860s when the Refreshment Houses Act was passed through parliament. The act essentially reinvented the alcohol retail market, and within a few years, companies such as Victoria Wine and Gilbey’s were leading the way in the development of high-street outlets that provided a huge selection of wine and beer.

These shops were essential for late 1800s Britain, as individuals were more likely to tank a few bottles in the comfort of their own home over going out to pubs. And it wasn’t as if there was a local supermarket you could pop to either, as the traditional store as we know it today didn’t open in the UK until 1948.

But the power was still in the offies hands, as stricter licensing laws made it more difficult for supermarkets to build their businesses around the sale of alcohol. Off Licences had the power to stay open at night and could also open throughout the day on a Sunday, when other larger supermarkets were to remain closed.

Racism and the Off Licence

During the height of the off-licence trade in the 50s, many businesses were taken over by immigrants arriving to the UK in search of permanent work. Post-war Britain saw an influx of manual labour jobs on offer, with the retail industry also becoming an extremely accessible career path for immigrant families looking for better ways of living.

This didn’t come without difficulties, though, as post-war Britain was also rife with racism, meaning that these shops would become easy targets for right-wing thugs and uneducated customers with a possessively patriotic nature. 

The Death of the Offie

One local Manchester off-licence that recently bid its final farewell after 40 years in business was the target of racist attacks, alongside protection racketeers, robbers and arson in its stint on one of Salford’s most iconic streets. 

Shalimar Off Licence on Salford’s Chapel Street became a go to, welcoming institution for locals, but, despite this, was unable to avoid the city’s property boom that had spilled out into the area, and shut its doors in 2021 due to the ‘unstoppable force of regeneration’. 

Before this, many other larger chain Off Licence stores slowly started shutting up shop due to supermarkets killing off the high street and community staples, but also because of their in-your-face dodgy nature.

An example of this is the iconic Fallowfield Off Licence, Gaff’s that became the pride and joy of the famous student suburb. The store, which once sat on Wilmslow Road, sold everything from sought after Warehouse Project tickets, to bongs, pre 2010 legal mephedrone, pirated DVDs and fake jewellery, making it as useful to a student as a trip to a wealthy granny and grandpa’s house. 

The store was finally forced shut after having its alcohol licence revoked, rendering it entirely unuseful to a bunch of sleep deprived Fallowfield freshers, and became a vegan cafe for a short while, proving that the space still had a mild grip on its clientele. 

But, aside from the quite frankly worrying nature of some of these stores, the birth of the smaller pop-up versions of the supermarket forerunners, including Sainsbury’s Local, Tesco Express and the abundance of Co-op stores found in most new builds across the city, meant that need for the local offie became less and less.

A staple of Northern Quarter, Oldham Street’s Mini Market is a store that’s witnessed its fare share of ups and downs across its years of operation, but the owners expressed how essential the store still is to the local community. “It’s way more personal here,” began Joan McGuire, current owner of the shop.

“We have regulars and sometimes we might be the only people they’ll see or interact with that day, that’s what sets us apart from the bigger chains. There’s a real sense of community here, a lot of the people who pop in call me Mum and feel totally comfortable confiding in me.

“There’s been people who have walked in after being beaten up on the street and they’ll come in just for a bit of a break from it all. We don’t segregate anyone in here, everyone is welcome.”

The Mini Market originally started off as a 50p shop, which Joan opened when she returned back to the UK from teaching in Dubai. Since then, the store has continued to shift with the changing face of Northern Quarter, but still cites itself as a pillar of the local community. 

“We’re a family run business that puts our shoppers first, it’s simple really, but it’s what we’ve always done and I think that’s why we’ve lasted so long. You don’t really get this level of trust and friendship anywhere else.”

The Rise of Manchester’s Independent Stores

Back in 2014, Mital Morar, the now owner of General Stores, set up Superstore in Northern Quarter. Someone who has their finger firmly on the pulse of the city’s ever changing retail landscape, Mital grew up working alongside his Dad in his East Manchester corner shop, and set up Superstore as a direct response to the decline of the local offie. 

The concept combined a grocery store and kitchen into one, serving everything from milk and bread to signature cocktails and Asian street food from local small businesses. There was also a free cash machine, which delighted the hazy minds of many in the early hours of the morning, alongside a mobile top up and bill payment service, too – just like you’d find in your local community off-licence. 

But the concept failed to fully take off, with Mital then turning his attention to Manchester’s hippest off-licence concept so far, General Stores.

Let me take you back to 2017, and the opening of Manchester’s General Stores. Unlike your ordinary Off Licence, General Stores first popped up in Manchester’s trendiest district, Ancoats – bringing with it independent beer, vegan tinned essentials and local artwork.

Since the beginning, the store has emulated everything great about the local offie. It’s all about community, mirroring the changing face of the city with its support for local collaboration and destinations that now reside in Media City, Salford, Moss Side, Deansgate and Castlefield, too. 

You’ll get everything from a tin of beans to a can of hard Seltzer from one of Manchester’s up and coming breweries in the General Store. The Ancoats shop also currently hosts sandwich legends Mira, who provide breakfast buns, cuzzetiello sandwiches and montara pizza from an intimate corner of the space.

With a degree in Graphic Design, and a prior introduction to the industry through his Dad and his Superstore venture, Mital has now elevated his retail experience to produce the modern day offie, which champions an independent, local supply chain of family run businesses, never forgetting the true ethos of the Off Licence.

And it’s not just General Stores that has started to champion this new wave foodie scene. Spaces such as Bernie’s Grocery Store, Butcher’s Quarter and Monton’s Wandering Palate have all put their own spin on the local off-licence, garnering huge support from the community, with the addition of workshops, supper clubs and local produce all surely contributing to their success. Even spaces including Ad Hoc, KERB and Flawd in the heart of the city centre are becoming the modern-day wine merchants, with an involvement in the community like never before.

Bernie’s recently announced the closure of one of its two stores, after struggling to cope with the rising costs and uncertain future of running a business post COVID. However, after speaking with owner, Will he told me how important it is for Bernie’s Altrincham store to still be a place to champion independents, support local and provide a friendly face for customers that may just need someone to chat to.

“We still go for drinks with some of the regulars that popped into Bernie’s when the shop first opened its doors!” said Will. 

“We opened at the start of lockdown and people were really lonely back then, they were so grateful that we became part of the community. They’d thank us on a regular basis for what we’re doing and still do. 

“I grew up in Bolton in a very working class community and my family were very close to the owners of our local corner shop, but it was a smaller world back then and you couldn’t do things like jump on a flight to Spain for £20, it was just very different. But I think what Bernie’s has embodied and given back to the local area, just somewhere to stop off for a chat and some food that really brings the local community together and emulates the ethos of the off licenses of the past.”

What’s apparent is that, as the need for the traditional Off Licence depletes, people still want a space to buy and support local. The introduction of this new wave of stores has given communities a friendly and familiar platform to stop by for a couple of toiletries and a tin of spaghetti hoops, but also a comforting place to socialise amongst other like-minded individuals with a passion for collaboration and a desire for the odd nostalgic Chupa Chup and bottle of Glens.

Another store that’s worthy of a mention here is Ardwick’s community Caribbean kitchen, ARMR Store. Since opening in March 2019, ARMR has provided a long list of community initiatives and support in what is one of Manchester’s most deprived neighbourhoods. This is all alongside its 100% plant-based Caribbean kitchen and store that sells a range of health products from locally sourced independents. 

COVID and Supporting Local

This isn’t forgetting about all of the local Off Licence stores that still exist, though, as Greater Manchester is home to an abundance of family businesses each with its own story to tell. 

From Canal Street’s underground Village Off-Licence, to the Tib Street Offie, to the excellent Lakeland Grocers under Deansgate Train Station, there isn’t a better time to support local, with many of these stores surviving solely on the custom of their surrounding community. 

Since the pandemic and the subsequent local lockdowns, there has also been a visible shift in people’s buying habits. The rise of the independents across the suburbs has meant that many are more likely to champion local, instead of instantly dashing to the big chain supermarkets. 

This may have stemmed from the new culture of working from home and the desire of many to ditch their once corporate career for a bucket list lockdown venture. That and the fact that there just isn’t the same amount of people working in the city centre anymore, meaning more diversions to our charming independent that have set up camp in the suburbs.

“Manchester city centre is overrun with big chains now,” furthered Will, “and it’s unaffordable for smaller businesses to move there anymore and the ones that are already there are struggling to pay their rent. You only need to look at places like Stockport and the incredible amount of brand-new businesses popping up there to see that people are much more inclined to stay within their local community now and support each other.”

So, next time you’re thinking of popping to Sainsbury’s for some loo roll, divert your mind to the local offie, as these businesses deserve to survive after enduring years of hardship in the face of a constantly changing retail landscape.