When you’re out shopping in town, do you ever stop to think how long some of Manchester’s best-loved retailers have been around?
Two of Manchester’s oldest independent shops – Forsyth and Fred Aldous, established in 1857 and 1886 respectively – are still going strong, having served generations of Mancunians over the decades.
Forsyths music shop on Deansgate, Manchester’s oldest independent retailer, is celebrating its 160th Christmas this month. The 15,000 square foot musical department store has been a city institution since it was founded by the Forsyth Brothers to support the newly established Hallé orchestra, and it has long been one of the country’s leading specialists in pianos, acoustic guitars and sheet music.
The Forsyth brothers settled in Manchester in 1857 to help Charles Hallé set up the Hallé orchestra, having learned their trade with their father – the factory manager for Messrs Broadwood in Golden Square, described by Beethoven as the ‘prince of piano makers’. After initially specialising only in pianos, the shop soon diversified into supplying other instruments and sheet music.
An article in the London Music Courier from 1905 describes the store as ‘one of the institutions of Manchester,’ adding that ‘if the denizens of the much-vaunted suburbs or the artisans of the less favoured districts want a piano, a piano-player, a violin, or the latest music, they immediately plan a visit to this comprehensive emporium.’
Notable customers in more recent years have included Gary Barlow, Billy Bragg, Manic Street Preachers, Gary Neville, Jimmy Page, Johnny Marr, Mani and John Squire from the Stone Roses, Victoria Wood, David Beckham, and Noddy Holder amongst many others.
“Eric Cantona began his nine-month suspension from football with the purchase of a trumpet from Forsyth, following his infamous kung-fu kick on a fan at Crystal Palace,” reveals shop manager Michael Welton. “We think he’d been advised to take up a hobby!”
Still a family business, the store is now run by fifth generation brother and sister team Emma and Simon Loat. Though Forsyth has moved with the times and has a growing online store – essential in an ever-changing cultural and economic climate – it remains firmly rooted in the local music community.
“This is especially apparent at this time of year,” says Emma. “We often get families making a special outing to our shop at Christmas, and it is lovely to see parents and grandparents engaging with and encouraging their children’s music-making.”
The shop’s most expensive ever piano is currently in their window – a £142,000 Schimmel self-playing glass grand. “This one is destined to return to the Trafford Centre after refurbishment, and we’ve sold several others to super-yacht and mansion owners,” says Michael.
Forsyth continues to attract attention 160 years after its launch, most recently thanks to a mystery pianist – later identified as 30-year-old Christopher Scamp – playing a piano set out by management outside the shop for anyone to play.
A passer-by recorded a segment of the dazzling performance, which included Faithless’ Insomnia, Alice DJ’s Better Off Alone, Cascada’s Every Time We Touch, Dr. Dre’s Still D.R.E., Indila’s Dernière Danse, and Tupac Shakur’s Changes. The video, which quickly went viral with over six million views, shows just a small part of what is said to have been a two-hour set.
Forsyth is not the only store to boast an illustrious history. Fred Aldous, the arts and crafts store on Lever Street, has been going since 1886. Over the decades they have had to contend with fires, a flood, a demolition ball, scam artists, two world wars, and the invention of television.
Fred Aldous had been working in a cotton mill – like many people at the time – when he noticed that the cotton was being pushed around in baskets. It gave him the idea for a business. He would start importing the cane for the baskets from abroad.
Fred Aldous Ltd was born out of that idea, and Fred set up a home for the business on Elbow Street, now known as Edgehill Street.
When his son, also named Fred, spotted that the city’s cotton industry was declining thanks to the First World War, he made the decision to ramp up the handicrafts side of the business, which the store is still renowned for today.
The business entered a period of prosperity, and by 1955 they were selling supplies to craft makers all over the world, via mail order, from their new premises in Withy Grove. The company moved into their current premises in 1966, and in 2010, after thirty years in a basement, they extended the shop floor space up to ground level and launched studios.
Having started off with just three products (cane, willow and yeast) selling to the cotton traders and master brewers of Manchester, Fred Aldous now have two stores (in Manchester and Leeds, which opened in 2015), stock more than 25,000 products, and still sell to customers all over the world. Famous clients include Peter Kay, Helena Bonham Carter, and Bez from the Happy Mondays.
Customers don’t just visit the store for art products. For those who miss the old-school analogue photobooths which used to grace so many shops and department stores, the original booths at Fred Aldous include a Photo-Me Model 17 black and white booth from 1968, which was manufactured in the UK but spent most of its life in a Woolworth’s store in Canada, and a Photo-Me Model 17C colour booth (circa 1986) thought to be the only public colour analogue photo booth in Western Europe.
Five generations of the Aldous family have run the business over the decades, and it is still a family-run enterprise over 130 years later, demonstrating a longevity which many small businesses today can only dream of.