Incredible hidden stories behind Manchester’s ‘weird and wonderful’ Empire Exchange
‘A lot of things happen in this shop that are just kind of cosmic and it’s a funny kind of place’
On the edge of Piccadilly as you turn into the Northern Quarter, there is a bizarre and strange shop that blasts vinyl records from decades long gone, with passers-by either looking and wondering or lured into its hidden cave below the Manchester pavements — it’s called Empire Exchange.
If you haven’t come across it already it’s based on Newton Street, and it’s got more weird and wonderful hidden treasures from the past than your grandparent’s attic — left as if time stood still. This secondhand collectables shop has been going for 35 years and is one of the last quirky collector’s items units left in Manchester city centre as the age of corporatism has a firm grip, slowly squeezing them out.
Its window displays are filled with mannequins wearing Thunderbirds, brass band outfits, Batman and Star Wars costumes, or ’70s Disco wigs paired with oversized sunglasses from the same era. It’s an overcrowded treasure trove, cluttered with years upon years of nostalgia, buried under long lost memories. Old scratchy records play at full pelt as they waft into the streets above and dare people to delve into its depths.
As you walk down the stairs, you take in vinyls strung along the walls decoratively and step beneath the likes of Batman, Darth Vader, and a lineup of ex-footballers looking down and watching you. Beneath the timber staircase, you can see a dragon’s head peering through the gaps as you finally enter its lair.
John Ireland, 70, owns this fascinating world that resides beneath Manchester. He lives in Whalley Range with his wife of 50 years. John was a builder when he was younger but enjoyed collecting things as a hobby, including stamps. He said: “I used to collect stamps, I was a stamp collector, but I was a builder by profession.
“I was accumulating a lot of books and stuff and I needed somewhere to move all my accumulated stock and then it all just sort of developed and we were very popular. At one time there used to be quite a lot of shops like us but they’ve all gone now. But we’re all getting on a bit.”
It was from his hobbies that Empire Exchange was born. He co-founded the shop with his friend Ian Stott who sadly passed away in 2021. John’s friend Paul also helped with the running of things, as they had a blast together throughout the years – though Paul has had to take time off for personal reasons.
John’s son Dave Ireland also helps run the family business. You might see him in the shop sometimes, when he’s not going to house clearances and loading stock in the warehouse based in Old Trafford, before it’s sent to the shop. Items come as donations from house clear outs and are passed on to new owners in small sales.
The shop has stood in its current location for around 23 years. Prior to that there were two, one located in Shudehill and one on Charles Street. About the unusual shop, Dave says: “A lot of things happen in this shop that are just kind of cosmic and it’s a funny kind of place.
“No matter where you place Empire Exchange, it seems to be on ley lines, it seems to have spiritual connotations. People love it for all different manner of reasons, and they all know it because we’ve been trading for over 40 years.”
After all those years trading in the centre, both John and Dave have some stories to tell. One that stands out relates to the late co-founder Ian who died after catching Covid during the height of the pandemic, aged 64. Katie, who used to work Saturdays at Empire Exchange, brought some of his ashes in a small urn into the shop to rest where he spent many of his years.
Dave didn’t realise Ian’s ashes were inside the pot, and when he was pricing up ornaments for display, he accidentally placed a ticket on this one too. One day, a customer came in and decided they liked the look of it and bought it – only to get home and discover what they thought was someone’s pet’s ashes in it. They brought it back to the shop, and John’s long lost pal remains on site. However, the urn now has a note stuck on, it clearly stating : ‘Ian’s ashes do not sell’.
Showing me Ian’s funeral booklet, put together by Katie and Paul, Dave said: “It just goes to show what a fantastic guy he was. Over a year on, people are shocked that we’ve lost Ian. I didn’t realise that Katie had his ashes separated and put into little wooden urns. She’d given one to the shop because that’s where he’s worked for over 30 years.
“One day when I was standing in for someone, a lady asked for trinket boxes and I gathered a few together and charged her £3 each for them. Luckily, about a week later she came back with the pot and she said ‘this has got a pet’s ashes in it’.
“And I’d realised what I’d done, I’d sold Ian’s ashes. Since then I’ve stuck a sticker on the urn and it says ‘do not sell’. I think he would have enjoyed that story as he had a good sense of humour, our Ian. He was sold in his own shop. Anyway, I won’t sell that again, hopefully.”
Dave talked about the time he had to gather old furniture from Carborundum Co grinding factory, over in Old Trafford, saying: “It was a 1950s office that hadn’t been touched for 70 years. In the ’50s they had an Art Deco revival. And we had to punch the door open to it.
“They had Deco wooden filing cabinets, candle sticks and paraffin lamps that you don’t see anymore. It’s like they just put everything down and closed the factory. When we broke into the room it was amazing, it was like a snapshot in time.
“There were signs on the wall that said ‘please do not spit’ because of the grinding dust used to hang in the air. I sold one of the enamel signs from the ’50s that said ‘please do not spit. Carborundum Co’, that was unusual.”
Another funny tale was when Dave and the gang thought they were collecting a few boiler suits from a clear out in Ancoats to sell in their shop. Dave reminisced: “It turned out one of them was an F1 race suit that used to belong to Roland Ratzenberger. It was white with a gold belt and had scribing across the middle.”
Ratzenberger was killed in a 200mph crash at the San Marino grand prix in 1994.
John fell into alcoholism in his 30s while he worked as a builder. He was in the habit of having a daily drink and found himself needing to carry a small bottle around with him. It was then he realised he was an alcoholic.
He said: “It started off with a regular drink everyday and then got to the point where I’d have to carry a small bottle of whiskey around with me in my top pocket. I used to run a site of around 30 lads. It couldn’t carry on.”
He’s been sober now for 37 years after he got help from Alcoholics Anonymous. Now he assists AA in answering the helpline to people struggling with alcohol issues, which he does on a weekly basis.
If you haven’t visited Empire Exchange yet, you need to go in and have a look as there aren’t many places like it left. There’s so many different interesting pieces of memorabilia and bric-a-brac within this cavelike place, and the staff are very friendly too.
Located at 1 Newton Street, M1 1HW, Empire Exchange is open 10am-6pm every day.
Ten words and phrases you’ll only understand if you’re from Manchester
If you’re a proper Mancunian, you should know some of these…
Have you ever said that you’re just nippin’ out for some scran? Or been fumin’ at someone? Maybe you need to get hold of ‘our kid’ to tell them that the footy was bobbins.
Check out these 10 words and phrases that you’ll only understand if you’re from Manchester and see how many of them you use, or just know.
Don’t forget to flatten your vowels and miss off your Gs!
Adjective meaning: Excellent/great/ very good
Example: “That film was well mint!”
Meaning: All done/Thanks
Example: “Yeah it’s sorted, that/Nice one mate, sorted.”
Adjective meaning: Disgusting
Example: “Your dinner looks well mingin’!”
Adjective meaning: hungover/ugly/disgusting
Example: “Mate, I drank so much beer I was angin’ the next day/When the lights came on, he was actually angin’.”
5) Mad fer it
Pronounced: Mad -fer -it
Meaning: When someone likes something a lot/when someone enjoys having a good time
Example: “He’s been out every night this week ’cause he’s mad fer it!”
Noun meaning: Food
Example: “Let’s go get some scran, I’m starving.”
Pronounced: Buzz -in’
Adjective meaning: Excited/ecstatic
Example: “I can’t wait to go to that gig, I’m buzzin’!/She’s absolutely buzzin’ with her new hair.”
8) Our kid
Example: “I went to the footy match with our kid.”
Adjective meaning: Mean/underhanded
Example: “Eee ‘r, give our kid a piece of your chocolate, don’t be snide.”
Example: “Don’t bother going to see that new show, it’s bobbins!”
Because there are just way too many proper Mancunian words and phrases to choose from, we’ve added some more here to add to your Manc vocabulary: ‘Proper’ — very/legit, ‘sound’ — good/okay, ‘cob on’ — in a bad mood/annoyed, town — the city centre, ‘mooch’ — a walk, ‘mission’ — a very long walk, ‘manky’ — dirty, and ‘leg it’ run.
Eccles town centre is an empty shell of its former self
In its hey day, you could sit inside Mario’s cafe for a decent plate of chippy chips and gravy with lashings of salt and vinegar
What comes next for Eccles town centre after Salford Council put in a bid for £20m Levelling Up Funds but got rejected?
These days, Eccles is a mere empty shell of its former self, rendered unrecognisable to anyone who hasn’t visited it in a long while. The once bustling, lively hangout for residents had plenty to offer, and local businesses thrived. It had cinemas, markets, quality retail shops (Clarks’ and Woolworths), cafes, butchers, grocers and a popular pub crawl partaken by many revellers.
In its hey day, you could sit inside Mario’s cafe for a decent plate of chippy chips and gravy with lashings of salt and vinegar, get some bargain cuts of fish on the market or skilfully knitted baby clothes, a quarter of pear drops at the indoor market, or even take the kids to Bare Necessities to spend their pocket money on a packet of bangers to throw at your feet and annoy you on the walk home.
The Star was the favoured haunt for United fans, and where families would meet on Christmas and swill down a few pints before their turkey dinner was served — but that’s long gone and has now been converted into more…flats.
A working class area famous for Eccles Cakes, it’s fair to say that Eccles has become a ghost town these days, but if you dig deep enough you may discover some remnants of its former glory.
The face of the town started to change when the old markets and bus depot were replaced with a new Morrison’s supermarket, carpark and modernised bus interchange — which opened after the turn of the century. Residents were sad to lose their market stalls but peoples’ shopping habits were changing and the nearby Trafford Centre was swallowing it up like a blackhole.
Locals and business owners also blame a lot of the district’s decline on rising rent costs for shop units within the precinct while it was owned by private company Columbia Threadneedle Properties. They say it was was left for disrepair, forcing traders out.
On Christmas Eve 2022, Salford Council announced that they had purchased Eccles Precinct off the private property firm for £4.15m with the intention to eventually regenerate it, and this was their Christmas present back to the community. The council also put in a bid for £20m of the government’s Levelling Up Funds, which it was hoping to use to help breathe new life back into the area. However, the bid was rejected.
Walking around the town I once knew so well, and searching for someone to talk to, I came across more pigeons than people — and too many closed shutters to count — on a sunny weekday in the early afternoon. When the old markets were taken down over two decades ago, stall holders were given a small space under shelter, in a quiet corner on the back end of the precinct.
Upon entering it, there were only a handful of places open for business – a scented candle stall, a knitting stall, a sewing and mending stall, and a cafe area – and even they were looking to close-up early due to the lack of footfall. The traders were friendly and still had a typical sense of humour about them — the kind you only come across up North — but you could tell that there was a sadness.
Wendy Vickers, 57, only took over her knitting unit recently because her mum had passed away suddenly. She believes the empty shopping centre is down to high rental prices, as she put it: “This unit here, my mum had for 20 years. This actual unit (she also had a set-up in the old markets before that).
“But she passed away quite suddenly, so I gave my job up and I’m here now. I used to walk through that precinct when my mum was working, and now I look at where all the shops were, there’s nothing.
“The reason there’s nothing open, is because of the rents they’re charging. People can’t afford the rents out there. Why would anybody come to Eccles when there’s nothing to even look at? Eccles used to be lovely. It’s not what it used to be.”
Her friend Yvonne Thompson, 57, who owns the scented candles and home fragrance stall agreed with Wendy. She said: “It’s like that because the council didn’t used to own the mall. It was owned by a private company and they didn’t want to do repairs or anything.”
The two women seemed unsure if they would have a future trading in the town and as I was departing, they added: “We seem to be a forgotten entity in here.”
Walking through the square, you can hear the distant drilling and construction sounds of high rise apartment blocks being built at the top of Church Street. It’s noisy but the area itself is dead, like an abandoned soap opera set. There’s a small wooden hut set up next to Wilko’s selling hot drinks.
A local lady also called Yvonne runs it, and she looks after her customers so well, with a very caring, nurturing and helpful disposition. Yvonne takes her customers out on field trips to Blackpool, and even holds weekly bingo days for them. I talk to her customers while she helps a man who has been made homeless, and speaks little English, to a local office for help.
Huddled around a table are four women who meet regularly to chat, joke and ‘put the world to rights’. They are: Pauline O’ Connor, Linda Keefe, Veronica Blore and Tina Hassan.
About the decline of their area and missing out on the Levelling Up Funding, Tina told me: “Look at the state of it. I am surprised [we didn’t get it], and I’m disgusted. If it wasn’t for Yvonne, we’d have nothing. There’s nothing.
“Monton looks a completely different town to us, and it’s not. It’s run by the same council, so why have favouritism? How can they let something go like this?”
Linda said: “It has gone downhill. We’ve lost everything.” Veronica added: “It’s been neglected for years. There’s no benches, no bins, no flowers, nothing.”
I told them Salford Council had bought the precinct with plans to regenerate it, with or without the funding. They didn’t seem convinced, and almost in unity they said: “Let’s see what happens. We hope they make a better job of it than what it is now!”
Responding to the funding rejection, Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett said: “We are very disappointed that this project, which would rejuvenate a high street in one of the most deprived areas of the country has failed to achieve any Levelling Up Funding.
“To my mind, this project was the perfect example of a Levelling Up project and I will be intrigued to see which other projects in which other areas of the country did receive funding instead.”
The mayor’s response comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was slammed late last year for boasting about removing money from ‘deprived urban areas’ and giving it to other wealthier towns across the UK.
BBC analysis of the Levelling Up funding found:
- 52% of successful bids that can be allocated to a party were in Conservative constituencies (the Conservatives won 56% of seats in the Commons in 2019)
- 24% of them were in Labour areas (Labour won 31% of the seats in 2019)
- Projects in Tory constituencies were awarded a total of £1.21bn, compared with £471m in Labour ones.
- There was one successful bid in a Lib Dem constituency, seven for the SNP, five for the DUP, three for Sinn Fein, and one each for the Alliance Party and Plaid Cymru.
Areas have also been competing for money under the government’s Towns Fund. In that contest, of the 56 constituencies that won, 47 had Conservative MPs.
But, Eccles Labour Councillor Mike McCusker, Lead Member for Planning and Sustainable Development, seemed pretty positive about the future.
He said despite the set back, the council will still go ahead with regenerating the area because it ‘deserved it’ and it has a ‘rich history’ with a lot to offer. He spoke of ideas to incorporate local businesses, student pop-up shops, market stalls, green spaces and of course, some housing too — though we are yet to see just how affordable it will be.
It seems that Eccles will get the opportunity to live again. Its future is hopeful, at least.
Meet the legendary Pret barista from Piccadilly Station who recently went viral
‘It was just crazy, mind-blowing.’
A barista who works at Pret a Manger in Piccadilly train station has spoken about a tweet that went viral about him.
The tweet was written by Nathan Bryon, who celebrated Morgan’s quick coffee making skills calling him an ‘MVP’ (most valuable player) and a ‘don’ on his Twitter page.
Nathan, 31, is an actor from Shepherd’s Bush who you may know him from the hit TV series Benidorm.
Morgan Bishop, 23, has worked at the coffee shop for three years after previously working as a chef. Used to working under pressure, he said he ‘thrives’ off the busy peak times early in the morning as people are commuting for work.
He said he first heard about the tweet when a friend messaged him to let him know. Morgan told us: “My friend said, ‘oh Morgan, I think this is about you,’ so I looked and I didn’t think it was going to do anything, but then people kept messaging me and putting up really nice comments.
“It was just crazy, mind-blowing. It’s really, really sweet to see posts and comments from strangers that are all about positive vibes. People have been saying things like I’ve got high energy when I serve them and stuff. I’m very grateful.
“I do briefly remember serving Nathan. Normally I remember peoples’ drinks but I don’t really remember his drink. I remember he was a really nice guy, really cool and dressed well.
“I remember complimenting him on certain things, and then I think he turned around and said ‘thank you’ again before walking away. I didn’t expect him to put something up which was really cool. It’s really nice for people to see that you work hard or try hard.”
Followers commenting on Nathan’s post immediately knew who the barista was and quickly commented to share if they too had been served by Morgan.
Grace Dent said: “I met him today!!! He was lovely.”
Claire Heavy added: “His name’s Morgan and he is a LEGEND. Makes my day every day.” Andy C wrote: “Served me on Saturday. Well fast.”
Morgan, who’s originally from Shrewsbury, went on to say that he’d love to have a coffee shop of his own in Manchester one day, and that he loves the city, adding: “It makes me want a coffee shop of my own. I love it here.”
When we posted the tweet on our Facebook, even Morgan’s mum got involved, writing: “Two things I love about this. 1. Morgan Bishop is my son (proud mummy right here) and 2. How lovely and kind the comments are. This is why we can’t get Morgan to move back home and why he loves Manchester so much “.