Inside Afflecks Palace: The subcultural heart of Manchester

Since the early '80s, Afflecks Palace has been an institution of Manchester's alternative scene – finding itself as the go-to spot for Madchester, nu-metal, emo and beyond. We travel to the iconic marketplace to find out how it's stood the test of time and why it's still so vital to the city today...

Inside Afflecks Palace: The subcultural heart of Manchester
Words and photos:
Chris Bethell

Afflecks Palace is self described as a 'an emporium of eclecticism’. It's a four-storey labyrinthian market unlike anything you'd find on the high street and is staffed almost exclusively by people who don't follow mainstream tastes. Afflecks, as Mancunians know it, was opened by James and Elaine Walsh in 1981 – a couple of hairdressers who wanted to create a haven for young designers. They leased the building from the property developer Bruntwood for a period of 25 years, offering stallholders cheap units to make and sell their wares.

In its lifetime Afflecks has both influenced and supported the best of Manchester's alternative cultures. In the early ‘80s it consisted mostly of vintage stores, but from the mid-‘80s and into the ‘90s, Madchester washed through the city and Afflecks was swept along with it, selling acid house LPs and smiley T-shirts. Later, Britpop moved through before the market was painted black in a sea of Limp Bizkit hoodies, Linkin Park posters and studded bracelets in the new millennium. The nu-metal scene dug its nails into Afflecks and has long been associated with the movement for a generation of moshers.

Nowadays Afflecks resembles the cultural chaos of the very-much-online Gen-Zers; with seemingly no strict subcultures and people borrowing style elements from goth, punk, hip-hop, emo, and appropriating them into something more diverse. At least one store from every period of Afflecks’ life seems to have survived the test of time, representing each scene that's passed through, creating a textured patchwork of alternative cultures. Afflecks has always held up a mirror to Manchester's subcultures, whilst also dressing them, educating them and providing a safe space to meet and create.

Sadly, James Walsh passed away before the end of the lease, leaving it to Elaine. When she moved on, Afflecks fell back into the hands of Bruntwood and after a year or so of uncertainty about the building's future, the developer luckily decided it was too significant to Manchester to turn into flats or otherwise. After fixing some of the holes in the roof, replacing a load of fire alarms and generally making it a safer place to work in, they relaunched Afflecks with the same ethos the Walsh's opened it with. Rent is kept low for its traders and there are great schemes to help new vendors establish themselves without financial risk. We went down to speak to people about why it's such a celebrated place.

Sean, Panic Poster Company

How long have you been working at Afflecks?
“I started here in 1986 and bought Panic Posters for myself in 1993.”

You must have seen some of the same faces coming and going over the years.
“Well, that's interesting because there are people who were coming in when I first started out who then brought their children in. And now I've met their children's children. You can see that the parents haven't been here for ages and they're so excited to share the experience with their children.”

How much influence do you think your shop has had in shaping people's taste in music and fashion?
“I like my customers to make their own minds up. I listen to what they ask for, so I think I'm more influenced by them than the other way around. I try to cater for every taste, whether it be Napalm Death or Justin Bieber.”

What was The Northern Quarter, the area around Afflecks, like when it first opened?
“It was in this area of central Manchester which was pretty much bandit country. It wasn't the sort of place you'd hang around. There were no bars, pubs, restaurants like there are today. I've always said that Afflecks is the acorn from which The Northern Quarter grew.”

Megan, Trouser Project Collective

Hey Megan, what is the Trouser Project Collective?
“It started with just me, working with upcycled clothes. After that I got more artists involved and now there's 18 people! It's a mixture of upcycled clothing, prints, shoes, basically everything handmade and one-off pieces.”

Why did you start your business here?
“Afflecks is great because it gives you the opportunity to be in a building full of other creatives. They cover the bills and licenses etc, so it's easy to get started here.”

Were you coming here before you moved your business in?
“I'd come a few times, but not loads. I'd mostly come in to the shop on the floor above which isn't actually a shop. It's called Not A Shop. A lady called Joy runs it, she's a battle-rapping granny. She's cool.”

What do you perceive Afflecks to be these days?
“I think there's a lot of different vibes going on, but the places I like going to are all about supporting independent businesses and protesting against the high street.”

Aaron, Milner & Son

How long has this shop been here?
“I think since 1981 – it's been here since before we were even born!”

How has it had such staying power in Afflecks?
“This shop always has a balance of the old and the new; we have a bag from 1941 and we have bags that were made just two months ago. The style of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s has never ended, they've never gone out of fashion.”

This is one of the shops that feels like the heart of Afflecks, one of the shops that has stayed a constant in history.
“Afflecks has changed a lot around it, but I can truly say the vibration and frequency of the building is the same; the atmosphere is the same despite the shops constantly changing.”

How important do you think Afflecks is in supporting and influencing subcultures across Manchester?
“Very. People give validation to each other here. There's an understanding that most of the time – let's not say 100 per cent because that would be a lie, but 99 per cent of the time – no-one is judging anyone else. People come here to not be judged! It's why people love Afflecks.”

Vanessa, American Graffiti

Can you tell us a bit about American Graffiti?
“Next year will be its 40-year anniversary! It's the second-longest-standing shop in Afflecks.”

Have you ever had any big artists come to your shop?
“I've had Lady Gaga in here! It was about four or five years ago when she was in concert at the Manchester Arena. Our manager at the time asked us all if we would stay behind to keep the shop open for her and her entourage. She came in, spent some money and posted a photograph afterwards of her and Lady Starlight wearing one of my dresses!”


How long have you been working in Afflecks?
“Twenty-one years.”

How have you seen the subcultures that come through change over the years?
Nu-metal was pretty big when I started. That was a great heyday for Afflecks as we stocked exactly what they wanted. When that died, emo came in. There was a good flow of business for a while, but that didn't last as long as previous subcultures. Maybe because there wasn't as much of a message or ethos behind what became commercialised emo in the same way as punk or hardcore. Since then, punk, pop-punk and ska punk had a revival with Hellcat Records, Epitaph, Fat Wreck etc. But with these being punk they were mostly underground, so there was less of a scene to it all. But since emo nothing has really come along and replaced it.”

So Afflecks has always been tied to the music scene of the time?

“Yes, definitely. That was our customer base. As long as they're coming into the building, we try to find products to suit them. It's been tricker since emo died off, so we've branched off into other stuff. Half our shop is vintage and that's selling very well, but not to a subculture. We've still got alternative, gothic, emo clothing but that doesn't sell well anymore because those scenes aren't so much there. It seems like subcultures are very mixed up now: people take the bits they want.”

Freya McGreevy, Sales Assistant at GRIN

How long have you been working here?
“Just two days so far!”

Can you remember the first time you came here?
“Yeah, I was so confused! Confused, lost… but it was amazing. I must have been here for about four hours. I remember the first thing I bought was a Courteeners T-shirt – they're my favourite band. But what's cool is I still wear the band T-shirts my parents got when they lived here in the ’90s and they used to come to Afflecks! So now working here and wearing their T-shirts to work, it's come full-circle.”

What kind of subculture did your parents belong to?

"They lived at the Hacienda, so they belonged to the acid house scene. I grew up listening to all of that, hearing about their stories of Manchester, so I think that's why I'm drawn here. I still listen to that music now so I think that says a lot – it stands the test of time.”

Molly, The LGBT Bookshop (a subsection of Gay Pride Shop)

Can you tell me a bit about the store?
“Gay Pride Shop is the UK's biggest LGBTQ+ shop. The bookshop section is where I work, and is full of LGBT books. Fiction, non-fiction, all written by LGBT authors and it's fantastic.”

How long have you been coming to Afflecks?

“I moved to Manchester in July 2019 and it was maybe the third place I came to. I immediately got lost. I had no idea how to get out despite there being stairs everywhere and loads of exits. Afflecks is like a maze: every time you turn you're like, 'Wow, what's this?' Someone's painting trousers in their shop, someone's creating art in another.”

How important do you think Afflecks is in Manchester?
“I would say it's essential; it's such a core element of the alternative and LGBT scenes. It's such a safe space for so many different kinds of people. Everyone is welcomed with open arms. Also, not only is the building rooted in history but it grows with every person that comes in. Everyone leaves a bit of themselves.”

Lauren, Owner of Earth Friendly Rocker, zero waste shop, and Potion, cafe

So what is it you do here?
“I started Earth Friendly Rocker back in 2019 because after working with a lot of bands and going on tour with them, I saw how much waste that industry in particular produces. The zero waste movement had been going for maybe a year or two, but everything is a bit boring in that world, it's all a bit beige. So I wanted to start something that appealed to the rock community. I set that up here, because where else are you going to start a rock-themed zero waste shop?”

When did you first start coming to Afflecks?
“Probably when I was about 11 or 12. There was a shop on the second floor that's not here anymore, it used to have a big tank with a tarantula in. It had a sign on it saying 'All shoplifters will be fed to Boris’."

Alistair, Vinyl Resting Place

How long have you been coming to Afflecks for?
“Me and my sister first started coming in the late ’90s. We're both from Bolton so we'd come to Manchester and make a day of it. You'd occasionally see someone like Ian Brown or Shaun Ryder walking around. It was really atmospheric, there used to be a car bonnet sticking out of one of the walls.”

What music has been integral to this building through it's time?
“When it first opened I think it was post-punk, indie was kinda starting from that and then goth. Then there was also the Madchester, baggy scene coming from the late ’80s and acid house. Now it's really inclusive of everyone and everything which is great.”

How integral do you think Afflecks has been to nurturing Manchester's music scene?
“Very. I think a lot of bands will have met in here and formed over the years. There used to be little posters all over the place with the numbers you'd rip off saying 'Join our band', 'Bassist needed' or whatever. I think Afflecks also helped style them, too. I remember someone saying that when The Prodigy would come in here they would buy all the clothes from one stall to wear at their gigs. Apparently Alice Cooper and Debbie Harry come here whenever they're in Manchester.”

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