On a cold Tuesday morning, in an otherwise barren Rufus Court, Tri-active, Chester’s independent running and triathlon store is a hive of activity. Owner Graham Turner is prepping orders for amazon delivery, with boxes of brightly coloured trainers being labelled and packaged. “These are for all the people that want to run away from their family on Christmas day !” jokes Graham.
Tri-active opened 9 years ago, and will celebrate its 10th birthday in May 2016. It remains one of the longest trading shops on the courtyard which has seen a high turnover of businesses in recent years.
“We’re in Rufus Court, we haven’t moved, but we have thought about it over the years.. We’re kinda stuck here now! I was down in Harrow, and I was working in a running shop called Running World, not to be associated with the well known magazine of the same name. Then I managed a shop in Covent Garden. During that time my marriage fell apart. I met someone else called Kelly Crickmore and I moved back to Chester to start our dream together, to open our own independent store. We were both into running. I did my first marathon at university when I was 20. Since then I have stayed involved in the industry. We were opened by a friend of mine, Andrea Whitcombe, who was an Olympic triathlete and 5000m runner. She gave a little speech in the courtyard.”
With Tri-active, we’re not tied down to any particular running brand, we sell according to what the customer needs. We have a treadmill and we video people , that’s a gait assessment. We work out what shoes people need, and we’re not biased, as a result of that people get what they need, it prevents injury and enables people to fulfil their goals. This varies from getting up off the couch, being a couch potato, all the way up to being an ultra runner. The store has a varied range of products. “You’ve got your wetsuits, you’ve got your socks, you’ve got your fins, your goggles, your running shoes, your gels, your clothing..
“We’re not a multi national company, we can do what we want, we can open when we want, sell at whatever price we want, we can be convienient to customers in that way. We can offer what we want, and people can choose to use us or not.
“We’ve been lucky to have a few famous people in. we sponsored the well know news reader Louise Minchin, who lives locally. She has competed in the world age group triathlon championships. so we’re proud of that. Dan Snow came in (son of Jon) for a wetsuit… Gary Speed, unfortunately not with us anymore, he used to pop in with his wife. John Danby, ex Chester goalkeeper was a previous regular. We’re not after famous people really. we just want Mr Joe or Mrs Jane Bloggs to come in off the street, and we want to help them. It pays the bills and keeps the wolf from the door, that’s what we’re here for..
“We are actively involved with Active Leisure, who organise the Half marathon and the full marathon… also the Ellesmere port 10k. We champion each other and have a friendly relationship. Its good for Chester, good for the hotels.. its based at the Racecourse but other entities do benefit from it as well. We also get involved at, and retail at the Chester Triathlon.
“I’ve helped with putting on other events, such as Modfest last summer at Alexanders. In the shop we’ve had some great customers and members of staff. We’ve had Gavin Bannister, I sold half the business to him and later bought it back. We have some nice reps, people like Warren Smith from 1000 mile sportswear. He has been a continual champion of the store and I’ve had some nice weekends away in his cottage!
Of Chester’s independent spirit Tuner comments that : “I think places like Godstall lane, Werburgh st, Rufus Court, Northgate St.. there are still people trying to make a success of things. We have a couple of new businesses coming , we have a bridal store and a high end Paris Fashion store coming soon. It is difficult, but we do get help from the council via small business rates relief…
“We have had some problems with the BID. It was established to help small and large businesses in the city centre… Due to our size, we were excluded from the process entirely. We are excluded from the BID map.. according to the BID , Rufus court actually doesn’t exist. So for example if you park in the new car park on Delamere st. and you think “where am I gonna go”.. you look at the map, and we’ve been annihilated by some sort of nuclear attack.
“The courtyard goes up and down, at the moment its seen better days. I’ve seen about 5000 businesses come and go, its been a bit sad. Some have lasted a day, some a week. There’s still hope though, there’s a new guy that’s just taken over Alexanders. We have the Christmas tree in a bin.. Its looks a bit tired. we’re all a bit tired, but we’re struggling on.” Graham says that he would like to see more support from the BID and the council, with city centre parking a key gripe.
“Out of town shopping centres have an abundance of free car parking.. Free after 3 is still available. The council closed Gorse stacks, but didn’t adequately advertise the new parking facilities under the Fountains medical centre. It is free after 3 but no one knows about it… Lack of communication is an issue.”
The shop owner is open about his struggle with mental health. “It gets dark, and it gets lonely” says Turner, “particularly in the winter months, its a bit bleak. We have the garden at the back, its the biggest beer garden in Chester, and that’s a hub of activity during the summer months. The darkness can be poor. Sometimes I just go for a little wander, or a little cry. I suppose its all part of what Churchill called it, “The black dog” I suppose my struggles started about 17 years ago, half my lifetime ago. There is always a hope, there’s ups and downs. We get some good people in the shop that gives you a bit of buoyancy. We get a few idiots in the shop that take the piss, people that don’t realise how hard it is being an independent retailer. We’re not a charity, we can’t give things away,..”
He says his neighbours at Off the Waffle are a “nice bunch of lads. They’re busy in the summer, with plenty of ice cream waffles and cans of pop. Its nice to have someone there, it has been empty for a while. Opposite we have Ewan with Centurion Toy soldiers. The new bridal shop opening soon… Upstairs you have the well regarded Tattoo shop, Tim and Becky, they’ve been there a while. There’s a jewellers that’s been there over 20 years. And you’ve got Joanne Harris hairdresser, she specialises in wigs for cancer patients. ”
I asked Graham what type of retailer he would like to see move into the Courtyard to generate footfall. The location is beautiful, just off the walls but during the week there are few people passing through. At one point in the interview a family of four entered the courtyard and immediately turned back to Northgate st.
“Some of it’s to do with publicity and the failure of the CH1 bid. The council have devolved the responsibility to a quango… We’re not allowed to actively put out A boards. I use an illegal A board and have been threatened by the council over it. We need some vibrancy, considering there’s a jazz bar next door we could have some music in the courtyard or maybe near the entrance, that would help to grab people in.” He says that the often talked about pedestrianisation of Northgate st would be welcomed ,”from the point of view of people walking around, it would be a bit friendlier, but it could be restrictive for our deliveries.”
How has Chester changed in ten years?
“I cant remember before I was born, but I remember it being a bit more vibrant and a bit busier. We’ve got a lot of history, we haven’t got a lot of culture. People say that’s rubbish . but our access to culture isn’t particularly easy. We don’t have the cinema or theatre, we’re almost forced to go out of town. And when we’re there its easy to park up and go to a massive M&S or Broughton. I’ve got nothing against those enterprises but the council haven’t helped us with the parking. Traffic chaos has been a bit of an issue as well.. Sainsburys’s roundabout, the work on the Posthouse roundabout that didn’t need doing… Hoole road bridge was closed for about 17 years. Poor management of Delamere St closures, and like I said before poor advertisement of the new car park.
Tuner concludes that, despite his problems he loves Chester. “But you can get tired of people, places, yourself. You can get tired of yourself, sometimes you need a change. The lease is up in August so I’m looking for inspiration to carry it on. Its served me well” but Graham hints an exit strategy and reveals the shop is speculatively up for sale at 65K.
“So pop down, you’ve got your bar next door, we’ve got a treadmill, get a waffle in ya gizzard.. job’s a good un!. Thanks to all our loyal customers, past present and future! ”
Thanks to Graham and the Turner family.