Keeping old town afloat

Front: Barry Whitehouse, Chair of old Town Ass ,Chris Chandler from Chandlers, Sam Barnes, owner of  Books And Ink, and Nancy Mavroudi,Frogabilia,and Lee Roberts One Man Band
Front: Barry Whitehouse, Chair of old Town Ass ,Chris Chandler from Chandlers, Sam Barnes, owner of Books And Ink, and Nancy Mavroudi,Frogabilia,and Lee Roberts One Man Band

The power of positive promotion and a winning community is helping Banbury’s small independent shops stick together to battle through tough economic times.

Under the chairmanship of Barry Whitehouse, owner of art shop The Artery, Banbury’s Old Town Association has grown from five to 43 members in the past five years. The group seeks to help traders work together to promote Banbury’s historic old town and its plethora of small independent shops.

It is made up of shopkeepers and traders and has monthly meetings. It is a forum where shops can share ideas on how best to promote themselves in an era when many shoppers are increasingly filling their baskets online, or in large retail park chain stores.

Mr Whitehouse has successfully steered his art business through difficult times and several changes of premises to its current position successfully sharing a building at 21 Parsons Street with the thriving Old Town Deli & Cafe. He said businesses are working together to find new ways to keep customers in the high street.

“The aim of the Old Town Association is to highlight the variety of shops we’ve got in the town because Banbury’s unique, it’s not a clone town,” he said. “It has a huge variety of independent shops. You wouldn’t find them anywhere else. The aim is to promote the town in a positive way, not only to encourage tourists and visitors to come to Banbury but helping locals to remember what Banbury has got and to keep them shopping here.”

The Old Town Association, backed by local sponsors, produces an annual map of the streets around White Lion Walk, Parsons Street and the historic old quarter and lists the huge variety of independent shops in the area as well as key historic sites such as St Mary’s Church and the Old Reindeer pub which give the area its character.

More than 2,000 maps were given away in Banbury last year and this year the format of the map has expanded to a colour A3 version. The association is also taking advantage of modern forms of media using Twitter and the internet to promote itself.

There are also signature annual events backed by the group, the foremost of which is the Old Town Party which sees shops setting up stalls in the streets, decorating their shop-fronts and organising competitions, games, and performances in the kind of community high street extravaganza not often seen these days.

This year the Cherwell District Council-sponsored event, taking place on July 12, will have a 1940s theme to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, while acknowledging the centenary of the start of the First World War. Mr Whitehouse says teamwork is the secret to the Old Town Association’s success. “We recommend each other’s shops so if there’s something we haven’t got we send them to a shop that has,” he said. “We also work together with lots of other partners such as the town council, Castle Quay shopping centre and the Chamber of Commerce.”

Mr Whitehouse says its also important to focus on the positives rather than the negatives when it comes to telling people about Banbury.

He said: “Eighty eight per cent of the shops in town are actually full.”

And despite the ongoing campaign by local traders calling for Cherwell District Council to offer two hours’ free parking for shoppers, Mr Whitehouse says he thinks this is only part of the answer.

“The district council only owns one third of the car parks in the town so even if they were all free it may not make that much difference,” he said.

“The charges that the larger private car parks put on parking don’t help but the main thing is we’ve got to give people a reason to come into town and then they won’t mind paying.”

Mr Whitehouse is ideally placed to help other traders in tricky times. Moving his Artery shop from a stand-alone store to a shared occupancy with the Old Town Deli & Cafe on Parsons Street has created a winning mix with Mr Whitehouse’s art students taking lunch in the cafe before their art classes in the third floor classroom and art materials neatly displayed in the shop window of the cafe.

He has also pioneered partnerships with online stockists.

Cathi Cooper, who owns the Old Town Cafe downstairs, said: “Joining the Old Town Association is the best £20 I spend each year.

“We meet and socialise and borrow ideas from each other and it’s a good way of getting help and advice on different aspects of your business and it’s nice to know that you’re not in this alone.”

More on the association can be found at