Post pandemic the physical architecture of Manchester has changed, the retail landscape has massively shifted, even our buying habits have altered and the city has given us a new store to wet our appetite.
UNITOM is one of the latest retail spaces to open their doors on the historic Stevenson Square in the Northern Quarter, it focuses on creating a community of like minded art lovers by curating a fabulous collection of publications, luggage and coffee! The store is the retail arm of arts advisory company Universal Tomorrow who curate exhibitions and give opportunities to artists all over the world.
The store was founded by Wini, a graphic designer and visual marketer, Matthew, an arts advisory and ex Magma manager Tim. Together they bring their shared love of arts into a space that celebrates the internationally renowned coffee table publishers like Taschen all the way to DIY local publications from Islington Mill residents like James Unsworth and Manchester based but internationally renowned Off The Rails. It's also one of the only places in the country you can cop yourself a highly coveted Freitag bag!
We caught up with store manager Tim to chat all about our new favourite store in the city to find out about the founders back story, the stock curation, their work in Ducie Street Warehouse and find out about Tim's huge zine collection!
What is UNITOM in a sentence?
I would summarise it as a visual arts orientated retail and community space.
Everything we sell has a slant of visual culture, whether that is illustration, fashion, photography. We didn't want to just be purely a retail space, there are areas to sit, space to move around, it is a space that welcomes you to be and to walk around and we want to encourage that as much as the retail part of this business.
The retail part is massively important but it's not our sole focus. The number of excellent conversations I've had with people since the door opened and the warm response people have had for us has been great.
It is a great a space and great place to be, how was the store envisaged and this space created?
Our team come from lots of different areas of expertise, I myself worked in Magma for nearly 15 years, so in terms of building a stock profile and the product we sell is built from my experience there, things that I knew worked really well and things I had always wanted to try but couldn't.
Matthew has a background in architecture and so helped us develop the space, he also has a background in art advisory and one of the long term goals is to open a gallery and to give the store a real gallery feel. Of course when we found the location we walked the customers journey to decide where we would leave pockets of space or highlight certain types of product. Now that we are in the space we know what we would like to change, like where we are right now, the snug area, it's certainly starting to get used more. We do have a lot of requests from customers who love certain little niches and so we want to build our stock profile around those conversations and that's how the store will evolve.
What is the process behind your stock curation?
I think it all compliments each other and bleeds into other areas. It's generally stuff we have been asked for, whether that be travel orientated, literary poetry, recipe related and they are all niches we haven't really developed yet. It will be exciting to include them in our range and it will interesting to see how they are displayed and how that all develops.
As I said a lot of these titles have been selected from my 15 years experience, especially with the magazines. There was a whole swathe of them that were obvious choices and then some that I had never been able to try before at Magma and now we get to try them all out.
With the move to digital retail what part do books and physical print play?
I think they are very different to an online experience. People can absorb culture in so many different ways but I think the beauty of these, in a physical environment, is that you are more likely to discover something you weren't aware existed. It's quite easy to find your niche on Instagram but some of the stuff in here is so weird and wonderful that unless you know it exists you'd never find it online, you'd never know what to search to find these titles or these images.
So it is nice to have these spaces for people to be able to come into these curated pockets to experience new things they weren't previously aware of. It's great to see all these areas bleed into each other, if you're a graphic designer you may not be interested in the illustrative titles we have displayed alongside, or the photographic or fashion titles but we can draw inspiration from those other areas.
It is very important to have a physical space like this to stock physical publications because they are important in broadening people's horizons because we do get blinkered a bit online and channeled in certain areas. Every new title we get in store gets me excited, it's like Christmas morning, I'm flicking through it, I'm smelling the paper. Things you experience with a physical publication you could never do with a digital.
I understand you have a massive zine collection, how big is it really?
I personally have a ridiculous zine collection. That is the area of the stuff we do that fascinates me, the self published, the stuff that is never necessarily going to be picked up by a big publishing house. You do see the big publishing houses seem to latch onto certain artists or if someone is having a show then all the publishers will do something on them like Hockney or something and it gets boring. Whereas the weird and wonderful self published stuff never gets old!
I have encouraged so many people within here to actually discover these areas of publishing, if you create anything visual, photographic or whatever, rather than it just sitting on your computer get it printed and get it in here. That way you can expose it to so many people that otherwise would have never seen it
Evan: The volume of local, small publications in the store was something that immediately struck me. Walking into the shop and seeing a collection of James Unsworth's sexually graphic illustrations was great!
Tim: That was a project he did throughout lockdown where he released a zine a month and I was furloughed at that point and I subscribed to get them and knew they had to be part of the UNITOM range. I love all that stuff, anything small press, I think it feeds my desire to collect things, anything limited or signed.
What sort of role will UNITOM have within the self published community in the city?
We want to have that balance to stock the big names like Phaidon and Taschen, glossy coffee table books and then import small press publishers from around the world but we do also want that locally produced stuff, we want that balance. Putting someones first self published piece alongside a Phaidon elevates everything to the same sort of platform, again it's having that balance. We are happy to have conversations with people about stocking their products, it just has to be a viable option for us, logistically and financially.
On our walls right now we have an artist called Iain H. Williams, we encouraged him to create a zine alongside the work. We took him trough the process of self publishing in terms of print run, finishes and what we felt would work and so he created the publication about the artworks specifically for us and it's brilliant! The temptation for him was to make a catalog of the pieces was strong but you want a behind the scenes view of his techniques, his studio and a more engaging narrative. He created 50 of the zines and signed the first 20 and included a little hand finished postcard which all sold out immediately.
We did have a customer come in the other day who was asking about photography publishers who may publish her work and I just told her to do it herself. Create some publications, get a feel for it and then send them off to others as it's so hard to get 'published' by someone else.
You have already touched on the work with Iain H.Williams but you have also worked with the artist Alex Giles, what is your connection with these artists?
UNITOM is the retail aspect of Universal Tomorrow which is, long term, it's own gallery space. We do already curate exhibitions outside of the gallery space or the retail space and have already done that at the Ducie Street Warehouse. The first install was Iain's work, then we had a gentleman called Lawrence Perry and currently it is Alex Giles, both Iain and Alex are locally based artist and Lawrence is from London, The goal of this is to have rolling exhibitions, maybe 3 or 4 a year and hopefully that will have a predominant focus on local artists, we've already had a few studio visits over the last few months. Ducie is really quite an imposing space so we need to find work that we both like and that can fill the space.
The long term plan for the wall in store, where Iain's work is currently, will become a print editions gallery and more affordable so the artists we work with can sell prints there. Alex Giles is the first of which we have done that, one of the images that is currently up in Ducie Street we then printed and we did a limited edition screen print of it that is available to buy within the retail space.
Can you tell us more about Universal Tomorrow and what else fits under that umbrella?
Universal Tomorrow is the name of the company, UNITOM is the retail arm of that and then there is UT Projects that we curate outside of those two other realms. The goal for Universal Tomorrow is for it to become its own gallery entity, then UNITOM is the affordable end of that with prints and publications and UT Projects is stuff we do outside of that, whether that be street art murals or exhibitions elsewhere.
After Magma closed down there was certainly a gap for an art book store and subsequently stores have opened up like Village Books, Sunshine Books and 20K and a Dead Sheep, what is unique about UNITOM?
They are all very different profiles, ours is much more arts orientated where Village is much more photography orientated but I just think they are different spaces and I would hope there is a desire for people to visit them all. I run the risk of sounding like Meg Ryan in 'You've Got Mail' talking about a book district because I do think there is a desire for it. I was at Magma for a long time and I knew there was a pre-existing desire for it and I knew a lot of the customers there and they were all sad to see it go so it made sense to do something.
I wanted to evolve that idea, it's not a copy, we do things here we would have never considered and conversely we don't do things here that we used to there. It's a development.
Can you tell us about the UNITOM co-founders Matthew and Wini?
As we said earlier Matthew's background is in art advisory and Wini's background is in graphic design and digital marketing. I have known about both of them as customers in Magma, I think Wini was a customer in there for the entire 20 years of its existence and so got to know them through there.
So we have pulled together our very different areas of expertise and backgrounds to create this store!
What is next for UNITOM?
Short term it is definitely to expand the run of print editions, building that stock profile, commissioning a few pieces that are just for us but it is a big expanse to fill so we want to launch it when it is full and ready. It will have a more contemporary, street art, urban slant on it. That's a goal for this year.
We are still pursuing the commercial gallery space but that will only happen when the right space opens.
We will be hosting a variety of regular in-store events. It's easy to do book launch after book launch so we do want to mix it up and that's what we did with the FIMS launch where they brought in product, zine and prints to sell. We do have a few other things that I hope will be a bit more varied, next up is a book signing with photographer Richard Davis.
We want to plan in a fun programme of things across the time and we are happy to discuss ideas with anyone and see how varied we can make it!
Recommend us 3 things in Manchester that our readers should know about!
People should definitely come in and check out the local produced zines from artists like James Unsworth, photography zines from Claire Wray, illustration zines from a guy called Darren Riley, we've got Iain's zine, some great locally produced magazines like ALL Magazine, Off The Rails, Dropped Magazine, Cyclist Magazine. There are loads of exciting things going on in Manchester and they go under the radar unless you have a space like this to promote it and we are pleased to shout about the fact that these things were made in Manchester.
We have an excellent book called 'A Decade of Dedication' from a fashion label that started in Salford 20 years ago called Represent who went onto become a global fashion brand, it's great to know that it has those connections to Manchester.
In terms of recommendations, I have two young kids so my social life revolves around them. We do spend plenty of time at Ducie Street Warehouse, their food is excellent so go there! Taste the food and admire the artwork we have put up there.
Even though UNITOM are a matter of months old their popularity has blown through the roof, their stock package has increased and their vision of creating a "visual arts community and retail space" has come true. IF you haven't already visited then please do so, read some books, see some art, enjoy a coffee and have a chat! Visit their website here to look through their whole collection.