Thursday, April 3, 2014

News: Grimm news for Rotherham town centre

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The niche retail offer being fostered in Rotherham town centre could be given a sprinkle of magic as the home of the most unique retail experience I've ever heard of - Grimm & Co.

Looking more at home in Hogsmeade than Rotherham's High Street, Grimm & Co. is a shop supplying quirky and essential supplies and services to magical beings. A "fantastical, high quality, unforgettable retail experience."

But the intriguing premise is more than just retail premises, its main focus will be on what goes on behind closed (secret) doors.

The idea for Grimm & Co. was inspired by the Dave Eggers' 2008 TED Talk on people engaging with local schools, the work of 826 Valencia that he established in San Francisco (a Pirate Supply Store), and the Ministry of Stories in London (Hoxton St. Monster Supplies).

In each case, the shop is a fa├žade, and although they sell products, like any other, it is all part of creating a fantastical destination, one that inspires children to work without knowing they are working, and increase participation in literacy projects through a creative writing and mentoring centre.

It sounds far fetched, and it is, but if it happens in Rotherham, it won't be on the back of some celebrity hoodwink to film a TV show and sell cook books, it'll be part of the important legacy of the "Inspire Rotherham" initiative, that aimed to raise the literacy and communications skills of all young people from birth through to age 11. The scheme also encouraged people of all ages to use and develop those skills in imaginative ways.

In 2008, the attainment figure for English at Key Stage 2 (when pupils are aged between seven and 11) at Level 4 and above (the expected level) was 61.48% of the national average in the 10% most deprived areas of Rotherham, and there existed a staggering gap in attainment between the most deprived and least deprived areas of the borough.

When Rotherham Council secured £3m in 2009, it marked the first time that the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, had agreed to such major funding of a project which supported business and regeneration in the future by helping raise basic skills and aspirations.

Deborah Bullivant, executive director of Inspire Rotherham, explains: "We targeted the families in the 10% most deprived areas and the creative approached worked where previous attempts hadn't."

Boys at Key Stage 2 in reading improved their attainment by 11.8% and BME pupils showed an improvement of 19.5% in English compared to previous years.

"I was determined not to just spend the money and improve attainment for those three years. There had to be a legacy. We wanted to try a number of creative and innovative approaches and see what worked," Bullivant added.

With the funding finished and evaluations complete, the project moved out of the council to establish as a social enterprise, similar to the path of Rotherham Ready, the leading enterprise education programme that was also successfully funded by Yorkshire Forward.

As the project continued, and with inspiration from San Francisco and London, retail premises on Corporation Street were converted into the "Pop-Up Story Shop" in 2013. The venue acted as a test bed for how children could be engaged and enthused by a creative space. It hosted workshops including book-making, illustrating stories, storytelling, digital stories, cartoons and family reading.

After the success of the pop-up shop, work has been ongoing on establishing a permanent centre in the town, based on the model of a creative writing centre enhanced by retail premises and an online store.

As well as providing the engaging environment, the proceeds from the shop help to fund the work in the back. For 826 Valencia, which was founded in 2002, this went far beyond the original shop and has spawned new storefronts in, amongst others: Brooklyn (a Superhero Supply Co. selling capes, grappling hooks, antimatter, and more) (pictured, right); and LA (the Time Travel Mart selling dinosaur eggs, robot milk, dodo chow, and time-machine parts).

The stores have become destinations in there own right, nevermind for the numbers of pupils visiting the writing centres. The quirky retail storefront at 826 Valencia was only introduced to get around planning regulations but it has helped to expand the hipster "Mission District" and is now surrounded by independent clothing stores, bookstores, boutiques, and unique shops.

Similarly inspired, the Ministry of Stories (pictured, below) was founded in London in 2010 by the British author Nick Hornby and co-directors Lucy Macnab and Ben Payne. It aims to expand across the country and Inspire Rotherham has been quick to identify the opportunity. With help from the town centre team at Rotherham Council, ideal premises have already been found and the recruitment of a creative learning manager is under way.

"I'm determined to bring this to Rotherham," Bullivant said. "We have established a charity and have a board and some volunteers working on ideas for Grimm & Co., supported by some amazing creative talent. People like author, Matt Haig, local songwriter and musician, Ray Hearne, and Jeremy Dyson, a non-acting member of the League of Gentleman and co-writer of the West End play, Ghost Stories.

"I'm also talking with groups of children to find out what they want the space to be like. If you want enterprising ideas, speak to the kids. They can be so optimistic and not at all cynical.

"We are bidding for funding from places like the Arts Council but what we also need are some corporate sponsors, businesses willing to donate money and equipment for the writing centre. I think that's what the Ministry of Stories did really well in London and it helped them get off the ground quickly and make an impact straight away."
In its first 18 months, Ministry of Stories engaged over 1,000 volunteers, worked with over 5,000 local children and young people to produce writing of all forms, and attracted donations from more than 1,000 individuals.

Backed by innovation charity, Nesta, the organisation is working with a handful of associate projects with the aim of identifying strong candidates to open new pilot chapters of the initiative. Ultimately, the team wants to see a Ministry of Stories in every community that can support one.

To be continued in Rotherham?

Inspire Rotherham website
Ministry of Stories website
826 Valencia website

Images: Inspire Rotherham / Creative Juice / 826 National / Ministry of Stories

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