Meet UNITOM, Manchester’s new visual culture hub
You don’t have to be in Manchester very long to work out that the city is brimming with visual artists. Glancing up at mural walls, or stumbling across one of its many galleries, you’ll discover displays typical of the city’s talent with a short wander of its streets.
But it still feels like Manchester could do with another space – somewhere to showcase original work, to connect local creatives, to share new ideas, to inspire the city.
Enter UNITOM, a new visual arts orientated bookshop and gallery blossoming in the Northern Quarter.
Huddled in Stevenson Square, UNITOM houses a collection of books, zines, prints and items celebrating visual culture from across the world. Since their soft opening in December 2021, it has immediately captured Manchester’s imagination. Anyone into visual culture, art, coffee or creativity will fall in love with the shop; but the team behind it have ambitions that go way beyond selling their specialist collection.
UNITOM’s official opening takes place on Thursday 24th Feb, with an open-to-anyone, in-store event. Ahead of the event, TSOTA caught up with store manager Tim Bell, and co-founder Matthew Palentine, to discuss a year to come for UNITOM that promises “as much diverse, interesting community building as possible.”
UNITOM is fulfilling a role sorely missed on Manchester’s high street, whilst also defining a whole new one for itself.
Tim, originally from Manchester, previously worked at Magma, a former magazine shop that used to sit around the corner. Since its closure during lockdown, the absence of somewhere to browse and buy specialty, visual culture mags has been palpable.
The commercial success of Magma assured Tim that the demand for the product wouldn’t disappear. Tim linked up with Matthew, an art advisor and Magma regular, as well as fellow co-founder Wini Tse, to bring a new visual culture store to Manchester.
“There’s a lot of overlap in customers,” says Tim, who recognises the “old regulars from Magma coming back in”. Similar to Magma, the store itself is a siren of colours and fonts that stand out from the default greyness of the city; book covers from the display to the back of the shop drag you through the doorway, which is impossible to step back over without having picked something up out of wonder.
UNITOM is larger, meaning more product to sell and more variety in content. It also features two ‘snugs’, where people can sit in armchairs, skimming potential purchases with a coffee ordered in-store. Opting for a white, minimalist design, the team have made the interior as much of a canvas as possible, so the bursting magazine covers can sell themselves, whilst encouraging people to relax and embrace the experience of being in the space.
“I always loved talking to the staff in Magma and finding something I’d never seen before”, says Matthew. “When we opened UNITOM we wanted a space to start conversations.”
The warm, relaxed vibe the team have built into UNITOM separates it from any normal customer experience, something the team are proud of: “People leave with a smile on their face, having just spoken to someone more than they’ve spoken to anyone in the last couple of years!”
UNITOM also sell via their website. I ask if it’s been a challenge getting people to put down their keyboards to visit the store and buy something in person, after two years of staying home.
“It’s a very different shopping experience buying online,” explains Tim. “People have missed discovering things…”
“Customers are coming in just to browse,” adds Matthew. “You can’t engage with a book online in the same way; you look through you see something you like, pick it up, feel it, flick through and you buy it.”
So, what do UNITOM sell? Although their specialism is ‘visual culture’, their stock is more niche and original than the broadness of the term suggests. From fashion to travel to music, the store covers a lot of genres and artforms, yet these publications and editions are honing in on specific corners of their category. I left with a 200 page study of YouTube’s brand history from a South Korean publisher.
Most people going into UNITOM will find something they’ll love, but they’ll probably have no clue they’re going to love it. “If people come in and say “I like this” I can point them in the right direction,” explains Tim. “But if you’re interested in any sort of visual culture you can find any of this interesting.”
With new deliveries every day and different tastes across the team, the stock will never get stale. “There’s so many things we haven’t explored yet but if the demand is there, we can change stock profile,” says Matthew. “I’m interested to see how it morphs over time…”
The team at UNITOM are not just interested in the store’s success. They’re inspired by the amount of artistic talent in Manchester, but which has fewer platforms and networks to tie it all together. Whilst they’re “marrying the international suppliers with stuff produced locally” in their stock profile, they also want to connect Manchester’s visual arts scene.
“Most cities in the world have art directories, maps, trails,” says Matthew. “But Manchester needs someone to take ownership of that gallery network, that space to exhibit.” They praise Cotton On Mcr, who coordinate events exposing local artists, and see an opportunity to contribute to the profile-raising of Manchester’s creative talent.
The current window display was produced by primary school children in London and Wythenshawe, in collaboration with The Face Magazine, Burberry and Marcus Rashford’s Book Club charity. They’ll be organising exhibitions under the ‘Universal Tomorrow’ tag; artist Alex Giles’ work has already been showcased and more are to come.
Through engaging with the universities, big brands and other venues, the team aims to create stages for local artists throughout 2022. All the while welcoming curious punters to the shop, drawn in by bright book covers, staying for the experience and inevitably leaving happier, with something new to read tucked under their arm.
The straddling of responsibilities is what will make UNITOM unique, playing important roles in both the high street and in the city’s creative economy. The success of UNITOM will surely be a success for Manchester and the artists stored here.
To attend the official UNITOM opening event on 24th Feb, you can RSVP by emailing [email protected]!