Brian Lomas’ images of Manchester’s independent shops in the 1980s

A new book and exhibition from the Modernist Society showcases Lomas’ rarely seen black and white photographs, which offer a snapshot of bygone years 

The UK’s high streets are an eclectic mix of shops, and have become more transient in nature over the years, with the rise of the pop-up shop. Harking back to simpler times when shopkeepers were well-known faces and often family-run businesses, are the images of self-taught photographer Brian Lomas. His series showcases the shops of his native north Manchester back in the early 1980s. 

Brought together in a new book titled Small Shops, the images show streets where the butchers, grocers, fishmongers, florists and sweet shops all sit clustered together, with each store selling just one thing. 

Phyllis’s Florist, Hulme Hall Lane, Miles Platting. All images: Small Shops, Brian Lomas, The Modernist Society

All adorned with old signage, Lomas’ images offer a glimpse at what a truly independent high street looked like in and around the areas of Moston, Blackley, Newton Heath and Harpurhey. The photographs act as a kind of archive of the areas, as not only have many of these businesses since closed down, many of the buildings themselves have since disappeared.

Lomas is an amateur photographer, who was in his mid-20s and working as a health service administrator when he worked on the series. He took the photographs on his Rolleiflex camera and while he did show the photographs in a small exhibition in 1983 at Uppermill Photographer Gallery (now Saddleworth Museum and Gallery), and then again at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery in 1986, his images have remained relatively unseen until now. 

Laurette’s Dress Shop, Kenyon Lane, Moston
Wilkes Shoe Repair

“Even then, many of these shops seemed out of their time, with their quirky and characteristic details – shopfronts with old signage, old-fashioned style shop tills and traditional weighing scales,” says Lomas, now 65 and still living in the Manchester area.

 “Many of these independent businesses were under threat at the time, particularly with large supermarkets coming into Manchester, but also with shopkeepers coming up to retirement age and not having anyone to pass the business on to. So, I was keen to document these local small shops before they were gone.” 

Gent’s Hair Stylist, Moston Lane, Moston
Grocer, Nuthurst Road, New Moston

Lomas has been taking photographs for 40 years and he says in that time the city has changed dramatically. “Many of these buildings are now gone completely, so I’m very glad that I captured that part of history while I could,” he says.

Small Shops has been designed by Jonathan Hitchen and published by the Modernist Society, a creative project dedicated to celebrating and engaging with 20th century architecture and design through books, events and exhibitions. As part of the release of Small Shops, an exhibition of the same name is on show until late August at the Modernist building. 

Travis’ Butcher, Drury Lane, Chadderton
Marsland’s Newsagent, Oldham Road

“Brian came into our Manchester HQ one day and asked if we would like to see a project he had been working on,” says Eddy Rhead, co-founder of the Modernist Society. “I must admit that when he pulled out a box of prints rather than a laptop, I was a little skeptical. But as soon as we saw the photographs, we knew we wanted to work with him.” 

For Rhead, Lomas’ images capture a time and place that, despite being within many of our own lifetimes, now seems like a lost age. “What really resonates for us is the sense of place. People are rooted to the places where they live,” says Rhead. “Brian has lived in north Manchester his whole life, and that sense of place and connection to the community is truly embodied in these pictures. There is a bit of nostalgia there, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is up to people to decide.”

Wilkinson’s Chemist, Droylsden Road, Newton Heath

Small Shops published by The Modernist Society is available to buy now. The accompanying exhibition is open until 28 August;