Here's to Woolworths, BHS and an iconic fountain we'll never forget as Friars Square Shopping Centre celebrates its 30th anniversary
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Friars Square Shopping Centre is gearing up for its 30th birthday at a unique time for high street retailers.
The popular shopping site in Aylesbury town centre is celebrating its 30th anniversary on Saturday (September 23).
Ahead of the party celebrations The Bucks Herald spoke with some of the longest serving incumbents of the shopping square.
Businesses did of course trade at the famous central Aylesbury site prior to 1993, but the revamp has proved to be a significant moment in the county town’s modern history.
Recorded estimations suggest the major revamp cost upwards of £70 million.
Many retail workers have seen businesses come and go from the shopping site and the centre adapt to the ever-changing shopping habits of the public.
Key founding brands such as BHS and Beatties – along with their once hugely popular cafes – as well as Woolworths have been and gone.So too has the iconic fountain while the Cloisters Indoor Market also made way for the new layout Aylesbury shoppers see today.
The giant House of Fraser store remains in place on the former Beatties site while the other big unit which used to house BHS is now the Flip Out trampoline centre and arcade.
The decision to close the lower level Cloisters, which was home to another hugely popular cafe and several independent local retailers, remains the most controversial and divisive in the centre’s 30-year history.
Some business owners said they were devastated when they had to move out of the underground site over 11 years ago. Even some businesses which were relocated within Friars still lament its closure.
In 2021 the centre was sold to Bucks Council.
On the big day this Saturday, the centre is planning a family-friendly party, designed to allow businesses to trade as normal, and to commemorate the major milestone.
There will be music from Wes at Bucks Radio, human Liquorice Allsorts on stilts, balloon modellers plus a free birthday themed craft workshop for children. There will also be a treasure trail for the youngsters.
Staff will be handing out gifts to some lucky customers. The birthday party takes place between 11am and 3pm.
Businesses occupying the centre have had to deal with the rise of online shopping and unforeseeable financial challenges brought on from Covid and the subsequent cost of living crisis.
However, centre manager Andy Margieson is proud of the way Friars Square has protected the businesses that have remained open over the past three years.
He also talks with pride about how the site has remained an important community hub for Aylesbury. Championing the community initiatives staff take part in and the regular summer activities put on free of charge for families whenever school is out.
"It’s the most important thing we do here, realising that you are a big part of the community,” Andy said.
"It does encourage more people to go in and out of the shops which is my aim, obviously. We found that people came back to us quicker than they did even for the likes of Centre:MK.
"Because were an open smaller centre. You weren’t going straight into those mass crowds from lockdown. And then we lifted barriers. Simple things. We went dog-friendly for example. It’s crucial to get that community initiative going.”
Whilst Andy referenced a series of changes the shopping venue has undergone in recent times, including the fact it did not have a roof when it first opened in 1993.
There have been some constants, Dave Smith worked at the old Friars building and was also one of the first business owners to open a shop in Friars Square. His varied repair business, Surelock Homes Security, remains open in the centre to this day.
Dave’s business is set to be rebranded as Smith and Sons as he continues to trade alongside his son, Jim, who will soon be joining as a full-time member of staff.
Initially, Dave operated a shoe repairs company in the Cloisters Covered Market, but now cuts keys and repairs shoes from the second floor.
Dave’s business has changed dramatically as shoe repairs became less common. He has turned it into an all-round engraving centre which deals with scissor sharpening, writing gift messages and a host of other tasks.
It is hoped that the drive to recycle and renew items, will reinvigorate the market for shoe repairs.
Reminiscing on the early days at Friars, Dave said: “When I first left school I started my career here at Friars Square, then I moved away and started my own business in Oxford, and came back. A lot has changed its now a cleaner environment.”
He is one of a handful of people who have spent three decades at Friars.
Maintenance manager Darren has been with the company for 28 years, and his father worked at the older building constructed in the 1960s before him.
One of his favourite aspects of working at the Aylesbury site is how long he and his teammates have worked together. He said: “Great team to be fair.
"I could have moved on, I could have done other things. I’ve had offers, from builders and everything, I suppose I like an easy life and everything.
"I’m comfortable here and everyone is like a family to me. Everyone is so great we all get together, and I’ve loved working here since I started, and actually still really like working here.
"A lot of my mates hate going to work, come Sunday, I like going to work and that’s cool.”
Another challenge facing the centre is trying to remain a community hub which sells an Aylesbury experience whilst the town is changing.
On non-market days, Aylesbury hardly resembles the thriving outdoor centre it became famous for in the 1970s and 80s. Many traders lament the ostensible loss of ‘market town’ status, something which is often referenced as one of the key aspects of the town’s identity.
The consensus among retail staff is that if the market is thriving and businesses are trading outside, that can only benefit the teams at Friars, as more people will want to come to Aylesbury and see its charm up close.
Alison Wood, manager of Warren James, has worked at the store for decades too. She started off as a hairdresser in the Cloisters, before wearing various different hats at different retail stores in the venue. Working at places like Holland and Barrett and Thorntons, among a host of other stops.
Despite fears about the impact of online retail and the way people want to shop in 2023, her experiences reflect how major outlets can still create a community feel. She said: “One thing that is nice, having been a manager, and not just a manager, but having worked here at so many different places is customers do remember me from other shops, and customers from Holland Barrett still come in just to say hello because they know I’m in here.
"The town is a lot smaller than it feels. Especially, as I’ve lived here my whole life, you get to know pretty much everyone.”
Centre manager, Andy, had the lost word, concluding: “Friars Square shopping centre is proud to have been at the heart of Aylesbury for 30 successful
“It’s thanks to our great staff and our retailers across those three decades that Friars Square has been and remains such an enjoyable place for shoppers to socialise and enjoy some great shopping.”