Introducing… James Coomber, director of Harbourside Market

Stepping outside the walls of Hamilton House for a morning, I head to the city centre to have a chat with the director of one of our sister businesses, Harbourside Market, which runs alongside No. 1 Harbourside.

The venue grew out of the same project to convert disused buildings into community-oriented businesses that gave birth to Coexist, and shares the same management as The Canteen and the recently opened Old Market Assembly. Formerly a vacant nightclub building, it has since become a landmark on Bristol’s fertile creative and entrepreneurial landscape. As James Coomber, director of the Harbourside Market explains:

“Dick Penny, the CEO of Watershed, contacted Jamie Pike [founder of The Canteen] and said: ‘we’ve got this vacant unit’, which is this place, it used to be called The River, which was more of a nightclub. So Dick contacted Jamie and said ‘can you open up Number One Harbourside and do something local, do something like the Canteen basically?’. This was 2010. So when they opened up, part of the initial vision was to open a market in the walkway as well. That’s how it all came about.”

As an extension of the venue, the walkway in front of it soon became home to the Harbourside Market, a space to promote local products and creators. Since then, it has expanded from a ‘hobby-based’ endeavour, run primarily by people also holding down full-time jobs, to one which has doubled in size from its original 25 stalls. Crucially, since it was granted permission to expand onto Broad Quay, on the opposite of the harbour, it has been able to generate far larger numbers of visitors, drawn to its street food and live music every weekend, and has become a key attraction in the city centre for both visitors and locals alike.

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What distinguishes the Harbourside Market from others in Bristol, or further afield? For James, the spirit underpinning it draws on Bristol’s rich festival culture:

“I think it’s hard for Bristol not to make things into a festival environment, whether it’s something going on at a local community centre or anything else happening, as soon as the sun comes out it feels like the whole city’s a festival.”

This, coupled with the market’s harbourside setting, lends itself to the intention to create “an environment that’s more uplifting than perhaps your classic market”, which attracts both first-time stall-holders, escaping their office jobs and existing businesses trying their hand at markets. It is also in a perfect spot, “an intersection of everybody crossing Bristol”.

The festival vibe, sense of community, dedication to its participants and an emphasis on sustainable and ethically-sourced products are all factors that James feels drive Bristol’s reputation as a supportive environment for independent businesses, and the Market works closely with other iconic Bristol independent businesses like St Nicholas Market and The Tobacco Factory.

In addition to being director of the Harbourside Market, James also runs Cycle The City, a bike-hire and local tour company, which gives him an interesting perspective on Bristol’s legacy of alternative culture and creative businesses:

On our bicycle tours we talk about how Bristol developed this alternative element and how a lot of that was to do with going back to the war and how badly bombed Bristol was and how long it took to rebuild, and by the time a lot of Bristol was being rebuilt there was a cultural movement in the 60s. It could be an early reason for that and certainly some of Bristol’s green/ethical heritage is down to that.

For those thinking about trading on the Harbourside Market, James remarks that there are usually 15–20 applications a week, with most coming from food stall-holders. Applications are weighed against what is currently on offer at the market, and are checked to make sure products are “locally sourced, the provenance of the ingredients is good and ethically sourced”. With this much continued interest in the market, it will hopefully continue to grow, and remain a beacon for independent traders in the city.

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