The Yellow Yard is in a special location. Opposite is St Augustine’s Church. The city walls run right past the front door practically, down towards First Derry Presbyterian Church. Round the corner on Society Street are the Apprentice Boys’ Memorial Hall and the Siege Museum. Walk past there to Bishop Street Within and you’ll see the Bishop’s Gate Hotel. Strikingly different from all of them, in every way you might imagine, the Yellow Yard nevertheless takes its place alongside them, a key player in the revitalisation of this part of the city, bringing vibrancy, independence, stubbornness, and colour.
Not that the Yellow Yard is actually yellow. It was going to be, but when they saw how much yellow exterior wall paint cost, they decided on white instead.
'They' are Mark Kenny, Kerri Ni Dochartaigh, Jenni Doherty, Katie Blue, and Ben Allen. Mark and Kerri run St Jude Coffee and also Trunk, selling vintage clothes and accessories, while Jenni is the owner of Little Acorns Bookstore. Ben runs Abbazappa Records. Katie Blue’s shop is Little Blue World.
Chance, determination, necessity, and drive have brought them together under the same roof, in the premises of the last shirt factory to close in Derry, on Palace Street in the Cathedral Quarter of the city.
They are not a collective in the strictest sense. They share the same open space, they’ll work together on certain projects and events, and will call across the former factory floor to ask if someone can keep an eye on things and take any money while they pop out for five minutes. But each runs his or her own business, independent in all senses of the word, simultaneously nice and maybe a little bit curmudgeonly, with sharp retail senses and a concern for both profit and people.
They could have been brought here on a trundling bus, dropping off and picking up passengers along the way. First stop was Great James Street Presbyterian Church. When the financial crash of 2008 forced its owners to rethink their plans for a luxury hotel, Mark Kenny was one of the first traders to step over the rubble of the near-derelict building and set up his business selling vintage clothes and furniture. Others, such as Patrick Bradley and Gary Nichol were there with him, and the group of traders selling antiques, art, and bric-a-brac began to operate under the umbrella name of Bedlam. Not long after, Jenni Doherty took a table there, too, selling second-hand books.
When the owners decided to sell the property, the bus moved on. Around the same time, new rates regulations came to apply to empty as well as occupied buildings, and the disused convent building on Pump Street became available. In August 2015, the move was made to Palace Street, out of the tight spaces and dark rooms of Pump Street into the brightness and expanse of the Yellow Yard.
At this point, one or two got off the Bedlam bus and caught new connections, while new passengers got on board.
Ben Allen, of Abbazappa records, came to Bedlam in Pump Street to sell his second-hand vinyl at a fair during Derry’s year as UK City of Culture. He was – is – an artist, who suddenly found that the galleries who sold his work closed in the 2008 crash. He had been selling records online as a sideline, but quickly realised he needed to expand his operation. He took up a corner of a room in Pump Street for nine days and has never left.
'I found people here were crazy for buying records,' he says, 'and, right from the start, I took notice of what people wanted and got it for them. I listen to what people want and I get it for them.'
The move to the Yellow Yard allowed him to expand his stock and add lines too. He acted on customer demand and now sells turntables and, when he can get them, speakers, which fly out of the shop almost as soon as they get there.
Like Ben Allen, Katie Blue is a professional artist who found herself having to adapt to new economic conditions. As galleries closed, she took a space at the Yellow Yard to sell her own work, and then added different stock – cushions, toys, jewellery, soft furnishings, found objects. She sells a weird variety of goods. West German pottery vases sit next to sock toys and brooches made of tiny plastic dolls. She has brought her studio into the retail space and added to it, making what she describes as 'an Aladdin’s Cave of wondrous goodies, funky, edgy, full of colour and life.'
Jenni Doherty has moved on from the table she sold from at the back of Great James Street Church. As well as the second-hand and new books she sells, she has set up a dedicated children’s reading space, and also operates Ireland’s only typewriter museum, with over 75 machines which she encourages people to use to take part in her regular Typewriter Story Challenge.
She is proud of the way things have evolved from the early days in Great James Street. While independent and proud of it, community is vital, and she recognises her role not only as a bookseller but as a promoter of writers, too. 'Little Acorns is very supportive of local writers, especially self-published ones. I can provide a window they can’t find elsewhere,' she says of the regular reading events and showcases.
She also recognises the importance of history, continuity, and change in her presence in the Yellow Yard. She has retained some of the furniture left when the shirt factory closed, and has also gathered fittings and fixtures from former Derry bookshops, such as Shipquay News and Bookworm.
You can now go into the Yellow Yard and buy a vintage Dansette record player. Or you can buy original Adidas tracktops and French work jackets. Or a second-hand book. Or a new book. Or a coffee and a plate of vegetarian chilli. Or a clock made out of an old 45, or an original work of art, or a lampshade, or a bath bomb. The variety of goods on sale means that the Yellow Yard attracts customers of all ages, from teenagers looking for retro clothes to parents bringing their children for books to pensioners after an LP they used to have. And that, together with the fact that the products stocked are hard to come by elsewhere, creates a freshness and vibrancy not found in other retail spaces in the city.
'If you bring a few different people and ideas together, you can keep the costs down and the customer interest up. And we’re all people who can’t play the game,' says Mark Kenny. So, with a clear vision and a dash of bloody-mindedness, they made up their own. While some of the traders have changed in the years since Bedlam appeared in Great James Street, the spirit and sense of purpose have remained the same.
Spotting opportunities, responding creatively to economic necessity and changing retail circumstances, the traders now in the Yellow Yard have not ignored those buildings or customers overlooked by others. They have adapted and evolved and, in so doing, have breathed new life and character into empty and abandoned spaces.
The Yellow Yard on Palace Street, Derry~Londonderry is open between Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10am to 5.30pm. See Facebook for more information. This story is featured as part of Creativity Month 2017, an NI-wide celebration of creativity and the creative industries. Catch up on others you may have missed here.