No sniggering, no staring, no pretense

Work begins next week in Manchester on Europe's first gay shopping mall. Decca Aitkenhead reports
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Where do transvestites go to get their dresses cleaned? Where do gay men go to send flowers to their boyfriend? Where can gay DJs buy classic gay anthems - and chat about the clubs where they play? The snigger or frankly hostile stare are familiar to every gay and lesbian shopper who - despite the much-hyped currency of the pink pound - often have to endure second-rate service, buying products designed without their tastes in mind. But next week, in Manchester, work is beginning on Europe's first ever gay shopping mall.

Phoenix will be located in the city centre, on the edge of the "gay village" which lies along the banks of the Rochdale canal, between Piccadilly and Oxford Road. The mall will house 14 shop units, a bar-restaurant and a coffee shop, spread over two floors of a converted Victorian building. A decor of brass, wood and glass is designed to echo the classic style of a New York galleria, though opening hours will be tilted to a European model. The complex is due to open on Easter weekend.

Terry King, 28, is the Manchester entrepreneur behind the project. "So much has been made of the pink economy, but it's never been extended beyond the world of bars and clubs and restaurants, until now. Here, we're creating an entire environment where gays and lesbians can buy the things they want in an atmosphere they know will be gay-friendly.

"Manchester has a huge shopping centre called the Arndale, and frankly it's an awful, yellow carbuncle full of old women elbowing you out of the way to get a bit of cheap crockery. Gay people just don't want to go there. We are creating something more diverse, where shops are highly individualised, with personal service. It's all about a less aggressive lifestyle. Shopping should be a pleasure."

According to the last census, there are 310,000 gays and lesbians in Greater Manchester alone. The gay village is the fastest growing area of the city, attracting interest from businesses which would until recently have taken no interest in what was once a run-down quarter. Boddingtons recently opened a huge pub-restaurant and yet another bar is to open in the coming weeks. The pink pound now keeps a gay solicitor's firm, taxi company, record label, hairdresser and countless clubs in business in the village. But Phoenix is not styling itself as an exclusively gay centre.

"There will be no sense that you have to be gay to get through the door," says Terry. "Some of the shops will be gay-owned and gay-run, and others won't. But you will never get the situation where a ladies' clothing shop refuses point blank to let a man try on a dress, as you do in most department stores. Instead, you'll be getting an assistant who'll be saying: 'That looks fab!'"

Unquestionably, gay style has pioneered many areas of fashions this decade - whether clothes, music or dance - and the service offered in many gay bars puts your average sales assistant to shame. But, as yet, the only city to tap the retail market with a purpose-built mall has been Los Angeles.

Terry explains: "I opened a gay bookshop two years ago, and within weeks I had begun to appreciate the scope of the market. Imagine how nice it will be for a gay person to go to a florist and get flowers sent to his boyfriend, and not have to pretend that it's a girl with a funny name, or have to just put initials on the card.

"And there will be clothes shops, a video shop, a record shop, a glass and chinaware shop and a travel agent. The dry cleaner's is straight-owned, but they jumped at the chance, because it's an opportunity for them to show how much they value their gay customers - drag artists, transvestites and so on - and they understand that it's embarrassing for them to troop into a high street shop with their frocks."

Pauline Samuels, of Piccadilly Dry Cleaners, explains: " You wouldn'tthink, in this day and age, that there would still be any prejudice - but there is. Once I'm actually in the village, in their own community, I know my gay customers will be much more comfortable."

One outlet which won't be appearing in Phoenix is a sex shop. "We decided to specifically keep away from anything sexual. That's the traditional image of a 'gay shop', and it's already more than provided for elsewhere," says Terry.

And the customers? Paul Slater, a student and regular in the village, says: "It's all very well going into Kendals to buy make-up - if you're feeling in the mood, you can camp it up and brazen it out. But when you're not feeling like a drama queen, and just want to pop in, it's such a bloody hassle - you think, what are you looking at, you old bint? The thought of shops where you could feel as at home as you do in a gay bar is amazing."

Phoenix will also offer new employment to Manchester's gays and lesbians, outside the traditional arena of bars and clubs. "You see so many 30- and 40-year-olds working behind bars, earning what 18-year-olds earn, simply to be in an environment where they can be themselves. It's been very hard for them to find stable employment in a gay-friendly workplace, away from the nightlife economy, but hopefully it will now be available."

The shopping centre is due to open for Easter, and will operate European opening hours - many shops will stay open till 10pm, and the restaurant will stay open till 2am, for example - capitalising on the fact that the village is perhaps the only area of the city centre consistently busy after hours.

Terry is already planning for beyond the opening at Easter. "The potential is huge. In the future we hope to extend, to put in a gay doctor's surgery, a new home for the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, and conference rooms. Hopefully this will lead to centres like this springing up across Europe."

Will it be the acid test for the power of the pink pound? "Perhaps," says Terry. "But more than that, it will be a test of the power of high quality, diversity and good taste. It should be a pleasure to shop here, whatever your sexuality."

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