The much-loved Hills, at Waterloo Place in Sunderland city centre, sold its last novel in 2006 having served countless customers since opening at its original site in Fawcett Street in 1852.
In recent years the Waterloo Place unit had a number of forms, including as Reds hairdressers, but had been empty for some time until social entrepreneurs Mark Burns-Cassell and Vincent Todd la resume at the end of 2020.
The couple and their artistic CICs have already had great success with previous ventures, including artist studios and spaces in Norfolk Street, taking over the former Creative Cohesion in Nile Street, the upper floors of The Place in Sunniside and a former brewery at the back of Norfolk Street – now Hills has become their flagship business.
They have invested Â£160,000 in the complete reconfiguration of the 6,000 square foot site to create individual studios and workspaces, resulting in a new creative hub for the city which is home to 17 businesses and arts practitioners, including a cafe , a beauty studio, a tattoo artist, glass artist, photographer, jeweler, candle maker, milliner and many more.
Mark says it was important to them to honor the site’s history and they asked permission from Hills’ owning family to use their name in the new name, Hills Arts Centre.
“Hills is such an iconic store in the hearts and minds of Wearside, people have grown up with it,” Mark explained. âSo we always wanted to name the arts center after him. It’s a living legacy: it’s still an educational environment, but we brought it to 2022.”
Much work has been done to create individual artist and business spaces within the large site, and all but one of the units are already full with the artists and businesses bringing the building back to life, whether it’s act as Grinder making coffees downstairs or artists making new works upstairs.
Mark said: “It has been a real privilege to create space for so many varied practitioners.”
Muse, a beauty studio specializing in eyebrows, eyelashes, aesthetics and nails, is one of the ground floor businesses alongside the fully accessible Grinder Central cafe.
The new space gave city businesswoman Helen McLean the chance to build on her former Frederick Street Take A Brow salon to build a bigger beauty business.
In addition to its clients, it also welcomes those of the aesthetic nurse on site, with space available for a nail technician.
âMy old living room was quite isolated, but this place in the center of the city, where so much investment takes place, is great. It has such a good vibe there,â Helen said.
“Having Grinder here has also been a big draw for me because we have a similar style and clientele. People can come in and get their brows and lashes done and then have a coffee, so it works really well.
“I knew this site as Hills and it’s great to see it becoming a creative hub for indies. With Sunderland losing so many big chains, it’s the indies who are the way forward for the city centre. And it will only get better with all the new developments going on, like the train station and new accommodation.
Grinder Central opened as a sister site to the original Grinder in Durham Road and gave owners Michael Curtis and Riki Tsang the chance to expand their offering.
The first Grinder will remain in operation, but, triple in size, Grinder Central has space for sit-ins as well as its own kitchen facilities, meaning they can cook up more home-cooked meals and increase the menu to include sandwiches, with some of the quirky options such as Nutella and chorizo ââand Nutella s’mores toasted brioche.
Michael says it’s fantastic to be part of a wave of investment in the city centre.
“I don’t think there have ever been as many changes at Sunderland as there are right now,” he said. “High Street hasn’t been in its best shape in the past, but all new developments unlock its potential,” he said.
Paula Woodhouse owns one of the upstairs studios where she creates fused glass works for her business Class Glass by Wor Lass.
“It’s such a relaxing environment and it’s great to work with other creatives,” she said. “It’s inspiring to see how they work.”
Back on the ground floor, the front space of the arts center houses lounging areas for exhibits as well as community arts activities.
In addition to creating physical spaces, Mark and Vincent also help their studio owners with funding applications so they can earn a living wage through their art. In their group of cultural organisations, this has resulted in Â£2million in funding for creative businesses housed in their city center premises.
Mark said: “Not only does this create job opportunities in the city, but it gives artists the freedom to be creative, giving the public the opportunity to engage in the arts, while attracting more people to the city center. This makes the local community a more resilient and engaging space.
:: Hills Arts Center will be hosting an open house from 6:30-9pm on Thursday, March 31 where people can tour the building, meet workshop owners, try their hand at crafts and sample some of their products. It is open to all and free.
See inside Sunderland’s new Grinder Central in the historic Hills Library…