See incredible transformation of Pop Recs coffee shop and venue as it opens in historic site
It’s taken three years of painstaking restoration, a million pounds of investment and a whole lot of heart and soul – but the new Pop Recs is finally open to the public.
Opening the third incarnation of the award-winning culture hub, at the bottom end of High Street West, has been a long, difficult road for the team who’ve faced the challenges of converting a Grade II-listed building, a pandemic and the death of much-loved director Dave Harper.
Way back in June 2013, Pop Recs was opened as a pop up record shop by Frankie & the Heartstrings in the old Tourist Information Office in Fawcett Street, but over the years snowballed into so much more; becoming a community and culture hub which brought big names to the city such as James Bay, The Charlatans and Franz Ferdinand, whilst also being a welcoming space for like-minded groups to meet.
A second Pop Recs soon opened in Stockton Road, but the vision was always to have a large-scale permanent home for the multi-purpose Community Interest Company.
That vision has now come to life spectacularly at High Street West, thanks to the drive of Pop Recs directors, building owners Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust and funding from National Lottery. The buildings are also a gateway cornerstone of Sunderland’s Historic High Streets Heritage Action Zone, an ongoing revival scheme comprising grant funding from Sunderland City Council and Historic England.
The result of years of hard work is a coffee shop and training kitchen at 173 High Street West and a 250 capacity multi-purpose venue at neighbouring 172, with its own stage, accessible toilets, high-spec light and sound rig and a bar serving locally-brewed Vaux on draught, as well as bottles and cans.
"It’s amazing to see, not only the building, but how much Pop Recs has changed since we opened it as a local record shop,” said Michael McKnight, one of the Pop Recs founders. “Organically, the community has shaped it and it’s now become a place to hang out with various groups, have a drink, meet a friend, a place to come if you just want someone to chat to.”
It is, of course, a bittersweet opening for the team who lost co-founder Dave Harper, 43, in August, a death which sparked a huge outpouring of grief and tributes across the North East thanks to his musical talent and passion for making a change in his home city.
Michael, Dave’s best mate, Frankie & the Heartstrings bandmate and business partner, said: "It’s everything we envisaged – and more. It’s so disappointing that Dave never saw it open, he was so close. But we think he’d be really proud. He had loads of ideas and it’s lovely to see his vision come to life, and he’s hung up all over the walls too, which he’d love.”
The opening is a huge boost to a once dilapidated end of the town.
“I think this end of the town is one of the most beautiful in North East England,” added Michael. “I’m from Grangetown so this part of town and Hendon has always been part of my life. The council are doing a great job of getting more people living and working in the city centre and we feel proud that we’re playing our part in breathing new life into a beautiful old building.
"We’re right next to the halls of residence at Panns Bank here and it’s great that the first thing students see when they walk into the city now is a culture hub. It gives a different impression of the city.
"Sunderland is pretty, it’s just that the ground level is neglected. If you look up, past the shop facades, there’s some amazing buildings in places such as Fawcett Street and John Street.”
The new Pop Recs also has its own apprenticeship scheme, Pop Project, which will give young people aged 19-25 valuable skills in hospitality, whether it be making pizza dough in the kitchen or serving front of house.
This year, Dan Shannon came on board and is helping to boost Pop Recs’ hospitality offering to the public, while trainees from the Pop Project gain hands on experience.
Dan, who is now one of the directors along with Michael and Jo Gordon, has much experience in the sector, managing respected sites such as Holmeside Coffee at the Winter Gardens and Flat Caps in Newcastle, whilst building up a huge following in lockdown with his Midnight Pizza Crü venture.
People will be able to tuck into the Detroit-style pizzas at regular Midnight Pizza Crü nights but, daily, Dan will also be steering the coffee shop side of the business.
For the time being, as the new site finds it feet, it will be open from 10am to 2pm for coffees and pastries, but the hours and food offering will increase as the weeks go on.
It brewed its first coffees, with Hasbean as its house blend, on Tuesday this week and Dan says the response has been great.
In between serving a steady stream of custom, he said: “The response so far has been great. I think people are eager to support Pop Recs, and we’re so grateful for their good will. With this new space we’re raising the bar further. The food and drink scene in Sunderland is on the up and we really want to be a part of that.”
The venue side of the business, in the building which once housed the very first Binns store in the 1840s, opened for a friends and family night at the weekend, with DJs on the decks and Vaux beers flowing.
Dan said: "It was incredible to see the venue alive and breathing. It couldn’t have gone better. People came down and made it their own and there was an amazing energy. If we can hold on to that energy this place will be amazing.”
More details on the Midnight Pizza Crü nights will be released in the coming weeks, as will gigs to be held in the venue.