I’ve been lucky enough to visit Amsterdam, Bedford, Belfast, Bexley, Boston, Brighton, Brixton, Broadstairs, Coventry, Chichester, Eastbourne, Enfield, Guildford, Halifax, Holbeach, the Isle of Wight, Leeds, Lewes, Littlehampton, Manchester, Margate, Newcastle in New South Wales, Portsmouth, Rochdale, Rotterdam, Salford, Shoreham, Southampton, Streatham, Stresa in Italy and Worthing in the last year or so.
And what Bill and Mary have forgotten? Independent record stores, quirky bookshops, antique shops, food markets, toyshops, ironmongers, vintage clothing emporiums, art materials shops, mod-style menswear boutiques, tailors making suits for older men, shops selling scooters, electrical stores, wool shops, greengrocers, model railway shops, comic stores, flea markets, stationery shops, galleries, haberdashers and charity shops do more than just ‘retail’. They’re about people. Grimsey and Portas have forgotten about real people.
From North Laine in Brighton to Manchester’s Northern Quarter, from Coventry Market to Covent Garden, from Brixton Village to the beach at Broadstairs, there are shops that are social spaces, as well as places to sell things. And there are shops that are making things, closing the distance between small-scale manufacture and being a shopkeeper. Shops are providing a focus for communities with a common interest, and are places that people meet, hang out and go shopping together.
The facts and figures retail experts like Grimsey and Portas use, the kind of data they’re used to using in their dayjobs working for big shopping centres and the massive retailers who’ve done the most damage to our town centres, assume that every business is after growth and that every customer is just after the lowest price. Grimsey and Portas can’t even see these blurred, hybrid spaces – let alone understand them.
Of course, many shops are closing and many more will in the next year. This isn’t a plea to preserve the status quo. Because change is good, and change does not mean the end. Our town centres have become clone towns, dominated by the big chain orthodoxy, by sell fast and don’t linger, by the lack of imagination of management interested in only the fastest route to the biggest profit. It’s time we had something different. We deserve better.
Imagination and creativity will win. It’s a defining part of the British character. Some shopkeepers want a small, sustainable business (not to make millions) and are finding a corner of a crowded market. They’re mixing online and the high street in ways that defy the experts’ data. They’re making shops that fulfil a useful social function, bring a benefit to our towns beyond mere selling.
And many customers still want to shop, because it’s a social activity. They want to come together around a shared interest, be it model soldiers or vintage clothes or knitting or riding scooters or just a love of food. Shopping isn’t just about the acquisition of goods, but about gaining knowledge, experience and understanding – you can’t beat a bookseller’s suggestions, an ironmonger’s advice, the tip-off from the chap in the record store, or the thing the man in the flea market has put by for you.
Yes, shops are closing: yes, it’s tough being a shopkeeper: yes, the high street is changing. But don’t expect shops to disappear, just because retail experts and their clients would like them to. Let’s support this new, local business with reduced business rates. But first, let’s visit them, linger, meet shopkeepers and customers, and understand the change that’s happening.