As shops shutter, it is not only local economies but the sense of place and community that is imperilled. In an era of online retail, how can the high street fight back?by Hephzibah Anderson / June 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
Every autumn, Lewes in East Sussex assumes the aura of a ghost town. Take a dusk stroll through its hilly streets, and thanks to a “lightbox project” drawn from the archives of Edward Reeves—a local photography studio with claims to being the world’s oldest—window-shopping becomes an exercise in peering back in time. In dozens of storefronts, black and white images going back over 150 years are illuminated, and glow with unnerving vitality in or near to the spots where they were originally taken.
It isn’t just the wattage of their backlit presentation that makes these pictures seem so alive—nor the frank stares of people who’d yet to learn to hide behind smiles when faced with a camera. It’s the bustle. Even in unpeopled shots, the shops exude an orderly busyness, like ironmongers Mence Smith, captured in 1925, when it occupied a corner building on the High Street. Every inch of its frontage is crammed with merchandise, from the tin pails at the very top, beneath its gilt-lettered sign, to the spades dangling down onto the pavement. Or take the couple posing in 1953 outside Jenkins and Stripp Newsagents. He’s wearing a baggy suit, she has a sporty jacket that doesn’t quite jive with her sensible shoes, but they’re upstaged by the dazzling array of publications on offer that stretch beyond the shop front and out of the frame. There’s not a customer in sight, yet you know this business is thriving.
Much changed in the world of high street commerce over the course of the several lifetimes that these images span and in the generations since, and yet there’s one disquieting contrast between those various “thens” and now. Because even here, in the affluent Home Counties—and in a town that lures both deep-pocketed Londoners and tourists ready to spend—the stilling effects of retail’s decline cannot be missed. To be clear, Lewes is a town that is atypically flush in the national scheme of things. It’s so easy to parody that if you wander into Waitrose on a summer’s afternoon, you’re likely to spot black-tied Glyndebourne-goers, provisioning their hampers with champagne and French cheese. But nonetheless, up on the high street, the dedicated cheese shop closed down last year…