When closed signs are flipped over permanently, livelihoods aren’t all that are lostby Hephzibah Anderson / June 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
When the pound shops are in trouble you know it’s bad. The British high street has been tottering for the best part of a decade, but this year has brought gloomier news than we’ve heard since 2012. Toys R Us is toast. House of Fraser, New Look and Moss Bros are in varying states of peril. M&S is poised to close 100 stores and, yes, Poundworld has gone into administration.
Business rates, out-of-town shopping, Brexit—they may be contributing factors but it’s fundamentally e-commerce that has struck the death knell for brick-and-mortar vendors. As Amazon gobbles their business models, the deafening clunk of shutter after shop shutter is sounding out across the land. It’s left the average high street raggedy and gap-toothed, a place to hurry tactfully past rather than tarry in.
Retail remains our largest private employer, but when closed signs are flipped over permanently, livelihoods aren’t all that are lost. The high street—whether that’s a little strip of indies, or a precinct chockful of chains—has always sold more than stuff. It’s a truism that when shops close, they take with them the hearts of their communities. High streets are sources of serendipity—you never know who you’ll run into—and the kind of anarchic randomness epitomised by Poundworld’s inventory. They’re places to browse unfettered by algorithms.
Shops are woven into the very fabric of lives. As children, they taught us about arith- metic, civility and independence. We played with toy cash registers, counted out our pocket money and said our “pleases” and “thank yous” in toy shops. The high street of the nearest market town to where I grew up remains vivid for me. I can still conjure up the scent of the butchers on days when men in white hats and wellies would wrestle carcasses in through its narrow doorway. The newsagents on the corner was low-ceilinged and thickly carpeted and the sweetshop, with its shining ranks of chocolate bars and jar-lined walls, had a barbers out back. Because the area had begun to attract weekenders, there was also a health food shop with a bakery. At school, “down the shops” was the coveted destination of those old enough to be let out of the gates during the lunch hour, and come sixth form, it was where we went to ask for part-time jobs.