Photo: Kris Tripplaar/SIPA USA/PA Images

The life lessons we’ll lose when the high streets fall

When closed signs are flipped over permanently, livelihoods aren’t all that are lost
June 17, 2018

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.

Even chain stores are intimately woven into our shared memories. Mothercare, now wobbling, will always mean school sandals for me. The Body Shop, somehow still going, is forever the place where I bought a scarlet lipstick after my first boyfriend dumped me to focus on his A Level history revision (yes, I was thrown over for Bismarck). Laura Ashley, whose continued existence seems vaguely incredible, was where I found my first little black dress in a sale bin. When these stores collapse they take our stories with them.

Of course, the stores we remember were themselves squatting in graves of older shops. Just look up, and above the signage for Debenhams (another struggler) or Next (2017 was its worst year in 25) you can see architectural traces of another, altogether more gracious shopping era, when every county town had its own local version of Fortnum’s, filled with palms and light and sweeping staircases.

So perhaps it’s not so much what’s vanishing as the absence of a replacement, the failure to fill the proliferating empty spaces, that’s so depressing. They remind us of the joyless, solitary experience we’ve all bought into, shopping alone at home, bathed in the glow of our screens. As we’ve surrendered the heart of our physical communities for convenience, we’ve also given away the frivolity of shopping for clothes with a group of girlfriends, and the chance to joke with a stranger at the check-out.

Not that e-commerce is devoid of the human dimension. After the midnight impulse click, a package in saggy grey plastic has to be abandoned on your doorstep, some hours after their six-hour delivery slot, via a courier who thrusts a stylus at you. The fact that it’s almost impossible to form a legible letter, let alone words, with those things seems somehow apt—I can’t imagine online shopping giving my daughter the kinds of intensely personal memories that the high street has gifted me with.