A memory of childhood – walking along the main street in the centre of town where I’d pass MacFisheries the fish shop, Liptons, The Co-op and Timothy Whites the chemist. And a wonderful selection of independent stores: Spencer’s for records, Fairests the toy shop, Biggs the greengrocers, Pophams for Ladybird children’s wear (oh, those awful plaid dresses – every year, every colour. Heavens was I glad to get a Saturday job and a sewing machine!) and Hollingtons department store – the ‘poshest’ shop in town. If you went in there with your pocket money to buy a pretty handkerchief for your mother’s birthday, a lady, smartly dressed in black and wearing pearls would, with the greatest of care, wrap your precious purchase in tissue paper and pop it in a little white paper bag. In those days a shopping list could necessitate visiting a dozen shops. There is a certain fondness in that memory but the reality is that I don’t have time (nor the inclination) to shop like that today – in and out of a dozen different shops.
In the early 1970s the shops were cleared for the building of an indoor shopping centre. It seemed very sophisticated! For some reason (I’m not sure that anyone ever discovered why) it was home to several palm trees – somewhat exotic for a manufacturing town in the Midlands. The independents all but disappeared as a proliferation of chain-stores moved in . But now, several decades on, we’re even losing those. Our town centre is dying. Since M&S left last year, Thorntons (the chocolate shop) has closed and the shutters are down on several other ‘units’ as they are now referred to. Anything new which does open is yet another ‘bargain shop’ selling clothes, cards or bric-a-brac. Various of them sell a small selection of foodstuffs – mostly carbohydrate snacks or tinned foods, often brands which one never sees in the mainstream supermarkets and there is no ‘proper’ food store. There are a number of chain coffee shops and we still have Debenhams but it’s a poor relation to the branches in some other towns, and rumours abound that it too survives on borrowed time. If the number of people whom I ever see in there is indicative of its future, I’d say that those rumours are not far off the mark.
Of course, our situation is not unique; it is replicated in towns across the country and we are are all responsible for the high street demise. We buy online, we buy in the ‘one stop shop’ super-large supermarkets, and we travel to out of town shopping parks to the, larger, better stocked branches of the multiples. We still have what was once the jewel in the town’s crown – an independent shoe shop which was once undoubtedly upmarket but today, although it still sells some classy, expensive brands, in order to find them you have to fight your way through a multitude of sale racks filled with the leftovers of several seasons and over-full display stands of cheap shoes. I just can’t be bothered. There’s a reasonable sized Next but it stocks nowhere near the choice held by those branches on the big retail parks, and when I saw a tunic I liked on a poster in the window of Roman, I was told that it was only available on line. So, the town centre that I once patronised at least once a week, I now rarely visit more than once a month, and then only because I need to go to the bank and building society.
It’s not just the shoppers deserting the towns who are at fault; parking costs are often high which is off-putting, and the shop rents and business rates are exorbitant. Businesses just cannot sustain those costs when is so much competition for their wares. What chance an independent children’s clothier when the supermarkets sell such a large range and for much lower prices. It’s all very well to talk about them not being British made and exploitation in third world sweatshops (actually, it’s not well at all, but you know what I’m saying here), but try telling that to the hard-up parent worrying about the cost of school uniform for three children. It’s not just clothing; I was looking for a solid wooden chopping board for a present and chose a very weighty rubberwood one from Asda costing £10: no rough edges, perfectly smooth surface and great value. It wouldn’t match the quality of the Divermenti oak, ash or maple ones costing between £40 and £70 but I couldn’t have afforded (or justified) that anyway. The quality of supermarket wares gets better and better and the convenience of being able to buy thick fluffy towels or a new kettle at the same time as a bag of frozen peas is not an unattractive proposition for someone with little time.
So what is the answer to the ghost-town centres, some in a far worse state than ours. How do we answer those who call for regeneration? Instead of trying to hang onto the past perhaps it’s time to accept that what was the norm fifty years ago is no longer. Here’s my radical solution: turn them into homes. Convert empty shops into living accommodation. It’s a lot less expensive than buying land and building from scratch, and perhaps putting people among the shops will ignite a renewed enthusiasm for local shopping – no travel, no parking costs – just open your front door and there you are. Maybe not what families want, but try asking those who have no home. I’ll bet they’d jump at the chance.