Can we still revive the high street? The government can exhort us to “get out and spend” as much as it likes, but so far, we don’t seem terribly keen. A flurry of activity tailed off soon after shops re-opened, leaving a stark 15.5% decline on last year, heralding more job losses and closures. Some hit harder than others: where will my husband browse for anaphrodisiac all-weather trousers now that his local adventure store is deceased?
Corona removes some of the key pleasures of real-life shopping: touching and trying on. But in deepest lockdown, our local high street felt only marginally stranger than it normally does: half the “units” (in estate-agent speak) were already empty, plate glass reflecting plate glass, an untended alarm echoing off the window of a defunct River Island. The Saturday circuit on my local high street that was the high point of my teenage week is a roll call of the fallen: Miss Selfridge, Accessorize, Dotty P and Woolies are all gone: only Body Shop survives.
Now, people are back – the all-important footfall – but they aren’t shopping how we used to. We need to make it fun again, somehow, but it might be an uphill battle: my sons find the idea of walking from shop to shop as bafflingly old fashioned as a rotary-dial phone.
I’m not snotty about the high street – I loved it. If I were 16, I would absolutely have been in the much-derided Primark queue when it reopened. When my kids were little, we lived behind Oxford Street in London and I spent hours in its air-conditioned stores – a safe, cheerful respite from anxious early motherhood. Smiling surrogate aunties at Pantheon Marks & Spencer exclaimed at my babies’ plump wrists; and clean, roomy “cloakrooms” were a salvation. One of the things that drew me to my husband was his ability to enjoy an aimless potter, unlike my stepfather (king of the three-minute Sainsbury’s dash) and father (all Christmas gifts purchased in one swift, purposeful pillage of the Science Museum shop).
But can we reclaim the high street from tumbleweed? Should we even try? Part of me says convert it all into affordable housing, build huge Sure Start centres on the embers of department stores for beleaguered pandemic parents (I’m sure our family-friendly cabinet would love that), then rewild the rest. Paperchase into ploughshares. We don’t need more stuff. But, of course, we still want stuff, we’re just getting it from Jeff Bezos.
You are Observer readers, so independent booksellers, ethical food stores and zero-waste shops on the high street are a given, but here are the other outlets I would still relinquish my crumb-infested keyboard for.
The shop of unnecessary delights I don’t mean those chilly “concept stores”, where a single black garment with five sleeves hangs in a Perspex cube like an entomology exhibit and three pieces of avant-garde ceramic too delicate for your sausage fingers teeter on a narrow shelf. I mean welcoming shops selling things you absolutely do not need, but where a particular alchemy makes you want it all. You emerge with a perfectly wrapped pencil, pair of socks or stuffed bird (listen, it happens) and a delighted glow.
The single item specialist shop Obviously they know infinitely more about what they sell than you, but the best of these manage not to make you feel like a worm, even on a tiny budget. James Smith & Sons, the High Holborn umbrella paradise, treats you with care and courtesy even if you buy their cheapest folding number. Ganterie Boon in Antwerp – the kind of place Colin Firth’s character in A Single Man would have bought cashmere-lined gloves in a colour too exquisite for me to conjure – treats your hands with grave solicitude. Button shops are the best: my local one in a half-timbered corner cupboard of a shop is perfectly practical; the Button Queen on Marylebone Lane sold vintage dreams (sadly now only online).
The platonic ideal charity shop There may be designer bargains you sneak to the till, breath held in case someone notices before you escape, but it’s more about the endorphin high of the rummage – books you actually plan to read, a teapot you really want or the perfect toy for a hard-to-please kid. As a sideline, charity shops should bottle their smell – dust, naphthalene and the heady promise of bargains. I would absolutely buy eau de charity shop when I can’t reach the real thing.
The apocalypse shop 5mm dowling, pie dishes, plastic squirrels, powdery mildew spray and Palmolive… These shops sell all you need to survive the probably imminent End Times. Everyone thinks their local one is best, but everyone is wrong, because mine is. It stocks everything from air fryers to “art” via high-vis workwear and hammers. I went in for batteries, post-lockdown, and stood in the central nave, holy of holies, eyes pricking, as a joyful cacophony of infomercials for miracle cloths played on multiple screens. If shopping was always this transcendent, the high street would be immortal.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling
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