A Manifesto: In Praise of the High Street
18 January 2013
I am sure you couldn’t avoid the collapse of HMV earlier in the week. Farewell, His Master’s Voice – but if you’re like me, you got a bit bored of pundits and commentators bemoaning the collapse of the High Street under the barrage of ‘evil’ Amazon and their ilk.
I don’t know a lot about HMV. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve been in one ever. Was there maybe an HMV on the corner of Piccadilly? If so—well, I suspect I’ve been a couple of times in my life, and the last time would have been about 15 years ago. I don’t mind admitting that I buy my music on the internet. I gave away an enormous box of hundreds of CD’s to the village hall fete a few years ago – I was sick of lugging them around, when all of their contents were happily installed on my laptop and iPod.
And am I alone in liking Amazon? I really enjoy browsing around their shelves and shelves of recently published books (well, let’s face it, including my own… did you know that all authors obsessively check their amazon.com sales ranking? No? Well, believe me, they do).
But because I shop at Amazon for one thing – new books – doesn’t mean that I don’t love spending – losing – wasting (call it what you will) several hours in a fantastically stocked second hand bookshop in a little market town – where you make the real discoveries.
Yet all over the country we find High Streets which are grim, dull, depressing places, filled with chain stores selling rubbish that we don’t want. I don’t have a clue, because as you know I haven’t been in one for 15 years, but I suspect HMV would have been just one of those shops. I can’t help but wonder there’s a reason they went downhill. They were selling stuff no-one wanted.
A few years ago, with my architectural and planning hat on, I was working on the early design for a new town in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s a fantastic project and in fact we’re just getting going on the detailed designs at the moment. One of the radical things about this development is that it proposes – in the decades to come – to create a new High Street at its heart. Who knows how this enterprise will go? I work on a few such projects, and several – over the years – have promised to make a new High Street – and none have yet been delivered. But I think this one just might.
We were in the middle of that first design week where the scheme was being put together in the full glare of public attention. Half way through, a group of shopkeepers from the neighbouring town attended one of the presentations. After a little while, they stood up as a group to protest: that the new High Street would put their High Street – about 10 miles down the road – out of business.
The American master planner of the town is a good friend of mine. He’s not one to take such ideas quietly.
“DO YOU REALLY F**KING BELIEVE MY DEVELOPMENT IS GOING TO PUT YOUR TOWN OUT OF BUSINESSS??” He yelled.
“NO! YOU ARE PUTTING YOURSELVES OUT OF BUSINESS. I’ve been to have a good look at your high street. I went a couple of days ago. And I’ve got news for you. It’s full of shops selling crap that is 15 years old that no-one wants to buy in shops that look dead BEHIND WINDOWS COVERED IN F**KING YELLOW CELLOPHANE”
“BELIEVE ME”, he continued… at this point, slightly, perhaps, losing his temper, “YOU WILL HAVE PUT YOURSELVES OUT OF BUSINESS LONG BEFORE THE FIRST F**KING BRICK OF THE NEW TOWN HAS BEEN BUILT. GET REAL!!! STOP BLAMING OTHER PEOPLE FOR YOUR PROBLEMS….”
It wasn’t what you would call diplomatic. One by one – those distinguished, gentle Scottish shopkeepers stood up and walked out of the room. I felt dreadful. I think we all did.
But two days later – they came back and hired the developers’ retail expert to help them sort out their High Street.
The truth sometimes hurts. We’ve probably all been in that sort of High Street somewhere in Scotland. They have an ironic chic, for sure. But they are not a place you would choose to buy anything.
One of my favourite things in life is to look at old black and white photographs of towns. Here is a random selection of High Streets, that I pulled off google this evening. Look at those bustling streets of variety and richness, leading to great Catherdrals, or bustling markets, or distinguished town halls:
This is not a lament for how great things were in 1900. No, I wouldn’t have wanted to live then at all. For a start, I’d have been put to death for being gay, if I hadn’t died of Cholera already.
But why do we not have the same feeling of bustle and excitement today? Because those streets are over-filled with useless chain stores, rubbish charity shops, tattoo parlours (have you noticed how tattoo parlours have moved from the back street to the High Street: the sign of a town in collapse); because they are surfaced with revolting brick-lined pedestrianised paving, and suffer from ghastly one way systems that suck the life out of the high street and mean the out of town supermarket is just that little bit more convenient (and coincidentally has better parking). And, as we found out recently, even cute ‘independents’ turn out to be owned by Tesco (Harris & Hoole, anyone?), not to make you feel too cynical about parting with £3.50 for a cup of coffee.
I was going to write that I’ve got nothing against Tesco – but I’m afraid I kindof do.
But I still have faith in the High Street. One of the the strange things about owning a shop is you realise that people like shopping. They really do. The right shop – let alone the right things for sale – can make people feel good. It’s not just a question of being a great little bookshop in Bridport, either (see my last post). Have you noticed what a brilliant job the Conran Shop is doing recently? Isn’t John Lewis a nice place to browse if you’re after that perfect ironing board or dishwasher? (Well, I’m only going by how many people seem to spend their Sundays browsing kettles and dishwashers at John Lewis. You might say – get a life – but I honestly think they are having fun, and go home, and enjoy a little afternoon frisson as they unwrap the new ironing board and kettle).
I think there is also something communal about shopping in a shop that probably extends quite deep into our psyche these days. We like a chat with a friendly shopkeeper (who, if he happens to be Robin at Ben P towers, will probably persuade you to buy quite a lot that you never previously knew you needed. Oh dear. I hope you don’t leave with buyers’ remorse). We like chats with fellow shoppers. And if you’re on South Street, Bridport, at 10am on a Saturday morning in July – well, you like the feeling of feeling that you’re living at the centre of the universe (actually Bridport in the summer is a little too crowded f0r me).
So I don’t believe in the death of the High Street. But I do think a lot of businesses on the high street – especially the big ones – should be thinking pretty sharply about what the hell they are doing. I can’t really imagine that we’ll still be buying electronic goods and toothpaste on the high street in 30 years time. I’d actually be pretty worried if I was a newsagent. I wouldn’t love being a useless fashion store selling rubbish clothes made in China where curiously no sizes other than XXXXXXXL or XXXXXXS are available on the rack (I’ve never understood why clothes shop buyers don’t order a few more Mediums? It would be logical?).
What I also think is that High Streets need to contract.. to get a little smaller. At least half the stuff on the High Street of the 1990s is now being sold on the internet. What’s filled up the rest of the stores – the ones that aren’t empty, with depressing ‘TO RENT’ signs filling the window for months and months (instead of popping in a novel little pop-up rent free). What? Yes, charity shops and tattoo parlours. And Estate Agents – another business that might want to be thinking about moving online rather soon, I should imagine. Oh, and Travel Agents. Hmm. I never even THOUGHT about booking a flight online. Yes I’d much prefer to walk down to my local Travel Agent for a half an hour wait during the middle of the morning and a chat with a rather uninformed agent (who is going to get all his or her information… online).
No, as you might have guessed, I’d like to get rid of some of these businesses. I’d like the High Street to shrink, but in so doing, to become more vital. And in its place, I’d like all those townhouses that are currently retail zones with nothing above them but dead windows with net curtains – I’d like them to become houses again. For young families with children; for the elderly, who enjoy living in the middle of a town centre with the world going past; goodness, even for students. And I’d like Local Authorities to set up a property rating structure that encourages that.
I’d like to rip up every pedestrianised street in Britain. I know that doesn’t sound sensible, but I hate the empty feeling you get from that sea of red brick paving and the silence of hearing thousands of people walking along – no traffic, no noise. There’s one city in Europe that should be that silent, and it’s no coincidence that it’s one of the creepiest – Venice. I’d like to tear out every one way system designed to make the traffic speed faster around the arterial network, but never through the middle: where trade and commerce happen (there’s a reason towns were founded on crossroads). I’d like to rip up bad modern artworks and useless 1960s concrete planters, and squeeze in as much car parking as possible in their place. I’d like all car parks to be free for the first couple of hours, so they are no longer treated as a means for the local authority to raise a little sneaky tax, but actually allow people to shop on their high street with as much convenience as at Bluewater.
I’d like High Streets to have managers, and decent, co-ordinated events, and I’d like landlords not to get dumb about charging rents that mean that stores can only go to multiples. You need the odd anchor, for sure. I’d like landlords and shop keepers to have a sense of pride in their premises – to keep the storefront painted. I’d like the owners of drab 1970s covered malls that have had no investment since they were built to be strung up, perhaps alongside the useless pet food shop that seems to occupy such spaces.
I’d like some of those shop owners to have an interest in SELLING THINGS, instead of that weird, smug satisfaction that they seem to have when they are able to go “Oh, no, Sir, I’m afraid we’ve sold out of that. Yes, it was quite popular…” MR I AM IN YOUR SHOP AND I WANT TO GIVE YOU MY MONEY. Please don’t be smug that you’ve failed to order enough stock when you are purportedly a fourth generation retailer. (okay – I know, I know – we have things out of stock, but that is genuinely because the suppliers can’t get them to us).
Do you get my drift? Not so much farewell HMV; It’s farewell, I pray, to the crap old High Street, and hello, please, to its revival. It can’t be that complicated.