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A Manifesto: In Praise of the High Street

18 January 2013
Ben Pentreath
27 Comments

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.

27 comments on this post

Maisiesays:

Brilliant! All of it.

Lorraine Cavessays:

Derby city centre was never truly lovely but it has some lovely architecture centred upon what is now called the Cathedral Quarter. In recent years however the development of the ‘new’ Westfields Centre at the opposite end of the city has divided the city into two. I know not what demands the City Council was responding to at the time, but it is said that two of the very largest high street retailers were encouraged to make a move into the centre. As a result much of the ‘old’ high street has been left stranded. It is attempting a fight back bu is oh so sad. Empty and dilapidated, with yes, tattoo parlours. Westfields itself has very little to offer that is ‘real’ and that plus parking fees means that I seldom venture into the city any longer in common with many others. Is it the case however, that we get what we deserve? I took very little interest until it was too late and the development was in place. Westfields is busy with younger and more fashionable persons who may like the fact that it is both warm and dry and noisy with the sounds of other people, but the Market associated with it is dying. Rents are too high and the numbers of people like myself no longer travel to Derby. I am sad and sorry that I do not and have not done more to try and influence the changes in Derby, but I have resolved and am sticking to my resolution to shop in my own small village for groceries and if I need Derby I try my very best to shop only in the old part of town and to support the newly opened baker, but I resent the parking fees very time do it and bemoan the fact that the Council have redeveloped the bus station so that it is now closest to the Westfield Centre.

Good post Ben (as always…). Agree totally with allowing cars into towns… Living, as you know, in Bath, it’s a nightmare to just “pop into town” with limited and expensive on-street parking. But cars and towns can coexist as long as they are not allowed to dominate and intimidate. See this video showing the very successful redevelopment of Poynton town centre… http://youtu.be/-vzDDMzq7d0

What a fantastic rant, I love it! We lived near Stroud the least chocolate box town in the whole of the Cotswolds, I loved their 2nd hand bookstore, sew and sew (made me want to sew rather than iron-on), and farmer’s market (foraged pesto anyone??). I despaired at Merrywalks the 70’s horror shopping centre so vividly recalled in this post and often the scene of a personal ‘shall I just slit my wrists, retail-moment’. Indeed- Might send the council your post!?

Sharonsays:

Maybe Ben and Mary Portas can pool ideas and get this sorted or many UK towns will be like Gretchen’s Grandma’s town in Michigan in a few years time, how sad.

Pippinsays:

To Charlotte
High streets do still exist, thankfully – but I’m sure they are not as numerous as they once were. Southwell in Nottinghamshire has a butcher, green grocer, baker, cafes, chocolate shop! as well as independant clothes and interiors shops. It even has a WI market, and charity shops (but not too many). And it has traffic. I suspect the residents would rather it didn’t. However, your point about pedestrianising shopping areas not being necessarily a good thing was very interesting.

Gretchensays:

I love amazon as it is the Virtual High Street selling most of everything I want to buy in an efficient and convenient manner. Anytime I think of some obscure item I want to buy I look on there first and more often than not they have it. My second favorite Virtual High Street is Etsy with all the fabulous handmade items.

However, I do love browsing in shops in person as well. Chicago’s High Street is essentially Michigan Avenue, nicknamed “the magnificent mile”. It’s attractive and has some nice buildings but it’s not so magnificent as every store on the avenue can be found a million other places in the city and the world. I remember when I used to go to London as a teenager it was fabulous because it had all these unique stores to London that I could not shop at it Chicago. Now both Michigan Avenue and Oxford Street have H&M, Zara, Top Shop…none of them stores I’m interested in browsing.

But in large cities like Chicago and London there are still at least vibrant crowded streets, even if they are filled with crap. It is so depressing to visit older smaller towns that once had vibrant main streets with grocery stores, shoe stores, drug stores, hotels, libraries, etc. My Grandma lives in one such small town in Michigan where now the main street is just one boarded up building after the other. No one walks anymore so even the sidewalks are bare. Retail has passed the town by and if you want to purchase anything you had to drive to one of the larger strip malls with the Wal-Mart or Meijer’s in one of the neighboring towns…20 miles away.

I think the stores of a longed-for-High-Street exist in the world…they just not in one convenient location but scattered about in little nooks and crannies. Sometimes you travel from one end of a city to the next just to seek them out. I like the idea of trying to find a way to bring them all together again.

Charlottesays:

Oh, if only Ravilious’ dreamy illustrations of an English High Street could be found on today’s drab and dreary streets. I long to wander down cobbled High Streets and find such colour, such amusement once more.

danasays:

speaking of your book and brick and mortar in the most real sense…I am consumed with the images of the library in suffolk. The teetering piles of books, old sink-in chairs, small pools of yellow lamplight…I can almost smell the mustiness. Can you say more about this room, how you found it, your reaction to it, anything more would be so welcome. cheers

Bensays:

Ah, it is owned by the father of a friend of mine, and it is one of my favourite rooms in the world. That is not particularly helpful – but it is true…!

Ben

Davidsays:

You were, perhaps, too polite to mention the plague of charity shops. Nine, at the last count on the modestly-sized main shopping street in my home town. Meanwhile, chuggers from a tenth organisation descend on a weekly basis too. Throw in three bookies, including one incongruously placed *inside* the local market, the usual array of nasty-looking takeaways, and a pair of back-to-back pound shops, and what do we have? A high street which is only fit for shuffling along as quickly as possible, while studiously avoiding eye-contact.

Another voice of agreement here. Successful businesses big and small are the ones that carve out their own niche and concentrate on what they’re good at rather than trying to compete with the likes of amazon or the supermarkets, but people do like to shop (I certainly do) and with luck and a bit of imagination high streets could be good again.

Nicolasays:

Yellow cellophane and corpse-like mannequins! In Ottery St Mary right now! Oxford is also a disgrace. Fast food joints, chains, and not much else.

I used to live in South Kensington and loved strolling along the ‘uncool’ end of King’s Road and indeed Fulham Road, because they were full of quirky shops and lovely old pubs and intriguing boutiques. (Cabbages & Roses.) Even Brompton Cross had its charms. But when I returned recently the area seemed to have lost its individuality and become more High Street-ish. BC was still pretty but the big brands had clearly moved in, while SC was like a mini Oxford St. I still like staying there but have moved to a hotel further down, to the Gloucester Road tube end.

My favourite High Street in the world is in Nantucket, off Cape Cod. It’s what all High Streets should look like. Even the streetlamps look like they’re still gas powered.

Well written blog Ben, my sentiments totally!. I have traded here in Tetbury,glos for 9yrs -lucky for me the Town is made up of like minded independent retailers – which is extremely rare in this economic climate. This fact draws customers from a good 40 mile radius, because Tetbury offers a point of difference that customers now crave.

Robinsays:

Great feature.

Part of HMV’s failure was its inability to decide what it was or who it was for. HMV on Oxford Street had one of the best selections of classical music available in the UK, however it chose only to promote and highlight the obvious. You had to know what you wanted and then be prepared to scour through the kind of display racks that made you want to give up the will to live. There were no Daunt Books-style displays of the arcane and esoteric that would demand an impulse buy of something you never previously knew you needed to possess. Then there was the issue of prices that bore no relation to the market place…

South Street in Bridport is, indeed, a good example of a high (possibly an over exaggeration) street that truly works. The integration of a twice weekly market – that sells real things that anyone of any social or economic background would want to buy – and shops that offer something different and make you want to browse (such as the great Malabar or even Frosts Toy Shop) seems to me to be a useful blueprint for other small towns.

Dear Ben

I noticed one of the pictures included in your post was of Stockton, you would be sadden to see it now. Your perfect description of the modern high street is exactly what it is like. it has had huge amounts spent on regeneration every 10 years or so and its still bloody awful! As are many of the towns in this part of the North East such a shame that the councils are killing them. We need you to come and sort them out!

I do hope the snow is falling around the parsonage, I dare say your beautiful garden is equally so when the snow has laid a blanket over it.

Jane

Michelle Bsays:

I do agree with you about carparking Ben. If towns are to survive, they need plenty of cheap easily accessible carparking. My local town charges £5 for two hours (if you can find a place) so I no longer shop there. I travel to a more distant town where the parking costs £2 for the same time. This adds to traffic congestion, and is probably killing our town centre. Another thing that is not talked about is the availability of public toilets. On a recent committee, I was amazed at the number of mainly older people who said they will not go anywhere that does not have easy access to loos. This is never talked about but is also a factor in where peple choose to shop.

Bensays:

Dear Charlotte – that sounds like a pretty perfect set up. I know what you mean about cars… but cars means passing trade, and passing trade means economic survival. Getting rid of cars (these days) is a bit like silting up your river in the 15th century – the money, the economy – goes elsewhere.
If you’ve ever been to one of those corners of towns (New York’s Central Park, for instance) where horses & carriages hang out to take the tourists around…. you realise that cars are not the only noisy smelly means of getting around that man invented…! Ugly, yes. I agree.
London is still a lot of little villages, amazingly but true.

James Tsays:

Good blog. I have to say, I do use the Piccadilly Circus HMV (just along from the Trocadero, for reference) although I am a confirmed digital music buyer. The guys on the 1st floor there tend to know their musical onions, and I’d rather trust an actual person’s musical opinion than submitting myself to the vagaries of, say, Apple Genius.

I think the extreme levels of interest HMV’s sale has generated – I heard upwards of 50 bidders on the news yesterday? – show that music still has a place on the high street. They will nee to go back to their roots, though, and specialise; a good music shop owned by people who love music is the exact equivalent to your belove second-hand book shop. I agree, though, that they were far from this in far too many locations. You can’t compete with iTunes on the latest GaGa album. You might be able to, though, on new music and vinyl…

Bensays:

Dear Deby – and we had a great night out! And that doesn’t happen online either 😉

Charlotte Ksays:

I agree with everything but the cars. I hate them–they are noisy and ugly, and they discourage pedestrians, who will walk in and out of appealing shops on a nice street. I live in a town of 40,000 in America (we are a town, not a city, by choice). We have a very long “main street” with three distinct areas for shopping and long stretches of houses and apartment buildings with some retail in between. Each of those sections has unique features, a movie theater in one area; a large grocery, library, town hall and post office in the middle; specialty groceries and lots of little useful shops at the other end (framers, florists, bakers, etc). We have restaurants all along. There’s reason to move between the areas, and buses & cars go up and down the entire length. But you can also do most of what you want to do in any of the three areas if you prefer to walk. There is some parking on the street, but there are also parking lots behind, and a bike path along the entire length (off road). We probably can manage this because we are just outside a larger city (Boston/Cambridge). It’s a very appealing place to live, property values have stayed high and we have good schools. But it doesn’t have an urban feel at all–or suburban, either. It feels more like a small town.

When I lived in London (Hammersmith) in the early 80s there were tiny “town” centers all over the area, nicer, in a way, because the paths were crookeder and more compact, but very similar, in that most of the practical needs of day-to-day life were within relatively short distance, and people lived where they shopped. I think that’s key–having things close by enough that you can pop ’round for what you need, and stay to look at something else that catches your eye. That part of London also felt like a village. Does it still? I haven’t been back in years.

Mary Andrewssays:

Amazon deserves the success they have achieved. They made shopping easy and secure. Their reviews ( best and worst) sold the site for me. I love reading reviews and making a purchase based on some insightful analysis.

Best of all,I was able to purchase your book with ease even though I live in a small town in the US!

Your comments about High Street resonated with me,too. I think High Street must be like America’s Main Streets. The advent of malls began their decline,then the arrival of discount stores like Wal-Mart, and finally on-line shopping. Despite these competitors, there is no substitute for shopping in real stores like yours selling items one wants to buy. That’s due to the care that goes into your selection of goods for sale.We need more shops like yours.

Deby (in Canada)says:

More hear, hear. So well said… sadly much of what is in shops is rubbish. My lovely old town of Port Hope in Ontario has a great looking High Street and the town has very active Architectural Conservancy for the buildings, but unfortunately anyone who is willing to sign a lease can open a shop! This is certainly a post that wants to be circulated widely and read again.
That High Street in Wells is still quite nice… and yes am guilty of Amazon book shopping… but I did cross an ocean, come to your shop, and happily carry home copies of your book.
Enjoy the snow …

Wynnesays:

I learned two things from this wonderful essay: (1) I’m not the only one who laments the loss of brick–and-mortar shops carrying unique and irresistible goods; and (2) I finally understand what a High Street is (I’m a Yank, have heard it for years, and never got a good explanation when I asked). So thank you for a great piece. I hope your revival prayers are answered!

Annasays:

Wow! How very right you are. Sounds simple when you put it like that. I fear it’s not so easy in reality.

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