Collecting; I guess it’s a man thing.
When I first moved to London my then-girlfriend interned on Sundays, as a gallery receptionist, which left me to amuse myself for the day. Whilst many people reserved Sundays for lazing around their flats watching formula one racing and soap opera omnibuses on oversized television sets and dozing off their hang-over, I was more interested in getting to grips with the city and so I’d invariably head into town. I’d justify it to myself by claiming it was to get a better idea of what London had to offer, not quite getting yet that the more exciting bits of the city were on the edges, but really it was also because with a newly disposable income I could buy stuff, if I wanted.
Consequently, I spent many Sunday afternoons trawling up and down Berwick Street in Soho, nipping in and out of the many different record shops, browsing through the tabletops of the street sellers around Newport Court and occasionally heading up to HMV on Oxford Street. Remember, this is 2001 before iTunes became mass-market and so the stores were full of equally earnest men in their twenties and thirties doing exactly the same thing, many of them glancing at their mobile phones when they rang, ignoring their girlfriends or wives declaring that they were done in TopShop and heading to Mango, or wherever.
That was how consumerist capitalism had worked for a couple of generations. We shopped to support the economy. Women shopped for clothes, make-up and pretty things. Men for music and books. Broadly speaking. And the experience could be, generally, replicated around the country. High Streets were universal, even if they didn’t – don’t – have exactly the same stores there were core brand types which allowed the rest to build upon them. Now the high street is self-imploding and we see Comet, Jessops, HMV and Blockbusters (who I was really surprised to see still existing) fold and join the others who have gone over the past few years to the great Woolworths in the sky, the a businessrecovery firm say they have a list of 140 retailers who are vulnerable. Whilst it’s not fun to second-guess who is going to go out of business, people like WH Smiths must be particularly worried. Who else? Waterstones? Dixons? PC World? Fashion seems, peculiarly, immune as though the vagaries of size and fabric require things to be seen first, ASOS aside, but everything us is potentially up for grabs.
My instinct is to support local businesses, small shops over national chains. Back in those days trawling Soho streets I would only head to HMV if I was seeking something specific, but then I was privileged enough to have a choice. As the chains collapse, they are not being replaced by local versions of the same. Instead, according to the Observer, they’re taken over in the main by Poundland and other discount stores. My own uber-local high street in Brockley seems to be teetering along on the edge. On one hand in the past year the following have all opened up and seem to be making a success of it: a trendy cafe-diner, a cake shop (specialising in cupcakes for God’s sake), a cocktail bar, an excellent restaurant, an different eatery, an talian, resurrected from beyond the grave, an extraordinarily expensive childrens shoe shop and a women’s fashion store. Old hands like the motor-spares place, the refurbished kitchen appliance store and the hardware store all stagger on and yet the wine merchants and another bar look at risk (one due to a scaling back of a small business, the other due to cash flow crisis in a parent company), the Tesco-metro planning application for the site where the old building “fell down” overnight has been rejected and the jerk chicken take-away has closed down yet again, this time with the possibility of yet another estate agent moving in. The local news website frequently descends into arguments about Brockley needing to scrub itself up, needing more of the new places and less of the old hands. More social high street experiences; less places to buy actual stuff, more places to sit around with your MacBook Air buying things of the internet. I use a lot of older stores, although not on a regular basis, and I like having them there; at the same time I like having a choice of a dozen places to go for coffee, even if I equally rarely use them.
My point has always been that shops, like any business, stand and fall by the diversity of people. Just because certain locals don’t want, for example, a fried chicken shop or a garage nearby because they don’t drive or eat cheap takeaway food doesn’t mean that those establishments should be closed down and moved on. If sufficient people use them to make them economically viable then they should be allowed to stay. At a bigger level that’s what happened to HMV and all the others, which I understand at an intellectual level, but it still feels disheartening.
In almost of all of the failed big chain stores there’s been threat from the internet, changing technology and changing fashion which they failed to take advantage of or even recognise before it was too late. Clinton Cards specialised in selling cheap, not terribly nice gift cards. A rise in smaller stores selling nicer, better designed or funnier cards, plus online services such as funkypigeon or people simply not bothering to post cards anymore, preferring to send an email saw Clinton’s death. What could they have done? On online customised ordering service? Stocked less tacky product? Probably they were doomed anyway, but they could have tried harder than simply covering eyes and wailing
Jessops were apparently killed off by professionals going to cheaper online services and everyone else just using their camera phone. And yet on a snowy afternoon on Hilly Fields every bugger and their dog is brandishing an single lens reflex with a lens so long it bows under its own weight. Either Brockley has a disproportionate number of professional photographers or that argument isn’t quite right.
HMV is the big d’oh moment, as everyone’s noticed. Apparently it regarded downloadable music as a fad as late as 2003 and was fearful of getting into mail-order after a fail in the nineties. Plus it was always expensive – I haven’t paid over eight pounds for a CD in years and I’ve never ordered one online nor used a supermarket which means fifteen pounds for an album was just a rip-off. In the end, it has basically committed commercial hari-kari, only without any pretence at nobility.
Online retailers, obviously, have a lot to answer for. Aside from the tax dodging which takes money out the British system, long-term potentially damaging every public service, or seeing an increase in direct taxation on us, am I the only one who finds online ordering less convenient? Okay, so I live in the country’s largest city giving me greater access to shops which typically stay open longer, but can we really order everything through the post? I’m not allowed to get personal parcels delivered to work – they will, apparently be turned away – and our Victorian door’s tiny letter box means anything larger than an utility bill needs to be collected from the local sorting office on a Saturday morning, the site of which is up for sale with planning permission for a mixed use unit on it. Another supermarket with a gym on the first floor and then two stories of tiny flats above. Probably. I ordered the computer I’m writing this on online direct from Dell. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I scheduled a delivery date, booked a day’s annual leave to receive it – not wanting a computer to be left with a neighbour – and it turned up a day early. Fortunately, my girlfriend was working from home, but still: Is this hassle really more convenient, better value than walking to a shop, talking to a real person and coming away with what you want there and then?
Over the past year I have, with reluctance, begun to digitalise my music deciding that it is preferable to the one-in, one-out book policy my girlfriend still seems keen to enforce and so I’m slowly burning several hundred albums onto the computer – although what happens when the back up as well as the actual computer inevitably fails, either because the hard-drive’s memory is too old or a data storage error in the cloud occurs remains to be seen – and either replacing old tapes or buying new music as downloads. I concede the immediacy of it, buying that moment and listen the next, is satisfying (if also financially dangerous), but it takes away a lot of the fun.
Back in those days lurking along Berwick Street – and before then at Sheffield in Broomhill’s Record Collector or the second hand CD marts they held in the student union – I wasn’t just buying for the sake of it, I was hunting. I was collecting. I would have in my head a list of new music I was interested in but also a much longer list of older music I’d heard good things about, that I wanted to get into, but didn’t want to either buy new or pay full price for. The fun was in the searching around for an unusual record, say the United States of America’s debut album which I never did find at an affordable price, and then the triumph of actually discovering something utterly unexpected. Search terms on iTunes don’t have a ”surprise me” option. Okay, so the “shuffle” function can be a little exciting for playback, but instant purchase gratification doesn’t replace the pleasure of the hunt, the satisfaction in years of effort resolved, the tension and excitement of the journey home. Only real music – or whatever your collecting fetish is – bores have a nostalgia for being sneered out in a High Fidelity type, too cool to be actually helpful, but, surely, everyone loves the thrill of wondering whether this will finally be the day you find it.
I can envisage a future where the world is streamed to our at-home offices, squeezed into the corner of ever-smaller flats. A time when we only go out once week, stuttering, bleary-eyed in the sunshine to scrounge an overpriced chocolate brownie in a destination cafe, only to find that all thirty such establishments, within ten minutes of your media hub, have sold out. Again. So you trudge home again, dejected, back to your horrible, isolated life glad that at least online consumption of materials to keep our economy afloat give you more time to watch cat videos on YouTube.
See it, want it, buy it, use it, discard it could pretty much serve as a metaphor for why we’re all in the shit we’re surrounded by.
That’s why I prefer second-hand book shops to even nicely run independent ones. Yes, I try to support the couple of local book shops around this immediate corner of South East London, but I tend to only buy new if I want something specific – and as a general rule, if it’s part of a mission I’ll go to Foyles or the London Review of Books as they’re more reliable. But if I go into a second hand shop it’s purely to browse and maybe buy; it might offer things I didn’t know I wanted as I crossed the threshold.
Bit like life, really.