The face of the High Street

I thought I’d write something relevant to the urban spaces that many people live in. This week it was announced that two common features of many High Streets: HMV and Blockbuster, have found financial troubles and have effectively gone into administration. I reacted in two different ways when I heard these two stories. The first reaction was to HMV. I felt a bit of fondness for the brand because of its history and my own personal experience with it.

In my small archive of possessions I have inherited a vinyl collection of Chopin Nocturnes by Alfred Brendel, and one of the distinctive features of it is the name of the publisher: His Master’s Voice. At first I didn’t recognise the name, but the dog standing by a grammophone had a strange familiarity. I think it is a good sign of a brand to have such a notoriety that its identity as a brand becomes part of what makes it a cherished item. I felt it was the continuity of an old vinyl of a classic piano recording being part of a commercial product of a (then) currently existing brand. In that way I thought it was sad to see HMV go. As an aside. I’ve always been saying to myself how I wanted to visit the Curzon cinema above my nearby HMV to see an art film or live streaming opera, but I never got around to it. It seems now I won’t get the chance.

One of the things I thought were interesting has been the various conversations people have had on twitter and the bloggosphere about their fondness of the experience of buying CD albums and singles and how that experience is mainly consigned to memory for the large amount of the public. Although there are many independent retailers around, many of them occupy niche spaces that are to the effect of excluding certain kinds of music.

When I heard about Blockbuster, I was reminded of a conversation with a friend a few days earlier. The conversation went to the effect of: why hasn’t this company gone bust already? There was a distinct sense in which Blockbuster was a blight on a certain Clapham high street in the backdrop of trendy and relevant shops. The irrelevance of Blockbuster as a generalist retailer for games and even providing the service of rentals seemed to me like something that was a blight on the modern high street.

In this same week I’ve been following a few online discussions about my local area. The local MP posted in a local online site that a decision to oppose a betting shop replacing what used to be a high street bank branch has been overruled in favour of granting permission to set up a shop. One of the discussions I’ve heard a lot from my local area (particularly from my involvement with a community group, and the odd conversations I hear before gym classes/badminton social games) is how the perception of the high street is changing locally.

The perception is that many shops come and go, and this is largely due to the difficult economic conditions of today, many people attempt to make a local trading shop or place a franchise to find that within a few months it cannot sustain itself. As such there are a lot of changes to local shops on a monthly basis. The shops that stick however, reflect more of the current customer behaviours and spending interests. In my area this tends is said to be (to the annoyance of many): fried chicken shops, bookies (Betting shops) and so called Pound Shops. For any non-British readers, a pound shop is a retailer which sells items usually at low value (often £1). The success of the pound shop reflects both the way in which business need to be adaptable to their customers and market conditions but also seem to be divisive in terms of opinion

I’ve heard a lot of derision about the chicken shop; the pound shop and betting stores. Usually it is the clientele that is the butt of people’s dislike. I wonder sometimes if it is a covert form of class intolerance. I also suspect part of it is genuinely a perception of accessibility and the unfriendliness of these places to those unfamiliar with it. As someone who was a teenager in the 2000s, I am no stranger to the chicken shop, and in a sense I am neutralised to the negative opinions of them. I can also recognise that it is part of the repetoire of masculinity that enjoying a chicken shop is a key staple in socialising with my friends. I enjoy the fact that there’s somewhere to get unhealthy food after midnight when I’m coming home after a 12-16 hour day at work. Or on a friday/saturday night the presence of a takeaway is very welcome. I can appreciate that with a late opening venue also comes a lot of noise from customers. One time I was at a local chicken place and I saw that its packaging was provided by the Met Police, and it contained information about knife crime. I have to admit that was pretty grim.

I’m always sceptical about the perception of social decline. However it is undeniable that the kinds of local trends and spending patterns reflect the prevalence of a generic customer profiles. I recall being present at a presentation by a local councillor who stated frankly that while many people may be unhappy about the kinds of shops renting properties on high streets today, it is much better than an empty shop. Adaptability seems to be the name of the game: in terms of how employers want their workers; how businesses and organisations need to survive; and I suppose in terms of how consumers are affected by their changing budgets. The main worry people have today I think is that when an iconic and prevalent presence leaves; the worry is not whether anything will take its place, but whether that thing will be just as memorable and cherished.