February has slipped away. Between a university deadline and a stubborn bout of influenza I seem to have been cloistered up at home for weeks. Last Friday, I ventured out for my first stroll into Greenwich town centre in over a month, and with a particular purpose.
I had read the sad news on Twitter. Bert & Betty, our excellent kitchen-cum-hardware store, would close down at the start of March and I wanted to thank the owner and employees for their sterling efforts.
This small double-fronted shop has been an absolute blessing. On the one hand, it answered most of my cooking and baking needs with its range of oven dishes, tins, mixing bowls and wooden spoons, saving me the frustrating trawl into the West End. On the other hand, it offered a remarkably wide range of lightbulbs, paint brushes and ironmongery, sparing me the paralysis inducing aisles of the local DIY superstores. Mostly, however, the owner and her staff were everything that high street shopkeepers should be: pleasant, helpful and quite happy to order in items they did not hold in stock.
A mixed relationship with indies
Unfortunately, the closure of gems like Bert & Betty is not unusual in these times. In the past 12 months I have seen numerous shops in Greenwich close their doors, including So Organic (a purveyor of refill cleaning products and toiletries), the clothes boutiques Babanya and Belle, Home Front and Stitches & Daughter (which offered a mix of home, garden and stationery goods) and Compendia (a seller of traditional board games). Many of these spaces are still standing empty or open for brief periods as pop-ups.
The empty shops in and around Greenwich Market are an unsettling sign of how an area changes as the economic landscape shifts. Furthermore, as some shopkeepers were familiar locals, these abandoned premises offer a very human face of a prolonged recession. But to me the forlorn interiors also have a slightly accusing air. They make me question my own role in the demise of the British high street.
I may have been a regular at Bert & Betty’s but at other independents I am an infrequent customer at best. I would pop into some of the former shops for journals, a couple of mugs, the occasional gift for a friend or a board game for Mr M’s godson. It was not as if I was taking my custom elsewhere, rather that I only shopped when a real need arose.
As for the clothes boutiques… As much as I enjoyed the quirky window displays, I rarely crossed the threshold and for various reasons. Although the style of clothes – think Helena Bonham-Carter – appealed to the more whimsical part of my nature, most garments would definitely not have flattered me. Ethical and environmental considerations made me return the more restrained items to the hangers. What is more, the items rarely seemed to offer value for money – in the real meaning of the phrase. Finally, my general desire to curb unnecessary resource consumption has turned me into a rather dull ‘sensible’ shopper: one who looks for attractive well-made staples rather than frippery or this season’s ‘must have’.
No matter how much I would like to pop down to a local shop for my smalls, dresses and shoes, the best of intentions drive me to buy clothes online. My reasons may be sound and now invariably involve independent online retailers, but that does not alter the fact that I spend my pounds outside my community.
My bookish dilemma
Books, one of my few real indulgences, raise two typical high street dilemmas: convenience and cost.
Apart from a few secondhand and remainder bookshops – of varying quality and specialisms – I am reliant on one of the last remaining bookstore chains. Admittedly the local Waterstones is better than most, with a well-stocked fiction section and decent gardening, cooking and politics departments. The staff is pleasant and does its best to order in the books on my wish list but is often stumped by my more obscure requests, leaving me with little option but to buy from Amazon.
Then there is price. Grocery shopping in independent shops is cheaper – mostly because I can buy the quantities I want. There is, however, no denying it: buying books on the high street costs more than hitting an online order button. Every time I hand over payment for books, I am aware that I am paying a price for the type of high street I want. And with large and small retailers tumbling like ninepins, I realise my defiant choices may ultimately be to no avail.
So is it worth it?
In the last few years much has been written about the future of British high streets. Policy makers and experts mull over the problems facing them as well as measures to revive them. Consultants advise shop owners about how to improve the “retail experience”. The sad vacant shops in Greenwich, however, also point a finger to us the consumers: high streets will only remain a vibrant part of our communities if we support them, especially in the hard times.
So Don Quixote like, I do what I can. I doggedly support the local grocery stores, organic shop, stationer’s and hairdresser… And whilst I may be consuming less, I have to accept the “real” price of goods if indies are to survive the cost-cutting onslaught of supermarkets and online retailers. (Not easy when inflation erodes wages and savings!)
I also actively talk to shop managers, quizzing them about the origins of their products and suggesting attractive basics they might want to stock to encourage regular footfall in constrained times. Similarly, I email preferred online suppliers details of possible local outlets. Presumptuous of me? Most definitely, but a vibrant high street that serves its community is worth the effort, and the occasional frown!