A while back I found myself debating the decline of the high street with a friend of a friend on Facebook. Friend of Friend argued that the “traditional” high street had actually been wiped out years ago by chain-stores, and if these were in turn being replaced by online shopping, this was no bad thing. I found myself (having never previously given it a moment’s thought) arguing rather inarticulately that the high street had a purpose beyond its commercial one, a community purpose if you will.
I was thinking, I suppose, about 9YO, who’s already starting to walk part of the way to school by herself. No doubt solo trips to the local shops will be next on the agenda. Our local shops – and the people who work in them – give me a sense of community as much as my local friends, the reassuring presence of trusted adults. Without those shops, 9YO’s walk home from school – along a 40mph stretch of B road, past suburban semi’s with front doors set back behind leafy front gardens – involves no human contact, no possibility of interaction with anyone other than friends who may or may not be walking the same way (most likely not, given that our school serves a large catchment area and most of her friends seem to live in the opposite direction). And that feels somehow lonely, unfriendly, in short not the kind of neighbourhood I want her to grow up in.
So that’s why I make a point of supporting the small parade of local shops near us – an off-licence, butchers, hairdresser, post office. The butcher is currently a discussion point among our family though. Until recently it was a family business, apparently unchanged since the 1950’s, with limited opening hours and a hardcore of elderly customers coming in for stewing steak. Now it’s been taken over by a newbie who’s clearly not finding it the goldmine he hoped and is up against it to keep the place going. Unfortunately all his increased opening hours, dragon burgers and free lollipops for the kids just makes you feel as if someone’s gone round to your grandparents house and moved all their furniture round. Husband finds all this change a bit unsettling, and thinks I should just pick up the meat and eggs during my weekly supermarket shop. But I’m still shopping there, partly because the stuff tastes so much better, but also out of a vague commitment to the idea of ‘ethical shopping”
I should add at this point that I don’t live in some gentrified neighbourhood with a farmers market and organic deli to give local shopping a feel-good factor. Sainsburys is a quarter of a mile away in a bleak retail park that also boasts a boarded-up Comet, Blockbuster and newsagent. Our little parade of shops feels like the last outpost of the small businessman in a world that has already been conquered, exploited and deserted by the giants. The traditional high street has long since been colonised by the smaller chains, and then all but wiped out by the edge-of-town retail parks. And those out-of-town giants could ultimately go too, as we do more and more of our shopping online. There’s a slightly chilling article about the rise of the ‘dark supermarket’ here.
I do my fair share of online shopping, as well as stocking up weekly at Sainsburys. Supporting my butcher is at best a token gesture, I know. But local shopping with independent retailers means face-to-face contact with real people who try new things and get it wrong, who sometimes have a bad day and have the temerity to let you know. People, in short, who might get on your nerves far more than the anonymous drudge who picks your order in a windowless warehouse. And maybe that’s no bad thing. Maybe we need reminding that the long chain of production that puts food on our plates is made up of human beings not automatons. They have money worries, health worries, child care worries just like me. Am I really too busy to acknowledge that while I’m shopping? My butcher and every shop keeper like him provide our neighbourhoods with a heart and focal point, and vital social contact for every local person who happens not to work full time. If that went, I’d miss far more than just the tasty sausages.