What the closure of much-loved shop Blustons says about the threat to the high street

Historian Gillian Tindall explains why the high streets of the past were every bit as subject to change as those of the present

The polka-striped dress has gone from the window. Perhaps to some hopeful Marilyn look-alike who was decades off being born when Monroe died in 1962; perhaps into a museum of bygone fashion. As some readers may know, since the fame of the shop in its last years spread beyond local newspapers to the BBC and the wider world, Blustons in London's Kentish Town Road – the home of "classic ladies clothing" – has finally closed.

Its proprietor, after a lifetime in the business that he inherited from his parents, is retiring. And while its Art Deco frontage is listed and cannot be remodelled by a new tenant, a splash of colour – captured so well by the local painter Stuart Free – has disappeared from the street. For the moment, Blustons' extensive walk-around plate-glass windows stand empty. No longer can the old ladies of north-west London rely on finding pleated tweed skirts,cardies with appliquéd motifs in modest sequins, warm bonnets and serviceable Mackintoshes.

Many of us will feel the poorer for its passing – even those who never set foot inside. We liked to know it was there, just as you like to know your granny's cosy kitchen is there, even when you've moved to the other end of the country and don't get back to visit as often as you should.

And then, one Easter, it isn't there any more, and intimations of your own mortality strike you, and you begin to realise how much else that you once felt to be permanent and even a tiny bit boring isn't there either and never will be again, and that this has been the common lot in every generation.

For every new business that appears and then becomes part of high streets all over the country – mobile-phone shops, Thai takeaways, agents for sending money to the other side of the world – long-established ones are quietly disappearing. 60 years ago, every high street in Britain had at least one coal-merchant. They have all gone. A hundred years ago, each had a shop called a dairy, and often several, that distributed milk from the necessarily nearby cow-keeper's sheds. Today, this precious product of living cows is sold at a disgracefully low price by supermarkets that use it as a "loss leader".

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Shutting up shop: Today, Blustons' extensive walk-around plate-glass windows stand empty (Alamy)

Not that the mega-stores have won the war. After a period of some 40 years – when it seems to have been universally assumed that ever-bigger out-of-town supermarkets were "where the future lies" – there have been signs of a fight-back. I honour the one-woman efforts of Mary Portas, the high-street queen.

I am delighted that a significant number of people have gone off the whole idea of the weekly or fortnightly Big Shop. I rejoice that Tesco, which had notoriously been buying up land for years for future expansion, has now decided to mothball its plans and leave as empty ghost-buildings one or two supermarkets that have been built but not yet opened.

And I see other signs that all is not lost – for it seems there is only so far that one can push shopping to the car park-friendly periphery. Take the concept of the shopping centre or mall that groups individual stores under one vast roof. Within towns, these places seem to work quite well – viz London's Westfield – but not elsewhere. The Galleria near Hatfield was constructed in the 1980s on top of a new bypass tunnel on the A1(M); that is, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that people did not like shopping in central nowhere and the whole place has languished ever since; sometimes empty, currently staggering along.

This failure of expectation to meet reality has certainly been evident in the Borough of Camden, of which Kentish Town and its high street are part. In the mid-1970s, when Brent Cross – described as the first stand-alone shopping centre in the UK – was opening on its unlovely site by a flyover in London's northern suburbs, many members of Camden Council were so taken in by shopping-centre publicity that they really did believe the opening of distant Brent Cross would cause the local shops to wither away. It never occurred to them that the centre was difficult to reach from Camden by Tube, or that it was simpler for Camden residents to take the Tube into central London. They simply didn't grasp that a Kentish Town or Camden inhabitant would be unlikely to shop at Brent Cross unless addicted to car journeys or expecting to bring home a bulky object.

As every Londoner knows, Camden and Kentish Town did not become a shopping desert, any more than the other old high streets, left over from village days, which grace the inner city. In spite of unrealistically high rents and rates – with which the councils sometimes shoot themselves in the foot, ending up with charity shops rather than commercial enterprises – many flourish. People like them, farmers' markets are encouraged, flowers sellers and greengrocery stalls are fervently maintained. There are complaints (with the usual side-swipes at Starbucks) that high streets now have too many cafés and not enough "proper shops", but this is partly based on a never-never-land idea of what such streets once were.

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Bygone era: Shopping in Kentish Town in 1927 (Getty)

Certainly I regret the passing of the old ironmongers that smelt of nails and twine, and the mysterious little shops of my childhood that sold knitting wool and baby clothes and soppy dolls and sanitary towels (so that ladies could avoid requesting them from the male chemist). But recently, in Camden's archives, I went through a series of wonderfully detailed London Transport photographs of the entire run of Kentish Town High Street at the start of the 20th century. Taken prior to digging the Underground's Northern Line – to ensure that no one would claim an ancient crack in a wall had been caused by the tunnelling – they reveal a picture far less quaint than we might expect.

The street then had a splendid array of dairies, tobacconists, hatters, boot-makers, watch-menders and dress-makers, as well as second-hand furniture dealers full of lovely chairs for tiny sums. There weren't many small grocers; most of these would have been corner shops in the side streets, as I remember them from my own youth. But to my surprise, it was full of places to eat: not just Confectionery and Refreshments, which seems to have meant ice-cream and ginger beer, but a good sprinkling of Refreshment Rooms and Dining Rooms. Clearly, the notion that, 100-odd years ago, most people dined on suet puddings and cabbage in the bosom of their families is false.

Also evident in the High Street in 1903, on the very site that would later be Blustons, was a jeweller who had a sideline in lending money: "Cash advanced on Pianofortes and Household Furniture". Another general dealer advertised loans in return for bicycles. No doubt the interest on repayment tended, as in today's loan shops, to be high. Pianos and bicycles were two much-prized consumer goods of the time, comparable with today's iPads and iPhones; the difficulties inherent in the recourse to such transactions is of all time and does not need spelling out. As in any aspect of our busy, inventive existence, consumerism also has its victims.

Blustons was opened, in the plate-glass modernity of 1931, by Samuel and Jane Bluston, whose roots lay in the East End clothing trade. It was taken over, when they retired, by their daughter and her husband. Their son, Michael Albert, born in 1948, did not nurture a boyhood dream of becoming the third generation in the business, but when he was 16 his father died rather suddenly. Michael went into the shop to help his mother and, as things turned out, remained there. Now that he and his wife Marilyn have themselves finally retired, an unbroken tradition of retailing that lasted 81 years has come to an end – more talked about and regretted than the original shop-keepers could ever have dreamed.

Gillian Tindall is the author of a number of books, including 'The Fields Beneath: The History of One London Village' and 'The House by the Thames: and the People Who Lived There'

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