They have sunk my Ark, and I feel so sad: Nicholas Roe has a personal interest in the fate of one high street victim of the recession

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The Independent Online
IT WAS just another corpse on the high street when we bought the shop - a blank hole in a long parade, shut for years, mouldering into commercial history. We took it over, raised it up, then sold it. Now look at the place. Dead again. They have shut my shop. We called it the Ark - and they have sunk it.

I should not care; it is not mine any more. I made my little pile and moved on four years ago. But I do care. When they told me what had happened - 'By the way, have you heard? The Ark has closed' - I replied: 'How sad,' but held back the rest.

How could I explain the full truth? How could I say that it made me feel disturbingly mortal: the sign saying 'Ark' coming down; the smell of fish no longer leaking into the street as I made it do; the model boat I had built all along one wall being ripped out and scrapped? So I left it.

Next morning, however, I found myself walking down the high street, over the humpback bridge, to visit the place, to see. Homage. Pilgrimage. Something of the kind. Past the greengrocer's where Billy works, past the baker's where they sell cheap lunches. To the Ark.

When I worked here the lights burnt from eight till five, we had Day-Glo posters in the windows (we called it marketing) and loss- leaders and troubles with cash, and staff who stole or overwhelmed us with loyalty. We sold fish.

Now there is a dark window and a little sign saying sorry about the recession, and four names scrawled underneath to show how many jobs have gone. Small beer at a time of nationwide closures, but this only accentuates the emotion: anyway, this place was mine. I ran it for four years and the difference is like the difference between reading of the death of a stranger and the death of your own son.

Pressing my nose against the window I can see the ghosts of personal history inside, still feel the terrible uncertainty of that opening day: would the customers come? Would this head-down lunge at financial independence meet with success or ridicule?

I remember we advertised 'Free Prawns', which seems pathetic now, but not then. No detail was too trivial to agonise over or dismiss. It was so tense, getting up at five, waiting with almost painful expectation for the fish to arrive by lorry (I knew little about fish, less about selling it), laying out the cod, coley, trout and haddock with bare, icy hands, shivering as I never had in an office.

Then opening the doors and waiting . . . waiting . . . until, at last, the first customer walked through the double glass doors, ending the agonised silence with Joe Public's opening volley: 'Where's the free prawns then?'

Can you imagine it? Can you touch the sense of middle-class shock, which lessened only gradually as we learnt that, in the end, crowds amount to more than the sum of their worst individuals? This was such a difficult lesson.

But we got by. Took on staff. Became known. The ghosts in there included the That's Life team, lured down one day to glamorise the world of fishmongering. Big joke. Great telly.

They came with a white piano, dry-ice machine, music, camera, action . . . I danced for hours - with a crab, I remember.

For weeks the people in my town said: 'Saw you on the telly]' until I ran out of interesting replies, but that was just another lesson. One against a thousand, these are the insuperable odds of retailing conversation.

We grew, the Ark had a baby - another shop in another town - and if it sounds too romantic put that way, remember that was really how it felt at the time: the thrill of creation.

Running a small business changes your perspective by taking you across the divide that separates science from culture, youth from age, business from vocation. You see things differently.

I cannot snigger at it even now, because so much feeling remains invested behind that window, and I can never lose the sense of debt, the intensity of that dangerous association that all small shopkeepers must make, their sense of personal worth rising or falling as the venture succeeds or fails.

I am almost too embarrassed to describe the associated ghosts of snobbery but they, too, exist as terrible lessons on the dignity of work - all work, not just the stuff you do at a desk, which is how I saw it before picking up a filleting knife. If you become your business, you see, you must reassess the value of business itself, which I managed to do eventually, though it was hard.

I became my shop, measuring myself against daily references to the till-roll, and if the Ark had foundered I would have gone down, too. But it did not, so I am still here, peering in, streetside.

The place did make money for me, there were countless trips to the bank with a black leather satchel full of cash, feeling marvellous: look, this is what I am, this big bag.

Oh yes, and one day I caught someone stealing. They cried as I sacked them, a horrid memory. And one day we were burgled - who, I shouted, would raid a fish shop? Meanwhile, I cut cod and delivered advice on cookery and realised at long last how nice people could be if you tried hard to let them.

In the end, of course, I woke up and found it was not fun any more. The pleasures had gone stale, the lessons had been learnt, the time to move on had arrived.

I sold the small, secondary shop to a florist. He took down my sign and put up his own. The Ark itself went sailing off into new commercial oceans with another man's hand on the tiller, but carrying my flag above the door. People would stop me in the street a year, two years later and say: 'It isn't the same, you know.' I cannot tell you how proud that made me feel.

The dramas did not stop, however. The new owner was a big, ageing east Londoner with a love of karate and of his wife, a cheerful woman who died suddenly, barely 12 months after they moved in. The man took it badly. One morning he did not arrive to open up, so the staff kicked their way into the flat upstairs and found him lying on the floor, having suffered a stroke from which he died a few weeks later. My ghosts made room for others.

Various faces appeared behind the front window after that, but I never went in to buy anything because it would have felt wrong.

A year or so ago a competitor opened, three doors down. Now there were two fish shops in one small town. You could see the shadows gather as customers paced between the two windows, comparing prices, staring at the brightness of fish eyes on ice.

Then a supermarket blossomed on the edge of town with its own fish counter and the rest was inevitable. The Ark was outgunned and it surrendered.

I walk away from the window thinking about all this and wishing I could make some sense of it, but I cannot, beyond recognising that all such closures are sad. Just something to bear in mind as the lights go out all over Britain.

(Photograph omitted)

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