As Jessops closes, we continue to mourn the dying high street, but it’s we who are killing it

Now the chains are falling, one by one, we uneasily mourn them, like an unappealing aunt we never visited nor cared about while she lived.

Share

This week’s news that the photographic chain Jessops was circling the drain came as a bit of a... Hang on. Amazon delivery.

Right. Where were we? Yes. Bit of a surprise. I had WH Smith down as the next to go, but it was Jessops. “Advice for life” was their new slogan, and how brave and sad and foolish the refurbishing of their shops when we could all see the writing on the wall. Seeing inevitable failure coming is always unhappy. The wind going out of their sails.

So when they, inevitably, go, we whine and mumble, just like we did when Woolworths went, and JJB Sports, and Game, and Peacocks, and Blacks Leisure went, and Clinton’s Cards very nearly went. It was so close, for Clinton’s. Half its shops closed; tricky for the towns that lost their branch, because how could visitors tell where the crap part of town, hitherto marked by the grim orange shopfront with its moronic-granny writing, now began?

And now we’re whining about Jessops, with its poor choice of stock, its affable but poorly trained sales assistants, its ramshackle business model which seemed constantly panting to keep up, like a fat man jogging, with the technology it dealt in. And which dealt it a triple blow: first, the almost frighteningly sudden death of film cameras; second, the incorporation of perfectly good-enough cameras in mobile phones; and, third, the inexorable, ruthless, Amazon Anschluss of everything we bring into our homes and our lives.

'Saudade'

The Portuguese have a word, saudade, for a sort of yearning for something not only gone, never to return, but which might quite possibly never have existed in the first place. Our laments for the high street are a sort of anti-saudade: a lament for something which we did have, but neglected while we had it. We railed against the chain stores which were driving away the sort of “local shop for local people” satirised in The League of Gentlemen. Now the chains are falling, one by one, we uneasily mourn them, like an unappealing aunt we never visited nor cared about while she lived.

The news from the high street is unremittingly gloomy. Between 10 and 15 per cent of shops now stand empty (excluding the temporary charity and pop-up stores). Shopping streets in the poorer parts of the country are now more gap-toothed and desolate than in the deathbed of the European dream, Athens. In the past 15 years, the number of out-of-the-house trips fell by 12 per cent on average; in 2010, we left our houses on average 960 times a year – the lowest level since the mid-1970s.

Business rates, draconian parking policies by councils who see motorists as cash cows, and improbable greedy rents all conspire to further crush retailers already hit by the inexorable rise of the internet.

But it is we who are forcing shops into “showrooming”: acting as display stands for goods we sniff, poke, squeeze, listen to, watch, try on and fiddle with, before going home and ordering from Amazon. In the United States, Amazon has accelerated the process by launching its Price Check app: scan goods in any brick-and-mortar store and compare the Amazon price. Unfair? Yes. Evil? Probably. Irresistible? You bet.

The problem is that, whatever the retail guru Mary Portas may have learned from her experience (largely promoting shopping-as-theatre with brands like Swarowski, Patek Philippe, Louis Vuitton, John Smedley and Holland & Holland), shopping is for most of us a commodity: we, not the retailers, set the bar. And if online shopping suits us better, that’s how we’ll shop. In December, internet shopping shot up by 18 per cent on the same month in 2011; tablets and smartphones and better websites were to thank, it seems. Along with the Danes, we now buy more online than anyone else on Earth.

But what are we losing? For many, shopping is, and always has been, a recreation. We go out, we look, we dream. We imagine ourselves carrying that bag, wearing this jacket, holding that camera. We can do it online, true, but only by eyesight. The internet is like an old-style sour-faced greengrocer: Do Not Touch the Produce.

Nor does it offer advice. User reviews aren’t the same. Only the bigoted – one way or the other – can be bothered, and only on a particular product. You can’t go on Amazon and say “I’m going on the holiday of a lifetime and I want a camera” and get a sensible recommendation. Instead, we have internet forums. We try to decide who to trust, under the tyranny of choice and multiple opinions. But it’s easier to do that and stay at home, in front of our computers. We see the world through glass. Every now and then there’s the clatter of the Ocado bloke on the stairs, heading for the flat above. How many people come to your door now, compared with 10 years ago? And if you were a shopkeeper, could you have seen it coming?

Vanishing

In the end, it’s about public space: what it is, who owns it, how we negotiate it and what it’s for. Old ideas of the self-contained neighbourhood are vanishing. I used to live in a central London street in which you could live and die. There was a butcher, a baker, an undertaker, dentist, GP, chemist, pubs, restaurant, three bookshops, greengrocer, more off-licences than you could shake a corkscrew at, and a lousy supermarket but better than nowt. Now? Clothes and novelties and leisure facilities and coffee shops. The high street has been split, its heart torn out: luxuries at one end, pound shops at the other. The middle has been squeezed online.

As a result, we’ve lost a social and communal space. When I was little, I used to go shopping with my mother. Frank the Grocer, coffee with her friends in Griffin & Spalding’s department store. A haberdasher’s. The greengrocer’s. All texture; people knowing her by name; bumping into friends and (“Hello! It’s been ages!”) acquaintances. Old ladies on their sticks; men going from office to office; meetings, greetings, chats and “must be going, ta-ra then”.

So much of that has moved online, on screen, behind closed doors. It seems a more convenient world but in some profound way lonelier. Our private lives have become public but our public lives have withered. The agora, the marketplace, was for at least 2,500 years not just where we shopped and haggled, but where we were, both seen and known.

We may not lament the passing of the chains. We may welcome the artisanal bakery and the craft-work shop. But go to an ancient souk, with its shouting and crowds and crammed, nattering stalls, and perhaps you too will feel that, as social creatures, we are losing something more important than we realised.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Developer / Mobile Apps / Java / C# / HTML 5 / JS

£17000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Junior Mobile Application Devel...

Recruitment Genius: LGV Driver - Category C or C+E

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This national Company that manu...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - OTE £30,000

£13000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Maintenance Assistant is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?