One of the most appealing things about London has always been its quirkiness. It’s obvious that people love them; guidebooks gleefully point out all of the capitals oddities. But, like New York, in the last few years we’ve had Corporate domination up to the eyes and it has proven disastrous. I used to visit NYC regularly for theatre, shopping and art galleries, but now I don’t bother because we’ve exactly the same art, plays, shops and restaurants here. Can’t get into Balthazar NYC? Go to the one in London. Can’t get a ticket for Matilda here? See it there.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about reinvigorating British high streets by returning to the 1950s-style inner city, when doctors’ surgeries and health clinics occupied sites next to shops. Now it appears the idea is being taken up in five towns on a trial basis. The idea is to step away from making high streets homogenised shopping destinations and moving toward an integrated whole.
It seems even London’s poshest streets aren’t immune to shop closures, so someone finally figured out that what we need is mixed-use buildings, not just ‘shopping experiences’. Part of the reinvigoration is to rescue the crummier old pubs from the hands of soulless corporations and get them into the hands of quirky owners. Small chains are finding they can create original venues by trading on a building’s strength.
Just behind Euston Road in central London is the Somerstown Coffee House, not a coffee house at all but an old pub, the kind that used to feature nightly bar brawls. First two French sisters tried to turn it into a gourmet French dining experience – that failed, and now a small country chain has taken it over, capitalising on what English pubs do best, being very ‘Mine Host’-ish and slightly odd.
As well as offering ‘English tapas’ (an idea that’s more delectable than it sounds) it has plenty of surprises, including a secret supper club hidden behind a bookcase.The Latin translates loosely as ‘Food and conversation bring joy.’ Meanwhile, the march of pop-up shops continues to change whole streets – the arrival of bakeries and bookshops in Clerkenwell is making the neighbourhood interesting again.
Corporate ownership requires that month-on-month profits must continually rise. Local shops and services don’t have the overheads that demand this, and can maintain a comfortable functioning level. With this kind of thinking applied more widely to shops and services, high streets could be talked about and visited once more.