They’re Tough To Run But We Need These



Britain may once have been a nation of shopkeepers but it’s not anymore. In a world of corporate brandssuch places are a breath of fresh air; those weird small shops and privately owned places that make a neighbourhood special. London always had thousands, but can they still be found?

I speak as someone who remembers King’s Cross being the home of Mole Jazz and the Scala Cinema, and live near the Achilles Heels cobblers and the former Beverly Hills Salon. (A friend owned a hairdressing salon called Hannah And Her Scissors, and last week in Barcelona I saw a hair salon called Blow Me.)

Quirky online companies abound. I recently saw that a company called Pulsive had switched to internet sales so it had changed its name to Epulsive – giving off slightly the wrong vibe there – but too many local indie stores in London strive for hipster status when in fact they’re really just bars or coffee shops. King’s Cross has its own private members club called Crescent, serving fine cocktails, but we haven’t yet developed hybrid stores, which are starting to crop up all over Europe.

These premises cross books and bikes, toys and tea, films and food. In Romania I visited a cat cafe, where you don germ-free slippers and find yourself surrounded by thirty felines, and in Hungary I saw a beautiful store that only sold roses and romantic novels. The Cereal Cafe in London was attacked as a sign of lunacy, and was lambasted for charging £4 for a bowl of unusual cereal, but at least it was original. It shouldn’t have chosen to open in an edge-area where working class hardship still existed.

Location matters. One lady running a very nice independent cake and book shop in Scarborough told me that customers peer around her door and demand to know exactly what she’s selling – cakes or books – before they venture in. In the Bryant & May novels I often send the detectives into the Ladykillers Cafe; this is based on the real-life Drink Shop and Do in King’s Cross, which mixes food, cocktails, homewares and handicraft evenings very successfully. And there’s a book hotel in Lyme Regis where overnight guests have access to other floors of rare books.

But in the world of pop-ups and indie stores why are there so few shops selling things you actually need? Where are the butchers, fish-shops, hardware stores? Of course you can’t make a profit on them with London rents. And then there’s the issue of internet sales. Dress Circle, London’s unique theatre shop, was forced to close, as was the wonderful Cinema Store. But the desire to own something small, manageable and independent is as strong as ever. Finding the right combination takes skill.

Even large stores can sometimes pull it off. Waterstones Piccadilly and Foyles Charing Cross Road are both flagship stores that really earn my respect – both are far more than just shops – they’re destinations in their own right, where you can pass a whole morning in delighted enjoyment. What’s depressing is that parents visiting London have given the city a new number one destination. Top of the list is M&M world, the junk-food shop in Leicester Square.

2 comments on “They’re Tough To Run But We Need These”

  1. Debra Matheney says:

    As a child, I traveled across America each summer by car to Louisiana and Virginia and loved all the regional differences, created in large part by small mom and pop shops and restaurants. No more. Every place looks alike with the same chain stores.
    We recently spent time in Ojai, California which is free from chain stores and like an old time small town. Signage is controlled:no neon. The shops and restaurants are all locally owned. Barts Books is fabulous. A breath of fresh air.

  2. John says:

    You can still find small towns in the US that refuse to give in to fast food chains and “big box” consumerism, Deb. The Midwest is filled with them. And we managed to find a few interesting little spots in Tennessee and North Carolina years ago that were like stepping back in time. We always seek out the privately owned restaurants, and prefer to stay in cabins owned and maintained by a private person rather than chain hotels and motels when we can. My hometown in Connecticut had all sorts of zoning rules and managed to keep out fast food restaurants from invading the charm of what they insisted on calling “the village” (even though the populations was fast approaching 25,000) for close to 15 years. I’m not sure what’s it like now but I have a feeling they might have given in around the late 1990s.

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