Seb Reilly: Dawn of the Dead High Streets

Help our high streets to survive

I like to walk, and in early January I find Thanet takes on a strange, ghostly atmosphere. The high streets have a few rogue wanderers but are mostly empty, and almost all the shops are closed. Being a lifelong resident in a seasonal area, it is to be expected that when the summer folk are not around everything gets a lot quieter.

When walking I like to think. A new year has begun, allowing both an opportunity to set resolutions, and also a chance to look back at time gone by. The other day, the catch of the light on a shop window—combined with a car driving past, windows down and volume up, playing a song from the late nineties—took me back twenty years.

My coming-of-age happened when VHS videos were still in vogue. Growing up around music, I bought myself a lot of albums. I had a fairly extensive cassette tape collection—the majority of which were mixtapes, the retro equivalent to playlists—but my medium of choice was the CD. That was the pinnacle of audio technology. Nowadays a lot of music is streamed, and the sound quality is nowhere near what it could be.

Whenever I wanted to go buy a new album, I had to actually visit a real shop. This was before online ordering, before bootleg MP3s, before the downturn of the music industry. My preferred stores were Howling Sounds in Ramsgate, which is still there, and Sound House in Broadstairs, which has long since closed.

The other options were Woolworths or Our Price, which were both chains. At the time, all the talk was of retail giants pushing independent stores out of the high streets, so I felt it was only right to support the underdogs. How times have changed.

Right at the beginning of this year it was announced that HMV are back in administration and the Thanet store is at risk of closure. Streaming has pushed physical sales down, and combined with the ease, cheapness and convenience of buying online through corporate giants like Amazon, high street chains are the new underdogs.

I am very open about my preference for physical over digital, and have written about it before. I’m the person that still buys CDs and DVDs of music and films I am going to want to listen to or watch more than once. I like real, tangible items. I also want to keep people in jobs, keep businesses open on high streets, and prevent huge conglomerates from developing monopolies over their markets.

There are still some independent music retailers on our high streets. Vinyl has made a comeback, and that is definitely a good thing. Shops like Transmission, Cliffs, and Vinyl Head are keeping us all well-stocked in records, but there are not many places to buy CDs or DVDs anymore.

HMV at Westwood

There are a couple of albums and a few films I want to buy at the moment. I could order the CDs online; I could grab the DVDs in the supermarket when I next do my shopping. Instead, I am going to go out of my way to visit HMV and buy them there, as both a way of supporting the shop so it can stay open, and also forcing myself to remember that shops only exist if customers buy things from them.

It is very easy to reminisce about stores such as Dave Fox Motorcycles or Geek Havok that have announced they are to close this year. It is much harder to accept the reason they are closing is because we—the public—did not buy things from them.

If we all give in to online shopping, soon there will be no high streets to browse. Then the towns will be as ghostly in the summer as they are in the winter, and that just won’t do.

1 Comment

  1. It’s not just online purchases and the growth of supermarkets. In the end, most people just haven’t got enough money or time to wander round a lot of small shops, making individual purchases at each.

    Since the “Thatcher revolution” and the crack-down on the Trade Unions, wages have stagnated while prices kept rising. Previous high unemployment meant that millions lost reasonably-paying jobs and had to take poorly paid positions. Several times, often. That has an effect.
    At the same time, it no longer became possible for a family to survive on one (man’s?) wage. Both partners have to work. So fewer people have the time to browse.
    The family shopping happens at just the one supermarket at the weekend.

    How many small shop owners would welcome a society in which wages are high, overtime is unnecessary, and only one partner needs to work so the other has time for careful, selective shopping?
    Not many, I suspect. But , without such arrangements, the small, specialist shop is doomed.
    Add to that, we have had a trend whereby the big money in the City of London no longer came from companies that actually made things or provided a needed service. Instead, the clever money was invested in property, shopping centres, industrial premises etc. The owners let their tenants do all the work but then charged a fortune in rent, often driving small shops out of business. Eventually killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. But they didn’t care. They were long gone with the cash. And, anyway, small business organisations could never bring themselves to criticise other(bigger) businessmen, so they ignored the destruction caused by high rents and just whinged on about the high cost of the Rates. So Councils bent over backwards to keep business rates low while increasing Community Charges for already-struggling local households. Nowadays, once again, it is , increasingly, the local authorities that are having to buy out failing shopping centres because the City of London vultures have already moved on to the next big financial killing.(weapons, oil, other peoples private data?)
    We live in a nasty, dog-eat-dog world and the local shops are the little poodles, cringing in the corner and never able to point a finger at the real culprits because, somehow, they see themselves as just another form of Big Business Rottweilers. So they lose out.

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