A Ghost Story Retailed (part two)

January 5, 2012 9:27 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Act II: Departments and Postures

To continue the paean to independent retailers and their traditions of service:

Having swamped the town centres, the superstores promptly moved out again. Easily renegotiating or subverting regulations that govern planning permission, they annexed green-field sites beyond the conurbations, often – oh, the poetry of it – on the land of farmers bankrupted by their own policies (but I’ll come to those in due course). While out-of-town leviathans reinforce the transcendence of the great god Convenience – all you could ever want under one roof – they obviously discriminate against those dependent on public transport: the unregarded old and disabled, the bored and recalcitrant young and non-conformists like me who happen never to have learned to drive.

As a result of this concentration of diverse retail under single massive roofs, thousands of independent and specialist shops closed. Multi-purpose emporiums on single sites died too. When I was young, one of the great treats of visiting London was to dawdle round the department stores, most of which seemed to be owned by two proprietors, each of whom bestowed upon them his surname: Swan & Edgar, Dickens & Jones, Marshall & Snellgrove, Debenham & Freebody, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Derry & Toms, Arding & Hobbs.

Like Harrod’s and Liberty, Fortnum & Mason depends on its wealthy regulars to keep going. But the others – along with both Barker’s and Ponting’s in Kensington High Street, Jones Brothers on the Holloway Road and Maples the Tottenham Court Road furniture store (“see Maples and die”) – are gone, as are rather more recent multiple retailers that had huge London branches: Littlewoods, C&A and Allders. The founding branch of the Allders chain in Croydon does still trade under the brand, however. The much-loved store in Queensway, Whiteley’s, survives only as the name of a shell within which there is a mall made up of chain stores and a multiplex cinema. Gordon Selfridge’s world-famous Oxford Street store has effectively gone the same way.

Waring & Gillow lorded it before my time. That was a legendary store with branches in provincial cities such as Lancaster (where Gillow originated, I think) and Coventry. The store was the first to become a byword in furnishings for the middle class home. WS Gilbert makes mention of it in a lyric for ‘HMS Pinafore’.

The stores hit their stride in the mid-19th century. The most compelling account of them I know is Zola’s novel of 1883, ‘Au bonheur des dames’ (my edition translates it as ‘The Ladies’ Paradise’), which sets a rather sentimentalized love story in an emporium based on the world’s largest retail outlet before World War I, Aristide Boucicaut’s Bon Marché in Haussmann’s rebuilt Paris. Boucicaut’s great perception was that his primary customers were female. In Zola’s docu-fiction version, his “sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop; he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy. His tactics were to intoxicate her with amorous attentions, to trade on her desires, and to exploit her excitement ‘ his most inspired idea ‘ was that of conquering the mother through the child ‘ [he] stopped the mothers as they were walking past by offering pictures and balloons to their babies”. Perhaps the bosses of McDonald’s have read Zola.

Swan & Edgar commanded the primest of prime sites in London at what seemed the hub of the Empire (when there was still an Empire): the block between Piccadilly and Regent Street, fronting Piccadilly Circus. “Outside Swan & Edgar’s” was the traditional place to meet friends in town. This was despite that the railings separating the pavement from the road for the length of the store frontage were known as ‘the meat rack’ because so many rent boys lolled there, day and night. Swan & Edgar’s ruled from 1812 to 1982, a fabulous run in anybody’s book. Then it became Tower Records, then Virgin, then Zavvi, now something called The Sting, apparently a Dutch clothes store.

Debenham’s shed the Freebody half, but thrives, much altered, as a down-market chain owned by a multinational buy-out consortium. It has branches from Iceland to Qatar. The House of Fraser, last owner of Dickens & Jones, announced that store’s closure in 2005. Fraser have also folded into its own identity other great names (DH Evans, Kendals of Manchester, Barker’s, Baird of Wishaw, The Army & Navy among many) but preserved the historic brand of Jenners of Edinburgh. Like the House of Fraser, Fenwick and the liberally-managed John Lewis chain continue to expand. Bennett’s of Derby, reckoned to be the world’s senior department store, still stands. So do Peter Jones on Sloane Square and the store with the blithely Milliganesque name, HJ Knee of Trowbridge. But Biba, which succeeded Derry & Toms in Kensington, and, beyond London, David Morgan of Cardiff, Blinkhorn & Son of Gloucester and Robinson & Cleaver of Belfast went into oblivion.

The most beguiling London store of my childhood was the unique and now unimaginable one that specialized in “novelties, magic and tricks”: Ellisdon & Sons of High Holborn. I knew it first through its celebrated catalogue that listed all its treats in boxed sections with line drawings that must have dated from the 1930s. As far as my pocket money allowed, I ordered from this hilarious list: black-face soap, whoopee cushions, bird whistles, fake tooth gaps and so on. You could get plastic dog turds with which to outrage your Mum (who sportingly pretended to be fooled) and plastic spiders (“men scream, women swoon” shouted the catalogue which, even to my innocent sensibility, looked a somewhat over-egged claim). You could “learn to throw your voice”, which, the catalogue undertook, would cause chaos in the adult world. And there was the inspired Seebackroscope, basically a contraption containing a standard-issue mirror that allowed you to “spy on” people (especially courting couples, it was suggested) who were behind you. Such larks.

Just before a seaside holiday, I received through the post a much-anticipated Ellisdon’s fried egg which I secreted in my bag. The hotel’s French mâitre d’, who anyway appeared ever on the edge of hysteria, most reluctantly agreed to have this hoax introduced into someone’s meal and, obligingly, my Dad ordered a mixed grill for breakfast and made great play of saving the plastic egg till last. The mâitre d’ hopped about agonized in the background, ready to replace the offending item with a proper egg. But he required the smelling salts when, later, I left the egg on the carpet outside the restaurant, surrounded by bits of (real) broken biscuit.

Another much loved store in High Holborn was Gamages, which ran a renowned mail order service: its catalogues are collectors’ items today. A typical ad for the store offered, as well as “an unlimited variety of attractive merchandise at money-saving prices”, a host of other facilities. These included a “luxuriously appointed” snack bar, the “largest and most up-to-date Salon in Central London”, “more than 200 different kinds of sandwiches” in the cocktail bar (beat that, Prêt) and, in two restaurants, “good, well-cooked food expeditiously served in comfortable surroundings. Moderate prices”.

Simpson’s, the elegant gents’ outfitters, used to dominate the south side of Piccadilly. I once spotted the Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman in there, standing ramrod-backed for all to see with his arm raised to shoulder height and folded at the elbow while an assistant measured him for a jacket. That kind of personal attention has become too expensive to supply, save at the very top of the market. The many-floored Simpson’s building is now the largest branch of Waterstone’s, the bookshop chain that is modelled on Barnes & Noble in the States.

Waterstone’s is now owned by a Russian-led consortium, but at least it has appointed as the managing director a vocational bookseller in James Daunt. Tim Waterstone founded the chain 30 years ago, after he was sacked as marketing manager for WH Smith, to whom he then went and sold out 12 years later. In turn, Smith’s sold the shops to HMV, already owners of the Dillon’s chain, which it promptly rebranded as Waterstone’s.

When I first knew both HMV and Dillon’s, each was a single store. Dillon’s was off Gower Street, serving its neighbour, University College London, where I was an undergraduate. You’d be there all day, turning up volumes of the most arcane academe. Foyle’s, on the opposite Charing Cross Road corner (now a sex shop) from its present site, had an even bigger stock. Mind, you could go mad in Foyle’s. Until quite recently, you had to collect an invoice from an assistant to whom you entrusted your purchases. You then went to a kiosk to pay the bill before reclaiming the bag that, if the assistant was on the ball, contained the books you had bought. Ridiculous.

Hatchards of Piccadilly soldiers on – it’s part of the Waterstone’s group – as do the OUP shop in Oxford and the Blackwell’s chain that also began life in Oxford. But other fine bookshops have vanished. Politico’s, a unique place in Victoria that was heaven to browse, now trades only on-line. Camden’s compendious Compendium, full of more jaw-dropping titles than any other bookshop in the world, was replaced by a retailer of tat. Though it could hardly compare with specialist movie dealers in Los Angeles and New York, the Cinema Bookshop, which finally closed its doors at the beginning of 2006, was a grievous loss to London.

Collett’s, Zwemmer’s and Silver Moon, all of Charing Cross Road, are no more, like Hachette on Regent Street, Pipeline of Holborn (who also distributed), the Hammersmith branch of Any Amount of Books, Bumpus of Baker Street, Crouch End Bookshop, Prospero’s Books, Flask Walk Bookshop in Hampstead Village and, beyond London, William Smith in Reading (which burned down) and the vast (Robert) Maxwell’s in Oxford. And of course the disappearance of Ottakars (taken over by Waterstone’s) and the collapse of the twinned chains of Books etc and Borders, while they were less cherished than the idiosyncratic shops, was still a blow to books and the diversity of their dissemination.

In another part of the forest, the aforementioned HMV had occupied premises at 363 on the south side of Oxford Street for nearly half a century when I first shopped there: Elgar was guest of honour at the opening. Lodging for two years in a student rooming-house opposite Selfridge’s, I came to use HMV a lot. In those days (the late ’60s), the shop’s relatively new embrace of pop music was confined to the basement. The ground floor – its sounds overwhelmed you as you entered – was given over wholly to classical music. The selection was magnificent, needless to say, the listening booths were elegant and comfortable and the reference section was unrivalled. A splendid spiral staircase, redolent of an ocean liner, took you to the more recondite selections on the upper floors.

HMV abandoned these premises around the turn of the millennium for a less characterful building across the road, but closed that last year. The original shop was taken over by something American called Foot Locker, about which I know just two things: its marquee is disproportionately large for its or any other façade; and a teenager was stabbed to death just outside on Boxing Day. For both reasons, I shall never set foot in that locker. HMV retains another site on the north side of Oxford Street, close to the Tottenham Court Road turn. The last time I looked, it still kept a relatively generous stock of classical CDs in the basement, backed by knowledgeable staff, which is certainly not the case in any other remaining HMV branch that I have visited.

The HMV chain is now in dire trouble, suffering a double-whammy from the internet: on-line shopping and pirate downloading. Few one-off music shops can survive this onslaught. The wondrous Duck Son & Pinker of Bath, a music store that still emitted a pre-war whiff, closed its doors last year. In London, Dean Street used to maintain a fabulous store for lovers of the musical; its successor, Dress Circle in Upper St Martin’s Lane, struggled through some hairy moments last year. Off St Martin’s Lane used to be an indispensable shop for collectors of jazz – James Asman.

The economics of a single-site store or indeed a modest chain are bound to be problematic in a market dominated by increasingly diversified multi-site giants. A major player can negotiate favourable terms on bulk buys, indeed can insist on such terms. Lone stores cannot compete on price reductions. Nor can they service the lame-brained shopper who pops in just for a box of washing powder and emerges with an oven-ready chicken, three nylon blouses (reduced), a hanging basket of busy lizzies, a pack of do-it-yourself stone-cladding, a baby’s high chair, a CD of Ricky Martin’s Greatest Hits, a novel by Alan Titchmarsh and two jeroboams of Pina Colada (though without the washing powder).

Ah yes, the superstores. I really should get to those ‘ TO BE CONTINUED.


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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