The recent demise of British Home Stores, and its possible disappearance from our High Streets, got me reminiscing. I was born in Clapham, South London, and I remember going shopping with mum on Saturday mornings, along the High Street. The local supermarket was not so huge and there were many more independent shops doing their business. The High Street was busy and there was a buzz around. The shops were noisy and the vendors would be shouting out their wares. There was no fuss about bags, although most were paper back then. The shoppers, and they were mainly women, brought shopping bags and many would have bags on wheels. I remember the fruit and veg guy weighing up mums’ vegetables and tipping them straight into the bottom of her bag. No fuss. Of course, the butcher and the fishmonger wrapped up their produce in greaseproof paper or plastic bags and they too were dispatched into the bag. When I was born, not everybody had cars and we either walked or the bus conductor helped mum with me, my two sisters and her shopping bag.
Times change. Supermarkets got bigger, more people got cars and, somewhere along the way, local councils decided that bringing cars to the High Street should be frowned upon. Yellow lines! No parking! (and when was the last time we saw a bus conductor?). Out of town stores started to spring up and, although they offered a number of benefits, I don’t think that it’s coincidence that their rise in prominence coincided with more people owning cars. There were less people on the High Street and shopkeepers started to struggle. This is where I think British Home Stores should have learned the lesson. The world moves on and, in business as in life, we have to move with the times. It took a long time, probably more than a decade, but fortune comes in many disguises. Who would have guessed that food scares and recessions would trigger the resurgence of the High Street?
The pendulum swung again. BSE, foot and mouth, over fishing and world drought all brought issues for farmers and suppliers, and the shopping public started to ask where their food was coming from, how far had it travelled and could we, the traders, trace what we were selling. The supermarkets were too big. They don’t have the skills at shop floor level and, in order to stay ‘cheap’ they were cutting too many corners. The market opened up again and space appeared for small, almost boutique, specialist shops to thrive. I’m not a fan of the word ‘gentrification’ but the ‘village’ atmosphere grew throughout London. People are enjoying the environment where they live and making it clean, friendly and good spirited for themselves and their neighbours. They use the local open spaces, they support local school and clubs and, most importantly, they want small independent shops with knowledgeable shopkeepers whom they can trust to deliver the finest products, especially in food.
At Meat London we have been lucky, or clever, in selecting two of the best examples of local areas becoming villages. Fortess Road NW5 would appear to be in the shadow of the better known Kentish Town and sits at the bottom of the hill from Highgate, but the residents are a close knit bunch and they respect their local shops and enjoy them. Likewise on Stoke Newington Church Street, N16. No one would argue that not so many years ago this was not an area to be walking around in after dark. Today ‘Stokey’ is a bright and vibrant part of London offering a huge range of shops, cafes and restaurants to young and old. The common denominator in so many of these areas (Victoria Park Village, Westbourne Grove, Bermondsey, Balham etc, etc) is that they have all been regenerated around a diverse and buzzy food culture.
So there is the lesson for us all. We find ourselves back where we started, with local High Streets regenerating, London Street Markets offering better value alternatives and a happy and more educated shopper enjoying the benefits.
Long may it last, and one last thought; ‘Use it or lose it’