Retail is changing in this country. Our high streets are struggling to survive the combined threats of online giants and out-of-town shopping centres.
I am fortunate that here in Durham, where much of the property is historic and protected, the effects are less noticeable. Quirky places tend to attract quirky shops which survive through the combined attention of tourists and students. The average town is not so fortunate and many streets that once were full of thriving local businesses are now either made anonymous through the proliferation of identikit branded outlets (every main street featuring the same names just shuffled into a different configuration), or, where the foot traffic doesn’t justify the spending power of the big boys, charity shops.
Those shopping malls are wall to wall glass and bright lighting, whose sharp edginess is softened only by wooden handrails and the flesh that is drawn to worship in these vast basilica. What is more, we are becoming so used to this shopping experience, that any attempt to offer something different has a battle on its hands. That is not to say that there aren’t those willing to take up the cause. Love her or hate her, Mary Portas is up for the challenge.
That is not to say that the shops in these malls are entirely without appeal…
The recent visit of the G8 to Northern Ireland, produced an interesting response to the problem of how we keep our high streets looking vibrant and attractive when the retailers have left for pastures new. The council in Fermanagh has redecorated a number of rundown outlets to spruce the place up, and this included creating “fake” shop fronts. Windows with full size posters applied to the inside that give the place a look of a thriving store, be it butcher, baker or coffee shop. At least one has a door redecorated so that it appears to be slightly ajar and opening onto an attractive butchers shop within.
Many have scoffed at the idea, but locally it seems to have been well received as a way of bringing a bit of life back to their towns, not to mention providing welcome work for the painters!
There are a couple of establishments that I pass on my way to work that have also demonstrated the power of doing something a little different. The first is a pub between Chester le Street and Birtley. The Lambton Worm, is painted in battleship grey with white window frames. Not a particularly inviting prospect, the grey giving a cold and gloomy feel which is the very opposite of what a good pub should represent, and yet they have a secret weapon. Smack in the centre of this monochrome expanse is the pub doorway where a splash of colour brings an element sixties pop art and fun to the decor. Amazing what you can achieve with two colours added to the existing white.
The second structure shows that there can be life when a building’s fickle customers have moved on and it’s raison d’être is lost. It was a cinema; The Rex, although it gave its last show even before I was born. Now it’s a launderette. Some might see this as a loss of status, but this isn’t any launderette. No chain-smoking Dot Cotton here. This is a launderette with attitude and a website. A launderette with a coffee shop and facebook fans. A launderette that doubles as a venue for concerts. A launderette that has just acquired a licence to sell alcohol. And they’re just around the corner. How good is that?
They even know a bit about window dressing…
- Fake shop fronts hide Northern Ireland economic woes before G8 (sott.net)
- As Mary Portas says, sitting back and doing nothing is not an option (walesonline.co.uk)