The lights are going out in the great cathedrals of high street shopping. BHS is nothing more than a memory. Debenhams is looking like that shoogly peg might just give way at any minute. Even the once might M& S has the faint air of desperation about it. As do the staff.
Jenners might make it on the off chance that it looks a bit Harry Potterish and does Christmas awfully well.
Now among the names of the fallen we can inscribe House of Fraser. To be fair, I haven’t set foot in the place since 1993, I reckon. I’m afraid it’s demise was as clear to me as the last cough of a tubercular old nag.
They were once the giant must-go one-stop shops. Where else could you buy light bulbs, pyjamas and The Beatles’ White Album?
They were the places your mum dragged you around to get your school uniform, shoes and gym kit. The blazer was always tried on, until you got a perfect fit. Then she’d go off and fetch another one at least three sizes too big, on the grounds that you’d “grow into it”.
If you were lucky and you had managed not to kill your wee brother whilst playing on the stairs, there was a chance of a strawberry milkshake whilst she had a coffee.
Well, they called it coffee. They served something in Littlewoods that we’d have to order today by asking for small flat brown sludge caffinato, with added froffy. Coffee frothed back then, like dogs on a hot day.
It wasn’t created by bearded hipsters called Glen or Ben, but by dumpy wee women called Margaret or Joyce, clad in nylon overalls that crackled when they passed each other. The foam did nothing to improve the taste. The coffee still tasted like something dredged from the Clyde.
They stocked everything. The very first computer my husband ever bought, way back in the 80s, was from Debenhams, who, naturally, stocked them in the electrical department, next to the two-bar electric fires and vacuum cleaners as big and as noisy as Soviet battle tanks.
House of Fraser carried fashion out from the city centres into places like Ayr, Bellshill, and Hamilton. It was the only place you could buy Brutus jeans, but you never admitted that’s where you got them.
Department stores were never trendy.
What women want
Women buy three types of clothes. Essentials, like pants, socks and jammies. Clothes for the season, summer holiday tops and winter wear jumpers. Then, thirdly The Outfit, for weddings, birthday parties, night out on the town or to celebrate Wednesday with a bargain that fits.
All these things are available elsewhere now. You can buy pants in supermarkets.
Get your high fashion designer jeans online, then try them on in your own bedroom, free of the fear of the curtain suddenly whooshing back and the overly concerned voice of the shop assistant asking if you “needed any help”.
It’s all tartan tat and coffee shops around here
Even the cheap and cheerful are beginning to feel Amazon’s cold hands around their throats. And perhaps local councils have a part to play in the the assassination of the high street.
Earlier this year, we rocked off to Bristol. We were tourists, something of a role-reversal for us. Well, I don’t mind telling you, I was a girl booted and suited and ready to shop. Think marauding Viking with a credit card.
There was nothing to buy. Street after street was lined with chain restaurants, fake “local” coffee shops and TescoSainsburyMetro
Until, that is, we stumbled across Bristol’s St Nicholas market, full of little start-up businesses. Yes, it’s the same sort of candle and soap making outfits you find in virtually every Highland glen these days, but it’s still a genuine local enterprise run by a lovely young woman who cheerfully sold me scented bath crystals and told me how she made them.
They smell amazing. I hoard them now because they remind me of a nice mini-holiday. I may have to drive to Bristol to get more, because I can’t buy anything like them anywhere else.
Bristol was hollowed out by a council-backed monster shopping development. It drained retail and rents away from the traditional shopping streets.
The House of Fraser building is to be be turned into offices, they say, because there is an exciting retail development at the St James. Will it be exciting? Who is going to move in there? What happens to the gaps they leave? Gone are the days of 23 branches of Boots on one street. Look around St Andrew Square. Take a walk up High Street. Try to buy something that isn’t tartan tat or a grande Americano with hot milk (translation: white coffee).
People come to this city from around the world to spend money. Let’s give them something to buy, something they can’t get anywhere else.