London is infested with them: the tacky newsagent with the sponsored fascia that hasn’t seen a soapy sponge since 1987, the struggling hair salon with its camp wink-of-a-name painted in a 70s funk style font, the print shop with an illuminated logo big enough to be seen from the M25, the crappy café where coffee still comes in granules, the oddball ‘boutique’ with its deranged, contortionist mannequins, the downright dodgy mobile phone repair shop, the dour and dusty furniture store, its windows papered in fluorescent exclamations, and not forgetting the ubiquitous ‘convenience’ store, plastered with more stickers than the arse-end of a hippy’s camper van. If forced to enter one, we might catch ourselves chewing the fat with the owner, swaying our heads in synchronized dismay at the inevitable decline of local stores. We tut loudly in agreement that it’s the fault of the supermarkets, Amazon and Brexit, and yet we’d never dream of telling the truth, that their shop is dirty, scruffy, outdated, over-cluttered and utterly irrelevant. In short: shit.
We’ve become so used to living with shit shops that they’re almost invisible. Despite the fact that they must make up 90% of London’s retail, they barely get a mention in relation to the current crisis. Clearly, they are such an embarrassment to the press and the retail Twittersphere, that we’ve mentally vanished them, in order to concentrate on the woes of decent looking establishments.
Or perhaps you’re one of those inverted snobs that takes a perverse pride in your shitty environs. A country-lubber that revels in their beta post code by way of knocking the districts you can’t afford to live in. ‘No, Marylebone, Hampstead and Chelsea are not real enough for me,’ they whine, sitting in alpha post code pubs… for Sunday lunch only, you understand. These are the same folk who loudly bemoan the gentrification of their personal urban shithole, but you so know they are checking Rightmove.com twice a day to see if the artisan bakery has helped nudge up local property prices.
Oh, and don’t think the posh districts are exempt. There are plenty of shit shops snuggled in between the tasteful ones in the most salubrious parts of our city.
Londoners, take a good look around you on your way home tonight. The saggy, plastic canopies and filthy windows are the result of laziness and ignorance, not poverty. It wasn’t always like this. These stores are the rotting teeth in what was once a radiant parade of a smile. A century ago these shop-fronts would have been scrubbed every morning at 7am sharp, by a crisp-aproned shopkeeper with a sense of pride in his business and a long wooden mop handle. Today’s proprietor, by contrast, is a multi-tasker: one hand to point the card reader, the other to continue texting.
Independent they may be, but shop-fronts are the architecture of our environment, our community, and in that sense they belong to us all. Grubby, neglected shops may be moribund, but they are nonetheless busy sending us microscopic messages of misery every time we pass by. Every day they make us feel a tiny bit deflated, a little less good about the day ahead. A little bit shit.
But thankfully, middle class Millennials and hipstery types know good retail instinctively. That’s why their store designs hark back to Victorian ideals of shopkeeperdom. They know that a black fascia with a discrete gold font has far greater impact that the metre tall, yellow plastic letters it replaced. They know we are drawn to tidy entrances and well merchandised stalls. The harsh truth is that inside your local shit shop, there’s not an over-worked old lady struggling to keep up. No, it’s much more likely to be someone who doesn’t know one end of a broom from the other. Someone who thinks of a shop as a vessel for stuff that the public want, and little more.
I daydream about a hit TV series called ‘Shit Shop SOS’, where an undercover squad of retail enthusiasts wash, tidy, redesign and merchandise local stores, only to be paid in customers’ gasps of wonderment. I muse about kick-starting a hashtag campaign entitled #letsgiveashit to encourage our sad and grimy independents to spruce themselves up a bit.
Alas, there is barely any need. Shop by shop, street by street, the shit shops are dying. Waiting in the wings are hungry, stylish young innovators eager to take their place as soon as the rent and rates will allow. London is not just one of the world’s greatest cities, it is famous for its retail. Let’s encourage our local shit shops to clean up, sort their signs out and put something interesting in the window. In short: #letsgiveashit