When I began to take a serious interest in hill-walking, back in the 1980s, I kitted myself out with specialist clothing made from polyester fabric which is effective at retaining body heat while still allowing perspiration to escape. I soon discovered it has a couple of drawbacks: it is wickedly electro-static and, after only a few hours, reeks of armpits. Despite this being common knowledge since the 1960’s (the era of nylon, drip-dry shirts) I, and many others, convinced ourselves that we needed to spend small fortunes on garish garments which could be easily spotted (and probably smelt) by mountain-rescue teams. Lately many of us have returned to Nature’s own hi-tech fabric: worn by millions of sheep in New Zealand, it is called Merino wool and has re-generated the outdoor-clothing business. Nowadays unwanted polyester pullovers (ironically known as ‘fleeces’) can be bought for the price of a pint of beer at many High Street clothing shops.
But the High Street has long been full of things I neither want nor need, as was reconfirmed recently when I went in search of some Merino socks. The specialist outdoor-pursuits shops had plenty of the thick, chunky hiking variety but I was looking for an apparently rare type – the svelte city-sock – and without success. Manchester city centre has no shortage of men’s clothing shops but most of them are really in the business of selling fashion-branded garments and are unconcerned with the niceties of fabric types. Humble socks are relegated to racks at the back of the shop and, being low-ticket items, are not well understood by staff.
My search would have been better conducted on the internet but this had now turned into an ad-hoc research project during which I began to question the value of the big, familiar shops which aim to reassure customers by offering consistency but, in the process, are responsible for perpetuating uniform patterns of behaviour. I hankered after different shops. Someone told me that in Amsterdam, for example, coffee-shop chains are banned from the city centre for fear that the place would lose one of its main attractions – the charming variety of individual, owner-managed cafes which lend character to the place. This may have been achieved by timely civic legislation in Amsterdam but it is too late for such controls to be applied to Britain’s High Streets where landlords have tied their tenants into long contracts with periodic, upwards-only rent reviews.
Change may be on the horizon: I notice that the first charity shop has opened on one of the main shopping streets in Manchester and, although the word “blight” may spring to mind, along with visions of poor, semi-derelict High Streets elsewhere, it may well be that the charity shop signals a point in a cycle of regeneration. The last few decades have been marked by retail-chain expansion which has driven rents upwards with the consequence that more modestly capitalised independent businesses have lost their toe-hold. The lending and borrowing which has nourished this process has, at last, become unsustainable and the inevitable consequence is collapse. The corporate retail chains, whose spread has spoiled the individuality of Britain’s High Streets, have taken to sheltering in malls where their business model can be sustained, their high costs recouped from the heavy footfall of shoppers who prefer to put comfort and convenience before risk and adventure.
Charity shops may be the first to seize the opportunity but, as landlords are obliged by market forces to reduce rents, smaller businesses will be able, once more, to populate the High Streets where they will do what they do best – attract curious, interested customers by offering quirky, individual experiences. And when these customers come they will bring with them the life that makes High Streets buzz again.