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Date: 09/09/15

In Praise Of The Closed Shop (Part 1)

(Hello to any old-fashioned trade unionists who have come here enticed by the title. Sorry comrade, you've been lured here under false pretences; I hope you'll stay though, as I think that this piece - and the one I intend to follow it up with - will still speak to you).

The more experienced webonauts, and those with an ear for the common parlance of the day, will be familiar with the term "lightbulb moment". The phrase is used to describe a point in time where a big idea or flash of enlightenment comes to someone, and probably derives from the image commonly found in comics when a lightbulb (filament type, natch) pops up in a thought-bubble over the character's head.

Well, a week or two back, I had just such a moment. Indeed, here is the very lightbulb in question:

Close-up photograph of a Woolworths strip bulb

This is the bulb which was in the overhead lamp above my bed. It finally failed around the early part of last month, after long and sterling service. How long can be judged by the name on it, since Woolworths ceased to exist in the UK early in 2009. That fact set in train the following thought:

Whatever happened to all the shops I used to know?

I mean, if I take my home town as an example, I can remember clearly from my boyhood and beyond the myriad emporia which stood on the main shopping streets of Wrexham; listing them now is a bit like listening to those roll-calls of the dead uttered at events commemorating wars or other man-made disasters. And so, let us mark the passing of the small (and smallish) local or regional retailers: Lloyd Williams' ladies' outfitters on the corner of Regent Street and Egerton Street; Cranes' musical instrument and record shop on the junction of Regent Street and Duke Street (a rather forbidding place this, staffed it seemed to me by the retail equivalent of old-style librarians); Caldwell's electrical retailers on Henblas Street, with Bowdler's doing much the same thing up on Duke Street; Davies & Windsor's carpet shop near the old Odeon on Brook Street; Tom Taylor's glass and china place at the bottom of Vicarage Hill. Augment these with the names of the traders in our three market halls: Padgett's ("The Disc Shop"); Reg K. Morris (wool); Ernest Busfield's clothing and carpets. Add still further the local non-retail tradesmen and companies which were seeming fixtures of our lives: Border Brewery; E.F. Dyer's auto electricals; the various garages (Vincent Greenhous - I used to wonder what had happened to the final 'e' which the infant pedant in me insisted should be there - and Kirby's); and the small bus companies (Wright's of Penycae, Phillips of Rhostyllen, Chaloner's of the Moss), some of which had only one or two routes to run, but which nevertheless offered a touch of local colour beyond the uniform green-and-cream of the dominant Crosville.

All now alas at one with Nineveh and Tyre, and for a variety of reasons. Small business are dependent upon those who started them, or upon their descendants, and as even retailers are merely mortal in the end, the demise of the owner tended to lead to the death of the business as well, especially if no-one in the family fancied a career in standing behind a counter and being - depending on the nature of their business or clientele - passive-aggressive or patronising to whoever came in the door for eight hours a day, six days a week (half-day closing on Wednesdays).

There were - and are - other forces at work, of course. Perhaps the most powerful and inescapable of these has been the tendency of larger retailers and businesses to merge, agglomerate, conglomerate, take over, reverse take over and generally assume a dominant position as economies of scale made it possible for them to leave the local, less nimble, less 'flexible', competition flat- and wrong-footed. And so, particularly in retail - and more particularly still in the more specialised fields - the local has been out-manoeuvred and eliminated by more powerful forces acting at a distance, as the similarly baleful effect of the inevitable centralisation of the running of business has taken hold.

Easier and quicker transport have also played their part, with far more people owning cars than in the days I've been describing; I intend returning to this particular aspect in the second part of my musings.

Look along Wrexham's main shopping drags today - Regent Street, Queen Street, Hope Street, High Street, Lord Street - and you would be hard-pressed to find any of the shops (sorry, I mean of course, 'retail outlets') which could still be considered in all seriousness to be in local hands. The odd small emporium manages to survive in the quieter corners, and there are still three market halls, but with ever-diminishing numbers of stalls in them; but, those apart, all the other shops are run very much at one removed, and are of no more importance to their corporate owners than points on a map.

And, as I indicated at the outset, it isn't just the local traders who have vanished. Some of the quondam biggest names have gone under the commercial equivalent of Boot Hill. Here is where the merger-mania of the 80s, 90s and beyond have carved huge gaps in the retail landscape.

Woolworths was probably the biggest of these to founder. I remember the old Woolworths at the bottom end of Hope Street, with its secondary entrance via a basement department off the Central Arcade, and then the newer building up Regent Street, again with a basement which contained the electrical and furnishing departments alongside - somewhat incongruously - the fish counter, with its backdrop of a painting of fishes down which a cascade of water would flow, much to the discomfort I'm sure of people with cystitis or dodgy prostates. Both the old and the new stores also contained those disconcerting mirrors on the pillars which made you think, on turning right at the junction of Pick'n'Mix and Lingerie, that you were about to bump into someone until you realised that the 'someone' was, in fact, your own fair self.

Rumbelows was another one, albeit after a shorter life-span. I bought my first colour TV from there (an Hitachi with teletext; remember teletext?), and my first VCR (an Amstrad, with all the shoddiness associated with that brand - it spent more time in the workshop than it ever did in my study). Rumbelows too was a victim of the 're-structuring' of its parent company, was turned (briefly) into a branch of Radio Rentals, and then dissolved into nothingness.

Even the mighty W.H. Smith is much diminshed. I first remember it opposite the top of Hill Street, in premises so small that it seemed that half the merchandise was out on the pavement, much of it on those little rotating racks which - at the seaside - would hold picture postcards or I-Spy books (more innocent times in every sense, those). Then it moved to the new parade which had opened a little further up Regent Street, far more capacious and featuring carpets from which emanated a most odd and unforgettable odour, similar to the one given off by the record-cleaning cloths I used to buy from there. Latterly, however, the company has moved back to more confined quarters near the bottom of Hope Street, and has recently closed its upper sales floor completely.

So to walk the streets of Wrexham today is often a dispiriting experience for those of us with memories long and sharp enough. Like nearly all medium-sized towns, our town centre has been generalised out of any real existence, with the few genuinely local operators shoved into the side streets and back alleys, and the main areas left as the preserve of shops which - although sporting different brand names on their otherwise bland frontages - are usually owned ultimately by one of about five giant corporations.

That's only counting the properties which are still trading, of course. Such have been the effects of the economic miracle we have lived under these past few years that substantial numbers of premises lie empty - except for the occasional upswing of short-term leaseholding by fly-by-night operators selling Christmas tat and the like. Even some of the pound shops - those true barometers of a local economy - have closed.

(The great Douglas Adams was being satirical but also very accurate when, some thirty-five years ago, he posited his Shoe Event Horizon, where the retail economy was capsized by nearly every shop in a town becoming a shoe shop; since then, we have seen this economic theory transferred to travel agents and - latterly - mobile phone pushers).

But where, you may be asking, are the retail big-hitters? Surely a town of Wrexham's size, with a fairly sizable hinterland where - to judge by the property prices - at least some of the population is doing fairly nicely, would have a few more big names? Where is your Debenhams? Where your M&S?

It's OK. We've got them.

The trouble is, they're not in the town centre anymore.

And this brings me on to another factor in the denudation of our town centre landscapes.

The 'retail experience'.

The 'exciting, new shopping development'.

Over the last fifteen years or so, we have had at least three of these parasitic growths visited upon us by that most convenient and convivial of relationships, that between developers on the make and councillors and council officers on the take. I say that because the only other remotely plausible explanation as to why these malignancies have been visited upon us time after time is that our elected representatives and the bureaucrats who are supposed to do their bidding (although most of those seem to see the relationship as being the other way around) are so terminally, gormlessly gullible that you could sell them moonbeams, or that they are so unable to learn from experience that you wouldn't have them running a cake stall at a church fête.

Flash the words, 'exciting', 'new' and 'prestigious' at a group of Hicksville politicians and their calculating handlers in the back office, and they will not merely jump but ascertain the required height first. In the modern era in Wrexham, this started with the fiasco of the Market Hall which stood at the junction of Queen Street, Lambpit Street and Henblas Street. It was a solid building - with an attractive half-timbered frontage along its most visible side - and was the home to a large number of successful small local businesses. Unfortunately, the halfwits who ran the Council at that time failed to invest in maintenance, and the resultant leaky roof was their ready excuse for demolishing it. Never mind, at least the 'exciting', 'new', 'prestigious' development which would rise in its place would keep that half-timbered frontage...except that the Council got screwed by the (non-local) developers, the new building never materialised, and the frontage - having been propped up by scaffolding after the old market hall had been taken down - eventually became so unsafe that it, too, had to be pulled down into rubble. And, of course, that part of the town centre - practically the centre of the town centre - looked like shit for a good four or five years. But - as Mildred the secretary used to say in Men From The Ministry after a similar reversal in the life of the General Assistance Department - "Ah well, never mind, eh?". After all, we did eventually get one of those nice breeze-block and sallow-bricked 'developments', didn't we? Into a fair chunk of which the Council itself moved, in the same way that the old shops and businesses on the opposite side of Lambpit Street (including one fondly-remembered bakery-cum-café) were chucked out for a similarly ugly replacement building for use solely by the Council.

(The former traders in the old Market Hall, incidentally, were left all but homeless for a while before being moved into a 'new', 'exciting', 'prestigious' market hall - named by the Council with its customary tin-ear 'The People's Market', but referred to by the local inhabitants with their far more realistic view of things as 'Legoland' - on Chester Street, somewhat away from the centre of town, and where the Council's habit of raising stallholders' rents beyond endurance has meant that the place has stood a third to a half empty ever since).

Having not learned - or having not wished to learn - from being fucked over by property speculators, the Council has since allowed the raising of the Plas Coch retail park (plonked on what used to be playing fields, three-quarters of a mile outside of town), the Central Business Park (on the site of the old Central Station and the Wrexham Lager brewery) and, latterly, Eagles Meadow (this being one part 'retail experience', two parts wind tunnel), standing on a site previously occupied by a large Asda - which has since moved further away from the town centre - and a successful outdoor market. It is to these lofty purlieus that M&S, Boots and others have now decamped, to join a brand-new Debenhams whose prices - from my brief and purse-lipped perusal of them - could only appeal to those in the more affluent parts of the county with more money than sense.

And the result? Inevitably, the movement of some of the larger 'outlets' from the town centre has left large parts of it devoid of anything other than large whitewashed windows and here-today-gone-tomorrow enterprises, with the result that Wrexham town centre is now a combination of desert and slum. A fine picture to greet visitors to a place with far more to recommend it if only we had people running it who had a jot of imagination and courage. And it doesn't do much for the morale of those of us who live here, either. It may only be the place's reputation as multi-year winner of the World's Apathy Capital Award which has spared those responsible for the dereliction (literal as well as metaphorical) from being strung up by their expenses from the ornamental lamp-posts.

But this is all just one part of the general tendency of our time to see the 'new' as better, and the 'big new' as better still, a form of societal delusion which - if it has devastated our towns - has had catastrophic effects on our villages as well, as I hope to explain next time...an arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item