The media wake of HMV’s demise features a lot of claims about the death of the British high street.
It prompted me to figure out why I stopped going to HMV.
Thinking back, it wasn’t because the stock was overpriced. It wasn’t because I couldn’t find what I wanted, though I often couldn’t. Unlike Virgin, it wasn’t because they played godawful nu-metal so loud I couldn’t hear myself browsing for whimsical indie pop.
I think my reason was, in fact, that I got tempted away from the “high street” store by stores that were actually on high streets.
What the media call the “high street” is a real misnomer in Bristol. When people talk about high street shops on the news, in Bristol those shops are often to be found in Broadmead.
Broadmead is not high, and it’s not a street. Broadmead’s a 1950s concrete monstrosity (a gift from the Bristol Blitz. Thanks Hitler!) of grey crapness that’s looked down-at-heel since I first saw it in 1996.
In the daytime, it’s rammed with chuggers, preachers with bad megaphone technique wittering about eternal damnation, desperate-looking people trying to give you questionable lottery scratch cards and optician’s shills trying to drag you into Specsavers.
As a retail centre, it’s a nightmare to navigate through if you simply want to buy things.
In the nighttime it’s a wasteland.
It’s got worse, if anything, since the development next door of the swanky £500m Cabot Circus shops.
Not that there’s much there I’d want to go to1, but Cabot Circus at least is architecturally impressive, modern and clean, with a funky roof and a lack of boring right-angles.
Broadmead, meanwhile, had a cheap facelift to try to spruce it up. The main result seems to have been some knee-height concrete spheres scattered around the place. I’m quite scared I’ll do a pratfall across one during some future chugger-dodging.
It’s definitely not what I think of when I hear the words “high street”.
“High street” sounds like a nice place to walk to; Broadmead is mainly a place people sit in traffic to get to, to park in multi-storey car-parks whose stairwells smell of wee.
For me, a high street is something more along the lines of the Gloucester Road, or Bedminster’s North Street, say. The day before Christmas, I took my parents food shopping on North Street. Fab meat in Rare Butchers; lovely roasting potatoes from Ashton Fruit – along with great locally-pickled onions bought in a recycled coffee jar; booze from the Bristol Beer Factory; cheese and biscuits from the Southville Deli.
That’s a high street. The same kind of high street I used to go and buy records on, long before I’d set foot in an HMV. “Vinyl Village” on Barkingside High Street was owned and run by an actual musician, and sold me most of my teenage vinyl and cassettes. Who owns HMV? Well, shareholders, I guess, many of whom might not even know they own it. Who runs it? Oh. The bloke who used to run Jessops.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe there’s a place for big chain stores that offer a consistent experience throughout, which can only be offered by national or international firms, centrally-run, and big enough to be on the stock market. Where else can I go, safe in the knowledge they’ll stock a pair of jeans that fit my entirely un-lithe form? Not the hipster indie shops. No, Marks & Sparks.
And where else can I get the kind of mundane plastic electronic crap that sometimes, let’s face it, we all need?
The last time I went to Broadmead, it was to go to Argos and buy a BT answer phone.
That, incidentally, was a more dispiriting experience even than I’d expected. Using their automated checkout, I found they’d started paying a bloke to stand next to the automated checkouts, trying to get people to press the button to buy the extended warranty.
Christ. Nice going, Argos. Making a crap experience worse since 1973.
But I’d have been no better off buying an answer phone anywhere else. Argos is fine for that kind of mass-produced plastic shite, which, let’s face it, we all need some of. For most of us, it’s the only way our lifestyle is even temporarily sustainable (though true sustainability fans wince at the thought.)
This is true culturally as well as economically. Sometimes I want to go see some anodyne Hollywood blockbuster and go to YO! Sushi afterwards, rather than watching something that’s actually good at the Watershed or the Cube.2
So, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a place for what the British media call the high street. The place of mass-produced experience, owned by national firms who are, in turn, owned by multinational conglomerates, who are owned, through the stock market, often by us.3 The place of franchised sameness and familiar names. A place to retreat to when you don’t want a new experience.
I think there’s a place for it. I just think we need to reclaim the words “high street” for their original purpose – that street nearby, where the good shops are.
I wonder what we should call places like Broadmead instead? Any ideas?
Cabot Circus is mostly chain restaurants, shops that sell clothes that are too trendy to come in my size, and a Showcase “Cinema de Lux” that, three times out of the four I’ve been there, has managed to bollocks-up the screening somehow; showing the new Star Trek in the wrong aspect ratio for the first fifteen minutes, for example. ↩
I recommend The Master or Safety Not Guaranteed at the moment, by the way. ↩
I imagine some of my two company pensions or my savings, through ISAs, might well have been in HMV. Oops. ↩