Losing the gentle art of browsing (part two)

Posted on June 21, 2011

Recently, the ABC ran a series called Turn Back Time: The High Street, to which The Builder and I, in our fuddy duddy way, took a shine. The basic premise was that a group of modern-day shopkeepers moved into the High Street (main street for we Australian types) of a rather dour town in Somerset called Shepton Mallet (seriously, worth watching just for that, don’t you think?). Once a thriving centre of hustle, bustle and industry, the SM High Street in 2010 was a cold, empty, boarded up and very unenthusiastic kind of place.

Each week, the shopkeepers were installed in a different era of the SM High Street, beginning with the 1870s and ending in the 1970s. The aim was to show the highs and lows of shopping over six different eras. To show exactly how and when personalised service was replaced by convenience. Exactly why the diversity of little shops and friendly shopkeepers were driven out of our main streets (because we suffer the same malady on the other side of the world) by homogenous brands.

We all complain about the two-horse race that is Woolworths and Coles but, as The High Street pointed out, it all comes down to our choices. We help to create the very situations that frustrate us.

One of the video stores in Fibrotown closed suddenly this week. The boys were devastated. It was our supplier of choice for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles DVDs. It also had a good foreign film section. I confess, though, that for everything else we tended to go to one of the others. Why? It was cheaper.

I know that in the scheme of things the humble ‘video’ store is living on borrowed time. One of our other stores is a Red Room, with it’s automated doo-dads and it’s tiny store space. No displays. No browsing. The Builder and I don’t go there. Why? We never know what we want to see. We know we’ve missed 150 great films in our early child-rearing years, but do you think we can think of a single one of them on the way to the shop? No way. Red Room, and online DVD purveyors for that matter, seem to require that you know what you’re looking for.

Where am I going with this? Choice. We made our choices and now we’re left with fewer choices. Just as The High Street demonstrated has happened over and over again in the last 150 years of retailing. It’s something that the dairy farmers of the South Coast would like us to remember as we pay for our cheap ‘homebrand’ milks at the supermarket. When the choice is gone, we have to take what we can get.

And, as many a regional town, with empty shops and dying populations can attest, what we get isn’t always what we want.


  1. Maxabella

    Don’t worry, Red Room’s days are numbered. You don’t download your movies??? x

  2. Annette Piper

    Our town went through the downward spiral, not helped by an a “new” local (i.e. just moved to the area) buying every available building and putting rents up so that people left then turning SHOPS into residences! Thankfully it has improved over the last year or so. There are still the odd ‘holes’ (closed shops) but it’s looking much healthier than it was. Unfortunately, opening or buying a business in a little town means you are just creating a job for yourself – the chance of actually selling a business in little towns is almost nil.

  3. mamabook

    Such great observations Al. I say as I sit in an indie coffee shop, but v much guilty of doing the same in so many arenas – convenience, cost, you name it. Dangle a cheap coupon in my face for a book and I have skipped to the big box bookstore. I recently visited our local quite large independent bookstore and, not suprisingly, they could actually answer my questions about a particular kids chapter book and its suitability.
    Even lovely Darling St in Balmain is beginning to resemble not much more than a glorified Westfield – chains proliferating.

  4. bigwords is...

    I love browsing too, particularly in book stores. Quite often i do not know what I want until I see or touch it. With less bookstores I find myself online, but then I get overwhelmed and can never make any new discoveries.

  5. Catherine

    One of my favorite things about Portland has been how many local shops and boutiques there are in many neighborhoods- that is up until the economy died in 2009. Now everytime I see that an old favorite is gone I get nervous that the space will be chewed up by a big box retailer. They’re talking about putting a Target in downtown for goodness sake! (and I like Target, all right? but not downtown). I like lower prices as much as the next gal but Walmart is NOT the answer.

  6. Diminishing Lucy

    We have this series in waiting, ready to watch. I am familiar with the bustle that was Shepton Mallet in the ’70’s and ’80’s. I fear it will make me very sad.

    I remember when a huge new “out of town” supermarket was built where we lived, back in the early ’80’s. Everyone was SO excited and thrilled. My Dad, however, was in a minority, and banged on to anyone who would listen on how it would be the “death of the town centre” and I realise now, that of course he was right.

    I am torn, these days. I fluctuate between time consumimg but lovely browsing. I get fantastic choices and bargains and quality this way, but it takes time.

    And of course I am swayed some weeks(and then tinged with guilt) by the convenience and ease that is Coles Online.

    It’s a conundrum …

    Brilliant post Al, thank you.

  7. InkPaperPen

    I kept missing this show – but I heard all about it from Mum. She loved it! I think it is an interesting concept. We have 2 supermarkets in town, one locally owned, the other is one of the big chains. My purse tells me to shop at one but my heart tells me to shop at the other. So I made a decision. I have started getting all our meat from the local farm shop and all our fruit and veg from the little local shop. Everything else comes from our local IGA. It might work out a little bit more expensive (but not as bad as I thought). But I feel better about it. Our town is lucky as it survives on tourism, thanks to the wine industry. But some of the surrounding little WA towns, the old mining towns are struggling. It is sad to see.

  8. Toni

    I saw the series and LOVED it — Fabio and I have made a decision to use small local businesses as much as possible even though that sometimes means we pay more or have to wait.
    We go to the local baker, the Farmers’ Market, the independent bookshop — but we live in a tourism area so maybe it’s a bit easier to find those shops.
    And we’re fortunate in that we can afford it most times. In the end, that’s what it comes down to — the pressure on the family budget. You have to make choices you don’t like sometimes, just to make ends meet.

  9. Siobhan C

    I wished I had seen this series (it’s not in iView anymore). Something I often wonder independents could consider to make them more convenient is altering their opening hours. Not necessarily extend them (and increase their operating costs) but perhaps opening later to stay open till 7pm. Or closing Mondays to keep open an extra hour on other days of the week.

  10. Andrea

    I’ve been sucked into online buying – your post has just made me reaffirm a commitment to offline buying in the small shops in town 🙂 thanks.

  11. therhythmmethod

    We watched this one too. I don’t really like the way we are heading. I shop at the big supermarket because it seems cheaper, and I can get everything in one hit.
    It’s interesting, I wonder how much it would cost (in time, and money) to shop at my local strip shops which has a butcher, baker and independent supermarket? I might have to test this out.

  12. deer baby

    I know Shepton Mallet quite well. Our Blockbusters recently closed down – like you say, people are renting from Love Film or on iplayer )through their TV’s). I don’t shop at my local butcher or grocer – I just don’t have the time. Whilst I sometimes go to our farmers market, I get most things in the supermarket. Our high street looks the same as a hundred ones all over Britain – Starbucks, Cafe Nero, McDonalds. Sometimes there is nothing to tell you at all which city you are in. It’s sad but like you say, we have mostly caused it.

    Do you still have Woolworths? Even Woolworths closed down over here. That was quite a shock. I miss their pick and mix.

  13. Sarah Mac

    I live not far from Shepton Mallet and it’s true that the convenience of out of town Supermarkets have had a huge impact on many small market towns. I try to support my local shops when possible but cost does have to be taken into condieration. Sadly it’s a self perpetuating cycle.

  14. thepowmill

    So true , Allison . We never fully appreciate what we have until…and all that .

    But I have seen old areas, having reached the bottom for some years , revitalized to a new life . What is ironic is the fact that it is small intimate shops and boutiques very similar to those abandoned in the past that have moved in with savy young business people .
    Now these places are destinations for locals and tourists all year round . With prices that would have been outlandish to those who rejected the old shops originally .
    The pendulum has saved a few small towns around these parts .

  15. Danger Boy

    Life seems a long line of choice and consequence. I keep trying to choose a move to an island in the Caribbean, but the consequence of not being rich prevents.
    But I digress wildly.
    Local shops rock.

  16. Joni Llanora

    Great insight! Coming from a country where supermarket rules, it took me a while to appreciate the local shops and do my business with them. But often personal circumstance & finances can be restrictive when making purchasing decisions.

  17. Mama of 2 boys

    Wow, I would have to agree, it’s a sad fact that we seem to want everything cheaper, quicker, easier these days. I think much of it comes down to lack of time. Everyone is just so BUSY, so time poor. We would be working ourselves into a lather constantly if we felt the need to have a chat with every single shop owner or service provider we come into contact with on a typical day. And so we lose out on the personal side. I do find it sad to think about the country towns going this way though. I almost expect it from the city, as it IS a rat race.
    But I guess ultimately it’s a generational thing also and whether it’s the city or the country, the generations we live through determine everything.

  18. Dolores

    Very interesting. I wish I’d seen this series as I love all that recreating history stuff (as in the 1900 House etc). I have recently gone back to doing most shopping at Woolies because I’ve lost my helper for 6 months (Mum). I’m now doing shopping as quick as possible on the weekends or weekdays with 3 kids in tow. I wish it was easier to spread my shopping out.


  19. anjwritesabout.com

    Wow are you ever spot on! Makes me think the choice I’d rather make is to use the budget I DO have to buy the quality I want. Maybe I won’t get quite as much, but I hope the fact that I’m making my choice means I get to keep it!

  20. PinkPatentMaryJanes

    Oh I wish I’d seen this, sounds amazing. I’ve been trying to get back to basics with my shopping: butcher, greengrocer, markets – but every now and again I’ll fall back on the reliability that is the supermarket. I need to stop it though, it’s just so sad to see desolate boarded up stores…

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