HMV and the death of the British high street: why do we care?
Austerity and online shopping have bought about one of the few booms of recent years: a growth in nostalgia for defunct stores. But why does it matter to us when shops close their doors for good?
For the record: an HMV store in 1963.
When I was going through my late parents’ things over Christmas, I came across an album with a sticker on the front – “HMV Shops 84p”. The album is John Ogdon and Brenda Lucas’s album Two Pianos, featuring duets by Mozart, Brahms and Lutosławski.
I hadn’t seen the sleeve in decades, but it was painfully familiar because it used to make regular appearances in our Black Country living room in the 1970s. My dad would every few months swap the record that was accorded the honour of appearing at the front of the LP rack under the Dynatron record player. Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, Andy Williams, Edward Heath conducting the LSO, Ella Fitzgerald singing the Irving Berlin songbook – all would get their era of glory.
Where did my dad buy Two Pianos? Probably HMV’s branch in Wolverhampton’s Mander Centre. I see him now, flicking iconoclastically through the classical music section, as around him everybody else was buying Slade’s orthographically grotesque Gudbuy T’Jane, Bowie’s Pin Ups, Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, or Clifford T Ward’s Gaye.
Now HMV has gone into administration and all I have is memories, and reminders of mortality. As if to prove the last point, the reverse of that sleeve, which was once white card printed with black liner notes, is now speckled brown – as though it’s sprouting liver spots. When I tried to text somebody yesterday about HMV, the spellchecker replaced “HMV” with “Jamb”. Is “Jamb” a much-loved high street brand? I don’t think so. Step gently, phone spellchecker, for you step on my nostalgic dreams.
Forget about measuring my life in coffee spoons; I could measure out my life in closed shops. When Robinson’s the bakers in Sedgley’s Bull Ring closed during my adolescence, it felt like a terrible betrayal. “Where will I get my custards tarts from now?” I wailed (using, fortunately, my silent inner voice). “The supermarket, bird brain,” replied my second silent inner voice, adding: “In fact, you don’t even eat custard tarts any more or live in Sedgley, two possible reasons why Robinson’s closed.” “But surely,” my first silent inner voice replied, “the collapse of a retail outlet’s business model is hardly reason enough for it to close and cause me all kinds of existential angst, is it?” “As a matter of fact, yes, it is,” replied the second voice. That second silent inner voice, the voice of reason, really gives me the pip.
Jonathan Coe, whose novel The Rotter’s Club excavates a similar West Midlands 70s terrain to the foregoing, suspects that nostalgia for defunct shops and the old high street is to do with feeling lost in a newer retailing milieu of online shopping and seemingly endless choice. “Having greater choice has taken us out of that comfort zone. It’s like growing up and having to cook for yourself, instead of having your mum put a plate of fish fingers and a bowl of Angel Delight in front of you every evening. I think because our lives were bounded by the same, limited set of choices, people have a memory of being less atomised. Shopping on the high street was a more leisurely and sociable experience, too.” Well said, though the idea of being fed Angel Delight every evening has a chilling, Guantánamo vibe.
But the second silent inner voice does have a point: one reason shops close is that they are rubbish. Think of Dixons. The name causes in me an anti-nostalgia brought on by the memory of an altercation with a sales assistant in Dixons’ Birmingham city-centre branch more than 30 years ago. It was over a non-functioning auto-stop on a radio-cassette player I bought with my pocket money before I was out of short trousers. The assistant didn’t take my complaint about his terrible cassette player with any semblance of the deference incumbent on him as a purported retailing professional. I found it impossible to tape my friend’s copy of Culture’s Two Sevens Clash because of that malfunctioning auto-stop, which made me a playground pariah. Thanks for ruining my childhood, Dixons.
Dixons: ‘One reason shops close is that they are rubbish.’
So when Dixons merged with Currys and the Currys website issued the following announcement – “Whilst the Dixons you love and trust is changing, the people and commitment stay the same. Don’t worry – purchases and agreements you have already made are covered by Currys, so nothing will change.” I allowed myself a rueful laugh. Decoded: “Yeah – don’t worry: Currys will be just as rubbish as Dixons was.” Such is the death of the high street: at one end, it evokes poignant nostalgia – at the other, outrage at the unfeeling nature of capitalism. Sometimes both at the same time.
Remember Fine Fare? I do. An assistant came up to me in the Shirley, West Midlands, branch once in the late 1970s as I examined a tragic single cinnamon stick in a jar. “It’s probably been there for years,” he counselled, advising me to go across the street to the health food shop where they had fresh spices. That’s why Fine Fare closed – because it was rubbish. It became Safeway. Remember Safeway? I do. It’s now a Morrisons, whose end-of-year results didn’t look too good. Perhaps it’s going to go Fine Fare. And then there will be an article about how lovely it was to shop in Morrisons.
Or consider Argos. When Argos closes (and, God willing, it will, because what we’re witnessing now is a recession-backed, online-fuelled evisceration of the high street too hideous for even Mary Portas to contemplate), how I’ll laugh. Principally because the sales assistant in the Holloway Road branch didn’t appreciate my critique of the Bosch vacuum cleaner I was returning a decade ago. I still remember the conversation, with nostalgia mingled with outrage at the unfeeling nature of capitalism. “It sucks,” I said imperiously, “but not in a good way.” He really didn’t understand my wordplay and that, rather than the fact that he wouldn’t give me my money back, hurts. Only when Argos finally closes will I too get closure.
And now that HMV is to leave our high street, I think of two things: that memory of my dad, but also a memory of a few years ago, when I went to the counter of the Oxford Street branch with a Pingu box set. The assistant asked if I’d like a HMV loyalty card. No thanks. “Quite right, they’re shit,” he replied. You don’t get that sort of language in John Lewis, I told myself using that handy silent inner voice. Possibly because staff at the latter aren’t alienated but have a stake in their company’s wellbeing, I added silently. It was then that I realised HMV was doomed.
When I was working in Paris in 2000, Marks & Spencer announced it was closing all its French branches. “Where am I going to get my chicken tikka masalas from now,” wailed a French colleague at the time, possibly in French. Sheez, I thought, is that what the revolutionary spirit of 1789 and 1968 has come to? But there was a twist. There were demonstrations outside the doomed Boulevard Haussmann demanding that M&S stay open to supply Parisians with teabags and Rich Tea biscuits. They refused to accept that capitalist dictates could trample their cherished, though crazy, lifestyle choices. And then, a few years later, M&S returned to France as if to show that their protest was worthwhile. Which, perhaps, it was.
There are similar Gallic protests today over the closure of Virgin’s megastores across France. What’s more, Aurélie Filippetti, France’s culture minister, recently railed against online retailers who “completely escape any kind of fair competition, because they don’t pay the same taxes as the others, being based elsewhere than in France”. Filippetti clearly means Amazon, and those other globalised retailers of MP3 files who are rendering Virgin and the largest French music store, Fnac, obsolete. The same point could be made by our culture minister, too. Just don’t expect the latter to happen any time soon.
It’s thanks to such online retailers, recession and austerity policies that we’re experiencing one of the few booms in recent years; namely, a nostalgia boom, as well-known stores curl up and die, leaving us with memories of ostensibly happier times. That said, there’s something pitiful about feeling nostalgic over the death of a favourite shop. It’s sad we’re so consumerist that our most poignant memories are bound up with retailing experiences. Surely any warm glow we might feel about HMV nostalgia deserves dousing with the news that gift vouchers some bought at the shop over Christmas are now invalid. Why should we feel nostalgic about the demise of an excrescence of capitalism? What are we going to feel nostalgic about next? Cholera? When Ikea closes in the near future (as, please God, it will), will I be tweeting my nostalgic feelings about its contribution to extending allen keys and misery worldwide? Just shoot me now.
Stewart Lee satirised lame consumerist nostalgia in an observational bit about that week in the run-up to Christmas 2008, when Woolworths, MFI and Zavvi all closed. At least they left us with some lovely memories, didn’t they? he joked. Remember those lovely sweets at Woolworths pick-n-mix? “Not like today’s sweets with knives in them and Aids,” Lee said.
Lee’s point here (and it’s always nice to have a joke explained to you, isn’t it?) is not just that a nostalgia premised on the lie-dream of shopping is degrading, but also that venerating the past over the present, or positing an unrepeatable golden age, and that modern life is rubbish, is nuts.
Lee is doubtless right, but I still remember that afternoon I bought Bowie’s Heroes for 75p from Reddingtons Rare Records by the underpass to Birmingham’s inner ring road. It jumped a bit on V-2 Schneider when I played it yesterday, but it still is bound up with a sense of loss. Reddingtons is now only online, the inner ring road doesn’t exist, nor does the foul subway under it, and I still can’t play the intro to Joe the Lion. Why is all this so painful?
“Music is a very potent trigger of nostalgia,” says Dr Tim Wildschut, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Southampton. “Music shops may therefore be associated with strong nostalgic memories.” Wildschut, an expert on the bittersweet emotion of nostalgia, has constructed one of my favourite scales of all time – namely, the Southampton Nostalgia Scale. His work helps explain why we feel more upset about the closure of Our Price, Tower Records, Virgin Megastores, Zavvi, MVC, Music Zone, Andy’s, Border’s and Woolworths, than, say, Comet. OK, maybe not Zavvi. We grew up with those stores and the music we bought from them, and when they go, just possibly, a little of ourselves dies too. We may feel like that about iTunes one day.
Comet: doesn’t come as high on the nostalgia scale as, say, Woolworths or Tower Records
Happily, though, for psychologists nostalgia is not just a negative emotion, nor one that necessarily involves wallowing in the past. Wildschut argues that it can be a powerful mood booster. It’s a thought echoed by Chicago psychologist Fred Bryant. “Reminiscence can give you a sense of being rooted, a sense of meaning and purpose – instead of being blown around by the whims of everyday life,” says Bryant. In an MP3 world, then, how soothing to recall the era of vinyl or, failing that, of the CD. The risk, of course, is that nostalgia gives you a sense of being rooted in a better past rather than an unbearable present. Because while the present – MP3s, corporate tax evasion, capitalism at its most venal, the wanton destruction of the cherished high street – may be hideous, the past wasn’t any better.
Just before filing this piece, I played my dad’s old LP of Ogdon and Lucas performing Mozart’s sonata for two pianos in D major. It sounded good, but I’m sure a remastered download would sound better.