Why I fear the pandemic has hammered the final nail into the high street’s coffin – Simon Carter

The problem with getting older is that more and more of your childhood, your youth, your innocence, starts to disappear. And, with it, the stark realisation that a) it is never coming back and b) that ‘a’ is a source of profound sadness.

Sunday, 16th August 2020, 1:36 pm
WH Smith - could this be the next big name on the High Street to close? Philip Toscano/PA Wire

So many of the shops I used to while away countless hours in have gone - Our Price, Woolworths, HMV (though I know some remain), the wonderful Caterpillar second hand record shop in my home city of Exeter. Such a place, once a treasure trove of picture discs and imported vinyl but now long lost and sadly missed, no doubt existed in Portsmouth.

I fear another one will soon be added to a dispiriting list - WH Smith. During my two years at college, virtually every single lunchtime I used to go in and read books. I managed to read some in their entirety, one chapter a day. Sometimes, if the mood struck me, I even bought one …

I was probably not alone in that, hence I do feel a tad guilty about possibly contributing to their decline, though I’m sure the company are not laying off 1,500 staff just because I didn’t buy the authorised biography of Marillion but instead read it during my spare hour leading up to sociology A level lectures.

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I visited a WH Smith the other day in Bournemouth; it was a grim experience, virtually no customers and messages everywhere telling me - thanks to our ubiquitous friend covid-19 - only to pick up items I was going to purchase. ‘Mmmmm, it’s not 1987 any more, is it?’ I pondered to myself. Back in the day, I must have picked up literally hundreds of books with no intention of purchasing any of them.

I miss those days. I miss the Woolworths store in Exeter, where during my secondary school days a friend of mine used to shoplift the 99p singles that were situated RIGHT BY THE FRONT DOOR. I could never understand the logic behind this, for it simply invited thieving on an industrial scale.

Of course, I appreciate my friend was breaking the law - and not for one second am I condoning his nefarious actions - but we were only teenagers doing teenager things and, anyway, nicking ‘Like A Virgin’ by Madonna was less of a crime in my book than beating up grannies or smashing greenhouses.

When Woolworths crashed and burned over a decade ago now, a generation - mine included - mourned the loss of the pick n mix counter. Me? I was left wondering if they’d have avoided financial implosion if Paul Jordan hadn’t stolen three copies of ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ by Bananarama for me and other mates.

(Still, even as teenagers, we did have some morals - Paul never shoplifted charity records; if he’d have nicked ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ he would have received a wedgie a day for the best part of a month as punishment …)

I still can’t get my head around the fact my two teenagers - 16 and 18 - have never bought a CD. I don’t think they’ve ever been in a record shop unless it’s to follow me into HMV complaining ‘oh dad! Why have you got to look at the heavy metal section again, can’t you just buy what you want on Amazon?’

And there, in one word, is the answer to the question: Why is the high street dying? It’s nothing to do with me reading books or my mate nicking singles 35 years ago, it’s Amazon and the inexorable rise of online shopping. I hate it, but I can’t do anything about it.

The government have helped out restaurants and pubs with their money off food and soft drinks deal. I’ve certainly taken advantage of it, and I hope you have too. As a whole, the high street needs help, but what can Boris do to help Debenhams, WH Smith, Boots and all the other well-known names frantically shedding jobs and shutting stores? Short of closing down the internet, not much.

To be frank, I don’t want to buy my books - yes, I buy them now! - online, I want to buy them at Waterstone’s and support a shop, albeit a national chain store. I still enjoy looking through the shelves, seeing what takes my fancy. I appreciate there might not be many people like me left.

But when I have to wear a mask to do this, when I have to place all books I don’t buy in a rack so they can be ‘made’ covid safe, well … it takes the enjoyment out of it a bit. Before you bite, I understand the reasons why … I just feel the pandemic has hammered yet another nail into the high street’s coffin, and this could be the final one. I have no idea how it recovers from this. That makes me melancholic, and you should feel the same if you, like me, grew up in the 70s and early 80s.

No doubt anyone under the age of 25 couldn’t care less about WH Smith going under, which is fair enough. But at this rate, our city centres - in a post-pandemic landscape - will just be mainly pound shops, cafes, takeaways, Wetherspoons and Sports Direct. Perhaps in some towns and cities they’re like that now. Good news, if you want a cheap pint and some cheap trainers, but very sad for those who once worked for one of the countless shops now condemned to posterity, or who enjoyed pottering around them.

And incredibly sad, too, for those of us who can remember when our entire lives didn’t revolve around looking at a screen ...