Woolies, House of Fraser, Maplin, Mothercare and now HMV, when will it end? – Simon Carter

The old HMV store in Commercial Road, Portsmouth.
The old HMV store in Commercial Road, Portsmouth.
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Where will it stop, this seemingly non-stop destruction of our high streets?

It’s 10 years this month since the last FW Woolworth store closed its doors in the UK. Ten years since a nation had to look elsewhere for its Pick’n’Mix craving.

Woolworth's in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, 2008.

Woolworth's in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, 2008.

(I still feel a smidgeon of guilt that those doors were slammed shut – in the early 1980s I was among (many) schoolkids who used to place orders for 99p singles that a friend (let’s call him Paul, for that was his name) would routinely shoplift from a Woolies store in Exeter. Still, if they hadn’t put all their records RIGHT BY THE FRONT DOOR then perhaps they would never have nosedived into financial misery. Just a thought …)

A decade on, and a host of other once well-known retail empires have collapsed, their once proud names erased from towns and cities from the deepest parts of Cornwall to the north-east of England, and all parts in between. And you couldn’t blame my mate’s thieving for any of them ...

Last year the biggest names to hit the buffers were House of Fraser, Maplin, Mothercare, Toys R Us and Homebase. They were all a precursor for HMV bringing in the administrators as we began to say farewell to 2018. And as they did, so I felt a familiar pang of sadness – of another little piece of my youth, my childhood, vanishing for ever.

This happens all the time now and I don’t like it one bit; if it’s not record shops, it’s musicians (Bowie, Michael, Prince, Mark E Smith) or those I grew up watching on TV (Brucie, June Whitfield, Jim Bowen, Ken Dodd) or playing football for England (Ray Wilkins, Cyrille Regis). Nothing lasts forever, I know, and these pangs are only going to increase as I grow older. I know that too.

Homebase at Farlington.

Homebase at Farlington.

OK, HMV hasn’t shut all its stores yet, but no doubt it will. I have seen the future, and it worries me. I don’t have to look far to see it – just into the eyes of my two teenage kids, aged 16 and 15. Neither of them has ever bought a CD or a vinyl album in their lives. Ellen told me the other day she can’t remember ever reading every word of a ‘proper’ book. Ben would no doubt say the same. Probably the last book Ellen did read from start to finish in one sitting was a Biff and Chipper one at junior school. She didn’t seem concerned by her confession either.

Many of today’s millennials seemingly have no wish, no desire, to cherish an album complete with gatefold cover and lyrics. They have no wish to compile a physical collection of CDs or vinyl like I once did.

I used to sit for hours listening to Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood or Genesis’ Selling England by the Pound – I wasn’t one of the cool kids – happily singing along to the lyrics which leapt out at me when I opened up the double album format. Countless lunch hours, when I was at Exeter College doing my A Levels, were spent in HMV leafing through the albums. Not just HMV either, but Our Price too (a record shop chain which collapsed five years before Woolies). Why, now and again I’d even buy one …

(Please bear in mind that I’m the guy who used to read whole books in WH Smith during college lunch hours – one chapter per day. If they ever go out of business, perhaps I’ll feel a smidgeon of guilt there too).

House of Fraser, Chichester. Picture: Derek Martin

House of Fraser, Chichester. Picture: Derek Martin

Perhaps if the internet had existed in the mid-1980s I’d have spent countless hours surfing that, or doing what my son enjoys – playing computer games. Space Invaders and Pac Man were fun – seriously, they were – but I freely admit they can’t hold a candle to today’s incredibly graphic, hugely realistic games such as Overwatch or Team Fortress that occupy Ben’s evenings. There was less blood in Pac Man, though.

Many of today’s millennials seemingly have no wish, no desire, to buy books from Waterstone’s either. I’ve got hundreds – sport, travel, history, culture, music – lovingly arranged on bookcases and shelves. I’m proud of my book collection, but nothing of the sort will exist when I visit my children’s own homes in 10 or 15 years. One day I’ll offer them my collection, but I expect I’ll get a ‘dad, just WHY would you think I want a copy of Adam Ant’s autobiography?’ and a shake of the head.

There was a very good letter in The News a few days ago from Nick Haines – probably the best letter I’ve seen in my 11 months working for the paper – talking about the demise of HMV and comparing it to other retail empires. He wrote these words: ‘It’s said it’s the customer who dictates what direction the market takes. Unfortunately customers too often tend to be dumb, greedy, lazy and ungrateful souls who only appreciate things when they’ve gone for good.’ Emotive language, yes. But 100 per cent accurate also.

Nick carried on: ‘Buying music online is fine if you have no soul and attach no value to physical product.’ That, too, is spectacularly true. Here I bring my kids back into the conversation – they own no books between them, no CDs, no vinyl. They attach ‘no value’ to physical product. And there are hundreds of thousands of people just like them, and hundreds of babies being born every day who will grow up to be just like them.

Maplin, Fratton Road, Portsmouth.

Maplin, Fratton Road, Portsmouth.

Nick also said this: ‘Unfortunately, while customers will pay top prices for the latest Nike trainers, they seem to feel that music should be free or at the very least cheap and resist/resent paying full price, even when they know that this undermines the very survival of retailers and ultimately bands.’  Again, a staggeringly accurate portrayal of today’s trends.

I was in Portsmouth’s Commercial Road last Sunday with my teenagers. They were purely interested in clothes. Ben was looking at coats which cost more than £120. I’ve spent less on cars before.

I noted some jumpers were £80 or £90. A bobble hat was £25. I could go on and on, adding an increasing amount of exclamation marks at the end of each price tag. But if I asked my kids if they wanted to buy the latest Ed Sheeran album for a tenner, they’d think I was madder than a sack of snakes. ‘Dad, have you HEARD of the internet?’ Ben would no doubt sarcastically reply.

There is much talk about the ‘death of the high street’ but there’s a throbbing heartbeat there if you look – Sports Direct was heaving, there was a massive queue in JD Sports, and Primark was as busy as a Primark always is. I’ve lost Ellen twice in the Bournemouth store before, it’s so vast and there’s been that many customers. If Primark ever calls in the administrators it would be an apocalyptic day for UK retail indeed. Ellen would be devastated. She was not devastated by HMV’s collapse.

I couldn’t ask my kids if they wanted to go in HMV, as the one in Portsmouth centre closed years ago, and I didn’t waste my breath asking if they wanted a look around Waterstone’s. They are millennials, therefore bookshops are not cool. Primark and Sports Direct are cool.

Ipso facto, I am uncool.

Mothercare, Commercial Road, Portsmouth.

Mothercare, Commercial Road, Portsmouth.

I have read several letters in The News about the state of Commercial Road, and how it’s an eyesore. Ditto the Cascades shopping centre. But it’s no worse, really, than many English high streets I’ve seen, and better than many. It’s got a Waterstone’s, lest we forget (and The Works, where you can always buy some good books at a major discount).

In fairness, the dated architecture does not help and neither does the sight of the homeless or the beggars. But this is England in 2019 and if you go anywhere else of a similar size you will see a similar scene. Remember, it could always be worse – you could live in Luton, for example.

It’s our towns’ shopping areas that should be worrying us all, not our city’s retail centres, and our residential shopping areas as well. They are fast becoming a collection of hairdressers, charity shops, cafes, tattoo parlours, takeaways and pound shops. And generally a Wetherspoon’s too. God knows what aliens would think if they ever landed in London Road, North End – would they report back to the planet Zarg that everyone was covered in body ink, had lovely hair, smelled fresh – Lynx Africa from Poundland on offer – and were as high as kites on caffeine? 

The out-of-town retail parks could resemble modern day ghost towns, too, if they’re not careful.

Look at Burrfields Road – a large Toys R Us store lying forlornly empty and now Homebase, a few units down, also desolate. Who’s going to fill those giant spaces in this day and age? To me, such suburban blight is far more depressing than Commercial Road’s urban blight. Shopping wise, the powers-that-be once wanted to turn us into Americans, where cars are king ... until we all found we could buy things cheaper on the internet.

I don’t care about my kids thinking I’m uncool. but I do care about the loss of HMV. I shouldn’t care, I know. After all, the sands of time are forever running in new directions.

Deep down, though, I know why I care. I guess, deep down, part of me still wants to be 16 years old flicking through the heavy metal albums in their alphabetically arranged racks before spending 20 minutes reading a book in WH Smith before a double Sociology A-Level tutorial kicked in...​​​​​​​​​​​​​​