Jessica Mann

The Retail Revolution

English Shops and Shopping

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Yale University Press 343pp £30 order from our bookshop

The Shops

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KATHRYN MORRISON SAYS her book is meant for those who enjoy shopping but she refrains from specifying who such people are likely to be, and perhaps it would be mistaken as well as sexist for me to suggest that her target audience was predominantly female. Inda Knight has no inhibitions about that (or much else) and in her efision on shopping firmly remarks that ‘Men are traditionally supposed to be hopeless at it: grumpy and monosyllabic when lured down the High Street, wishing they were at home browsing the web for gadgets instead.’ Those who browse and buy online know that Internet shopping is not at all the same thing as ‘shop-gazing’ or ‘going out shopping’, which does not necessarily imply any intention to spend money and is not always acquisitive. Many of us go round the shops as a form of socialising, with the added bonus of a museum-style sensation of ‘just looking’, and it’s an excuse to get out of the house. I would have thought that this traditional occupation had been a normal part of life since the earliest days of stalls, shambles and markets. But no; Morrison writes that shopping as a leisure pursuit was only born in the eighteenth century, when shopfronts were first glazed, a technological change as revolutionary in its effect on shop design as, much later, lifts and escalators would be. Her account of successive innovations shows how the individual premises of specialist traders were succeeded by department stores, cooperatives which supplied every need from cradle to grave, chain stores and shopping malls, while the introduction of self-service led on to the much criticised supermarket revolution.

I remember it as a godsend which saved me from having to lug the dead weight of a full basket from grocer to greengrocer to butcher and on to half a dozen other specialist suppliers, several times a week. No wonder I signed petitions for Sainsbury’s to set up in my local town. At the same time, traditionalists were trying to prevent supermarkets hm getting planning permission, a battle which is still, repeatedly, fought today. But according to Morrison, out-of-town shops did not in fact bring doom to the old high streets after all. She sees town centres surviving and flourishing again, even if their shopfronts and street furniture are pastiche Victoriana.

At the end of the twentieth century the condition of England’s high streets was causing official concern. Morrison’s study was prompted by the perception that town centres were ‘standing at a crossroads of decline and regeneration’ and is an expansion of a survey of retail buildings undertaken by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments. The material, being largely building-based, enables the author to see the subject from a new angle. Her object is to shifi attention hm merchandise to architecture, and use the study of material culture and the analysis of trading patterns in order to demonstrate social habits and popular tastes. This interesting and relevant story ends with the wheel turned full circle as fashionable new malls mimic Eastern bazaars and souks, or the old English equivalent, fairs and markets. One mall in west London is even being built almost exactly on the site of a long-gone open market where decades ago I spent my pocket money.

Morrison recognises that people form attachments to favourite shops. She does not go on to mention those who take their fondness further by becoming shopping junkies addicted to uncontrollable splurging. Other shoppers are more like hunter-gatherers, excited by the chase and elated by a find. For India Knight shopping is a vocation and she writes about it with quasi-religious fervour. She sobs with joy about ‘the most extraordinary chocolate in the world’ and derives an almost orgasmic delight from sinking her teeth ‘into another thin layer of white chocolate of such an extraordinary texture – flue and solid at the same time … Eventually you reach the cream, sweet, white, contrasting with the crispy yet fondant outside, at which point you swoon … I am rendered inarticulate with love over these things’. Inarticulate is the wrong word. Knight sustains her quick-fire, over-the-top fluency throughout, padding out her transports of delight with interludes of personal memoir plus good advice, and even some perfectly sensible recommendations – although many of her favourite shops are in fashionable Notting Hill, inconveniently for many readers and for the author herself, who lives in Hackney. But this light, slight, quite sweet book is more like an expanded glossy-magazine article than a useay comprehensive guide, and there is little attempt to disguise its true nature, as a clever journalist’s bright idea for a seasonal moneymaker. She calls it ‘a sort of joy of sex for shops, with fewer beardy tumescent men’. Her best advice is to ‘enjoy yourself’.

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