Our independent shops are worth saving

Church Street in Cromer. Many high street shops across Norfolk will reopen on June 15. Picture: DENI

Looking out over the Cromer Parish Church grounds to the shops in Church Street.  - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

In his latest column, Cromer resident PETER SMITH, 88, reflects on the changing nature of the high street.

I have lived in Cromer for almost two years weeks since I decided to return to Britain after a 60-year career in North America, and in 56 of those weeks I have sent a kind of newsletter to several dozen people with whom I want to stay in touch.

One of the 'Cromer Chronicles' that provoked comment was one I called 'Queen Victoria’s Secret.'

Peter Smith, from Cromer, found UK high streets much different from when he left to live in the US decades ago. 

Peter Smith, from Cromer, found UK high streets much different from when he left to live in the US decades ago. - Credit: Supplied by Peter Smith

Each edition comes with a photograph, and the one that went with that piece was of one of the windows of a shop that’s on the corner of the street where I live – Skeltons.

It’s a clothes shop and it looks very traditional and independent.

When I wrote about it several months ago I referred also to a hardware shop on Church Street.

Photograph of Church Street in Cromer taken in November 1960

This photograph of Church Street was taken in November 1960, showing independent shops such as The Garden Shop, Gibson Bros., International Stores, Bryant & Utting, K Hardware and C. Munday & Co. - Credit: Archant Library

But 'SHUTTING UP SHOP AFTER SIXTY YEARS' were the words on the North Norfolk News billing posters outside newsagents following one recent edition.

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They refer us to the report that Mr Kirkham is selling off the contents of his hardware shop and starting retirement on Christmas Eve. In the meantime there is a 30pc discount off everything.

Almost everything about this event makes me sad. The only item in the report that brought a smile was the sentence, “the couple [intend] to spend their retirement visiting Yorkshire, the Midlands, and gardening...

Iceland supermarket, Cromer.PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

The Iceland branch in Church Street, Cromer. - Credit: Archant

How can one not be sad to see the demise of a shop where every assistant (as well as the owner) knows where everything is – from flan pans to screw-drivers to cup hooks?

Not only that but a shop where nobody has a calculator and everyone writes down the prices on a piece of paper and then adds them up before asking for payment?

It’s not really a matter of nostalgia, I think, although that has to be the main ingredient. My hunch (at least my hope) is that we all appreciate what’s generally referred to as 'attention to detail' and feel good when attention is also paid to us as individuals.

To some extent, of course, in a small community we can find those commodities in super-markets as well as individually owned shops of all kinds. But there’s still something unique and precious about a Skeltons or a K Harware.

It’s not therefore at all surprising that the article about the Kirkhams reports that numerous people have expressed their regret over their decision.

We customers are not just being sentimental when we anticipate that, whatever, or whoever, takes over at 39 Church Street, a fundamental change will occur.

I would go so far as to suggest that that will be true even in the unlikely circumstance that a new owner retains the services of everyone currently on the staff.

What’s the source of that apprehension? I don’t know for sure, but I think it has something to do with the fact that 'the bottom line' seems to be taking over the world of commerce at every level.

In a sense the article reminds one that that is so; in that the main photograph shows the Kirkhams standing in front of the shop in an earlier iteration.

Not many months ago the old K Hardware was divided in two and two fifths of its frontage on Church Street disappeared - and there is now a craft bakery there. 

There’s a strict limit to the number of places on Church Street in Cromer – just as there is to the area of the part of France known as Champagne.

All of which is to say that I’ll await developments with more than usual levels of curiosity and concern. 

On the south side of Church Street between Chapel Street and Bond Street we already have a Costa, NatWest, Iceland, M&Co, Lloyds Pharmacy, Mountain Warehouse, Superdrug, Yorkshire Building Society and Shoezone. Is there room for another link in the chain of chains?