I’m beginning to worry about an unpleasant infestation occurring in my neighborhood of Kilburn. Every couple of weeks a grocery store or hardware shop closes and is replaced by a haphazard set-up shilling “leather” handbags for under a fiver or clothes your mother wouldn’t let you wear for two pounds. These shops comprise long stretches of the high road, rendered useless to residents who aren’t in the market for goods that fall apart if you breathe too hard on them. Of course the uncomfortable underlying knowledge is that it is unlikely that the companies employing people to make products that you can buy with the loose change from the bottom of your purse employ practices which would land them in Fortune Magazine’s “Best Companies to Work For” list. But disregarding the murky social politics of it all, how much tat do Northwest Londoners need?
Kilburn High road has long hosted all sorts of bargain shopping, from Traid, my favorite fair-trade-supporting charity shop, to vast and varied pound shops that actually sell stuff for a pound. It’s heaven when you’re broke and you need bulk paracetemol, no-name drain cleaner, cheap Toblerone, or a sari painted with glitter glue. It’s also always had a lot of stores selling, well, crap. Blouses with cut-out bellies, plastic shoes, and of course the ubiquitous handbags, both knock-offs and ones that could only dream of knocking-off. But the number of this sort of shop has risen alarmingly in the past year.
It started with the closure of my local Sommerfield’s. This upset me, even though Sommerfield’s is the poor man’s Sainsbury’s (that is to say, poor indeed) mainly because it stocks black cherry-flavored Amore yoghurt, which Sainsbury’s does not, despite my pleas. But it was also odd to see a store in no danger of collapse close a branch in such a busy area. Unsurprisingly, residents of that postcode, of whom I am one, shortly after received notice that several buildings on that block with the Sommerfield’s store would in the coming year be gutted, renovated, and built up to include two additional stories of luxury condos. Sommerfield’s had simply shut up and moved out early. Within a week the large store housed the new “Amazon Discount Clothing,” with bargain racks pushed out onto the sidewalk and signs in the window reading, “Closing Down: Everything Must Go!” from the day it opened. A few months after, the other shops in that block of buildings, which include an army surplus store, a home and houseware emporium, a Muslim-friendly clothing boutique, and a suitcase shop, had all posted their closing down signs. Some businesses have just vanished, and in their places, having arrived as swiftly as the previous occupants had left, are the new bag-and-shoe shacks. It’s not only on that block of the high road where the luxury condos wait to be built and, no doubt, snapped right up in this fertile economy. Across the road, Soho Books has closed. Hand bags, again. Hand bags made of plastic leather, with plastic metal furnishings and plastic zippers and plastic fringe hanging off the plastic zipper grips. Hand bags that smell like car exhaust. Hand bags that melt if you leave them in the sun.
What the hell are Londoners carrying around that we need this extraordinary supply of cheap sacks to carry it in? And why are they all in Kilburn?? I have to bring my own tote to the grocery store now that the big chains are too eco-friendlier-than-thou to hand out plastic bags to customers. Where’s the outrage against the plastic tat industry? And how is it that wherever you open a Starbuck’s, all the other coffeeshops within a mile-radius wither and die, but somehow the presence of a giant Primark on the high road isn’t any threat to the cluster of equally low-end mini-marts sprouting up like mushrooms in its shadow? Is there a level of “tacky” where the rules of supply-and-demand just don’t apply anymore? Huge banks are collapsing and entire economies teetering toward abjection. Are the schlock shops the cockroaches of the retail world? Vile, but hardy enough to survive the economic winter in which creatures of better mettle perish?