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Lost and pound shops

A belated happy new year to all readers, and especially those followers who came on board after Bard to the Future was Freshly Pressed in mid-December.

I thought I’d begin 2013 with a little postscript to one of my most-viewed posts in 2012: namely, my paean to the much-missed Blockbuster on Westow Hill, Crystal Palace.

Several people got in touch after I lamented the closure of our local, impossibly large and unusually peaceful video rental haven, asking what was to become of this prime Upper Norwood retail unit. For several weeks, rumours grew that it was to become a Poundland, or some other variety of 99p/£1 store, and so finally, over the weekend, it transpired.

I was passing on Saturday afternoon, and managed to grab this picture of some tasteful signage being – well, not so much erected as plastered all over the window to the detriment of any daylight whatsoever.

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I’m no expert on the different denominations of pound shops, so I defer to Hermit’s superior knowledge on Virtual Norwood, where he confidently asserts that this is to be a Poundmart, not a Poundland.

But in truth, of course, as both his and my photo illustrate, it is neither. It is, in point of fact, a Foundmart, since that what the sign is poised to say. (I confess to quite liking the stance of the poor chap in my picture, captured in the first throes of his perplexity over the unfortunate positioning of the frame.) I wonder what a Moundfart – sorry, Foundmart – would sell? Presumably piles of ‘lost and found’ junk. Bits and bobs of unrelated goods, thrown together for no good reason other than their being too cheap for people to bother re-claiming.

What’s that, you say? Pretty much like a Poundmart? Alright, then. Poundmart it is.

Frivolity aside for a second, though, I’m conscious that not everyone is particularly enamoured by the ever-increasing ubiquity of pound shops and their ilk. Personally, I see them as serving a purpose, and am not averse to nipping in to pick up supplies (e.g. batteries) which are either shamelessly overpriced elsewhere, or tricky to find. The latter, in particular, is where they fill a crucial void – a void, very specifically, left by the late-lamented Woolworths.

Like Top of the Pops, I always think it’s one of the great mysteries of the past decade that Woolworths was allowed to fail. As the ensuing influx of pound shops demonstrated, there remains a huge market for odds-and-sods shops, filling the gaps left by bigger, brighter stores, and selling everyday stuff that is either needed urgently or best bought in person – and therefore not suited to purchase online. I’m no retail expert, but I do think Woolworths might have survived if only it had made it deeper into the recession – while also giving up on entertainment sales, where the web was clearly so much better.

After all, Crystal Palace-wise, there’s not a huge world of difference between what the Woolworths on Westow Hill had become and the Poundstretcher that took its place. It’s just that one, like Blockbuster, had fond sentimental associations (at least for me), while the other – in its unambiguous functionality – feels lifeless and unromantic.

As the poor guy in my photo would surely appreciate, it’s just a matter of perception.

Bye bye, Blockbuster Crystal Palace

Shopping for music is not what it used to be. Gone are the hours spent browsing endless titles on the high street. Internet shopping and, latterly, downloadable content have seen off the serendipitous finds and bargain-hunting that once swallowed up whole days at a time. For a while, the void left by music was filled by movies, but even they soon succumbed to being ‘always cheaper on the web’. Now, with 1080p HD streaming becoming more ubiquitous, even Blu-rays look like their best days are behind them. The death of physical media is nigh, and with it the last of the high street entertainment shops will fade from view.

Does this make me sad? Well, a little. But it’s not something I get too emotional about. The new technology is irresistibly immediate, for the most part affordable, and the range of content has reinvented the browsing experience in a whole new sphere. As for high street shopping, there was much to like, but also much that I didn’t. While others still wax lyrical about London’s lost indie record shops, I doubt I’m alone in having found many cliquey and unwelcoming.

But though I’m not exactly weeping with nostalgia, there are some trappings of the old experience which leave me a bit teary-eyed. And nowhere have I found these recalled more vividly in recent times than in my local Blockbuster.

It doesn’t make much sense. I’ve never been a big movie renter, and am not much for gaming either. Certainly, I’ve never met anyone who would champion a Blockbuster in the same way they’d celebrate some old vinyl emporium. But there are things about the Crystal Palace store – fragments of a former world – which thrill me with memories of times past.

I’m taking about the ancient VDUs behind the counter, and their companion, nicotine-stained keyboards. I’m talking about the 4:3 CRT tellies dotted above customers’ heads, shrieking out their trademark squeal. I’m talking about the sheer size of the place: two cavernous sections, one a kind of mezzanine, with miles of shelf space and innumerable identical titles, all lined up, with space to spare, in glorious abundance. I’m talking about the stained, gum-encrusted carpets and devil-may-care special offers, recalling the gung-ho, can-do-no-wrong zenith of years gone by.

Above all, I’m talking about the way the assistants take your chosen box, then dive beneath the counter: pulling open a drawer of delights, delving inside, searching for minutes through dog-eared cardboard, before finally slipping your chosen media out of its shell. There, right there, my childhood lives on. It’s faint and fleeting, but still just about alive: that magical moment of choosing your treasure in Our Price, Woolworths or WH Smith, then waiting with bated breath as the thing itself was summoned from that ordered realm of shelves and drawers that hid such manifold riches.

So I’ll be a little sad this coming Sunday, 18th November 2012, when the Blockbuster on Westow Street, SE19, finally breathes its last. It’s no great tragedy. The shop has long outlived its useful purpose, and it’s time to move on. But in a world which long ago forgot the peculiar, mainstream romance of high street entertainment shopping, I for one will struggle not to mourn its anachronistic glimpses of how things used to be.

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