The Changing Face of Consumerism: Public Opinion, Booze Culture and Bartering

The local newspaper recently ran a front-page headline about proposals to open three new pubs in York’s city centre. Two local breweries – The Leeds Brewery, formed as an offshoot of the York Brewery, and the Ossett Brewery, had submitted plans to take over vacant premises – one a former cafe, the others retail units, previously an estate agent and an army surplus store.

The objectors raised all of the concerns you’d expect them to. Predictably, there was concern about the city centre becoming a mecca for drinkers, that having such a concentration of licensed premises would send a message that York promoted the already endemic booze culture that is, we so often told, a leading problem in Britain that causes the taxpayer billions, and that the opening of these three new hostelries would encourage an even greater influx of stag and hen parties and cause violent, alcohol-fuelled crimes and other such sordid scenes to soar.

But these aren’t the kind of places rowdy stag and hen parties would frequent. we’re talking about traditional ale houses that would also serve traditional pub grub. The kind of places tourists – particularly those from America and Japan – flock to in their thousands in order to experience a slice of culture they simply do not have back home. As a historic city, visitors to York want to see and sample tradition. They also want refreshment.

Other critics argued that it was essential that the city preserve retail premises for retail when conditions improve. Will they ever? This is also the same council that approved another out of town retail park, which objectors – not least of all local business owners – have opposed on the grounds that by taking the retail trade away from the city centre, the place is slowly dying. It’s a complex argument, not least of all because the major chains and small independent stores serve different markets. Nevertheless, they can’t have it both ways, by encouraging more retailers to move out of town and then complain that there is an abundance of vacant premises once occupied by retailers, especially in the middle of a lengthy economic downturn. Remember the words ‘credit crunch’ and ‘recession’? For some reason, people seem to think things are improving just because the FTSE’s up and more houses have sold in the last 6 months – never mind the huge numbers of redundancies announced by large employers like Aviva, Co-op and HSBC.

There is of course another angle to this, namely, if everyone’s redundant, they’ll need nice pubs to sit in and while away the hours as they drink their redundancy pay-offs and dole cheques.

The same day I read the article, I was walking home through the city’s pub-packed centre when I ran into musician, poet, diarist and rambler Mark Wynn, a man who’s inspiring in his complete disregard for any kind of consumer trends or capitalist-led operating models of industry. As ever, he’d been travelling the length and breadth of the city, the county and the country, playing poorly-paid gigs in pubs of the very sort the Leeds and Ossett breweries run and giving away most of his CDs for nothing or in exchange for a beer. It’s something to be applauded. he’ll never be rich, but in sharing his art, he never goes thirsty. Moreover, his approach represents the epitome of the punk ethic: he’s out there doing it himself on zero budget and building a fanbase from a grass roots level. that’s what I call sticking it to the man!

We exchanged pamphlets: I had the very last copy of my Liberate Yourself! pamphlet folded in my bag (there are now 100 copies in circulation, and having been left on trains, in pubs, inside self-help books in WHS and who knows where, their whereabouts and readership I haven’t a clue) while he had a batch of a new A5 publication called Dirty Work containing some selected highlights of his spectacularly off the wall and very funny tour diaries and, stapled inside the back page, a PVC wallet containing his last album. Arguably, I was up on the deal, but these things always balance out over time (some weeks later, Dirty Work 3 would see the light of day, containing more rampant ramblings and a new CD EP by Mr Mark E Wynn with additional text by Sam Forrest of Nine Back Alps and The Sorry Kisses, and myself). The important thing was, we had traded our art with one another, we’d both received something we wanted and what’s more, the cash-free barter had taken place on the street. Retail outlets are just so last year.

 

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Shops? Who needs ‘em?

 

And if you’re loving my work, The Changing Face Of Consumerism – the book – will be out some time in June.

The Changing Face of Consumerism XI: Back Down on the Street, or, Going for Bust

So a mere matter of days after my last piece on the struggling high street, I woke up this morning to more news of high street stores experiencing a drop in like-for-like sales in comparison to the same time last year, with HMV delivering particularly disappointing figures marked by sales being down 8.2% in December 2010. It is disappointing, too. Of the bigger chain music stores, I always preferred HMV (although Andy’s records had the edge for a while both in terms of pricing and range). First and foremost, they carried a broader selection with less mainstream releases sitting alongside the chart material. And, while a tad pricey, their range of back-catalogue titles was far superior to Overprice / Virgin.

But rather than work to their strengths and make a virtue of their difference, HMV followed the template of its competitors and having killed off the (albeit limited) vinyl section in favour of calendars and games, continued over a lengthy period of time to reduce the music stock – to make room for more games, DVDs and gadgetry. When the music occupies the smallest portion of a music retailer’s floor space, you have to ask questions. HMV’s struggling is an example of how diversification can be counterproductive, and rather than appealing to a broader customer base, can serve to alienate the one already established. How can a music retailer seriously expect to compete in other markets already dominated by specialists. More often than not, gamers will head to somewhere like Game for games, just as you’d probably go to a clothes shop for clothes, a bookstore for books, an electrical store for electrical goods – unless, of course, they go to the supermarket for the whole lot. After a while, I stopped asking questions and also stopped going in, because each time I did I found myself leaving empty-handed and frustrated because they never had the title I was after in stock. I’d invariably end up purchasing my music on-line because I couldn’t source it anywhere else.

I don’t for a second mean to suggest that I’m responsible for HMV’s declining sales (and I certainly played no part La Senza, the purveyors of slinky lingerie, being called into administration with a loss of 1,300 jobs, prompting headlines such as ‘Lingerie firm goes bust’ etc.), but while my musical tastes may be ‘minority’, there are many other minorities just like me, and collectively, they represent a substantial market.

As mentioned in passing in my previous piece, it’s not just music that I have problems tracking down, and it’s not always obscure items I struggle to find in shops either. As if to prove the point, only this week I decided I wanted to get a desk lamp. As my desk also happens to be the dining table and space is of a premium, I figured a desk lamp that clamps onto the shelves to the side of the table would be the best bet. But could I find one anywhere? Working out of time, my choices on a lunchtime were limited, but there is an Argos superstore and BHS Home Store (yes, British Home Stores Home Store) which specialises in goods for the, er, home, rather than home and clothing. A quarter of the store is given to a lighting department, but unless I wanted a lime-green desk-lamp with a regular base I was out of luck. That is, unless I wanted a ludicrously glitzy lamp shade with dangling glass bits all over it, which I most certainly didn’t. Argos carry a much more substantial range of desk lights, from bendy to angle-poise, but the only clamping ones are LED lamps, which just don’t give off enough light. I’d still need to put on the main ceiling light to see my screen, which defeats the purpose of a desk light I can angle in my corner without illuminating the whole room. Really, how hard can it be to find a simple item like a clamp-fitting desk lamp that takes a proper, regular bulb?

The answer is that it’s not hard at all. Five minutes on-line and I found I was spoiled for choice. Even so, on-line shopping is no substitute for real shopping as it’s often hard to get a sense of the precise dimensions or appearance of an item – you can’t ‘feel the quality’ from a description and photo, however detailed. Thankfully, it transpired that a local independent store I pass on my way through town after work had the best selection of all. Once again, hooray for the independents!

 

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A clip-on desk lamp, earlier today

 

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The Changing Face of Consumerism VIII: State of Independence, or, All’s Well at The Inkwell

The seven ‘Changing Face of Consumerism’ articles I ran on MySpace in 2008 and 2008 all shared a common theme, namely lamenting the sad decline of the real – both in media and commodity, with ‘reality’ television being a pisspoor ersatz approximation of any reality I’ve ever known, and ‘real’ shopping experiences being slowly subsumed by the virtual marketplace.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for progress, and have long been a big fan of on-line shopping, being one who doesn’t cope well with crowds or endless hours of pavement-pounding in search of goods, but by the same token, I’m a strong advocate of consumer choice. Despite what the global marketplace on-line tells us, we as consumers do not have infinite choice, not least of all because while some niche outlets fare well on-line, many have gone to the wall because the same kind of corporate giants that slowly erased all of the small independent stores from the high streets of each and every town have steamrollered the little on-line traders out.

As city centres everywhere become identikit clones of anywheresville, so our sense of location becomes diminished: the only thing to differentiate, say, Leeds from Lincoln, isn’t the choice of shops, but the size of each branch, and after a mooch round M&S, Boots, Game and HMV, stopping for a uniform coffee in a Starbucks or Costa before going on to… well, it doesn’t matter. I mean it really doesn’t matter where you are, the experience is pretty much the same. Fine, so you know what you’re going to get, but the experience of discovering a little specialist shop tucked away somewhere is radically different and appeals to a whole range of senses. However hard Amazon try to replicate the browsing experience of specialist independent book and record stores with features like ‘look inside’ and the song snippets you can listen to, in addition to the list of recommendations based on what you’re looking at and what other shoppers have also purchased or viewed that functions as a mimesis of the friendly and enthusiastic guy behind the counter who just loves his books or music and knows everything there is to know, like a living, walking encyclopedia, it just isn’t the same. There’s no substitute for browsing.

And so it was that I was practically skipping when The Inkwell opened in York a few weeks ago. A little shop stocking secondhand books, records (with a few selected new titles), CDs and cards, it’s the kind of shop you used to drop into, rummage around and find something wonderful you didn’t even know you wanted. The owner, Paul Lowman, is clearly an unashamed enthusiast first and a businessman second, and while such a venture is the kind that will never make him rich, and would make many lenders and entrepreneurs alike squirm in discomfort, it’s a shopper’s delight. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Inkwell is aimed at a niche market (by which I mean discerning shoppers: Paul’s philosophy is according to the website, “COOL STUFF FOR ALL!” Popular Culture is about democracy – inclusivity, not exclusivity) specialising as it does in books on music, film and pop culture, with sections on the Beat Generation, Art, Philosophy and a noteworthy – not to mention impressive – selection of pulp paperbacks, all in remarkably good condition (yet reasonably priced, with titles marked up at between six and ten quid).

The vinyl, too, is all in great nick, and the range, though limited, is all about quality and catering to a particular kind of discerning alt/hipster customer. There’s no mainstream pap to be found on the racks: instead, there are sections devoted to Garage, Psych, 90s Indie, Spoken Word / Comedy, and even Burlesque. Yes, if you want the kitsch sleaze of yesteryear, then the range of sexploitation titles in both audio and written media is exceptional.

It’s a tiny little place, made all the more cramped by there being a pair of school desks in the middle of the room, upon which a choice of books are casually laid. It’s all about the browsing experience (they serve coffee too), and an eclectic mix of music is spun – at high volume, and all on vinyl, naturally – on the turntable in the corner by the counter. Of course, it’s simply one’s man’s vision, one man’s obsession made manifest… but what’s wrong with that? But equally, why should a shop such as this succeed in a climate where major chains are going to the wall? The answer, I believe, is simple. In attempting to appeal to everyone, the major chains ultimately cater for no-one. In aiming to cover a vast market based on some kind of assumed generic average consumer and broad populism, the chains become Xerox copies of one another: reliable, perhaps, but ultimately forgettable and wholly impersonal. A shop like The Inkwell isn’t about conquering the world or trying to cater to all tastes: it knows its market and knows it well – because by being the shop its owner wants it to be, it’s catering for like-minded individuals (there’s that word again!). It’s unique in every way, and every item in stock is essentially a one-off. It has the personal touch and is memorable. And that’s why it has a better than average chance of success.

So, on the opening day I left with a brand new hardback copy of Brion Gysin: Dream Machine (a bargain at a tenner given that it retails at £25), a read but respectable copy of The Dark Stuff by Nick Kent (£3) and a vinyl LP – a copy of Fade Out by Loop, again in top condition (EX as Record Collector would have it), for a fiver.

I returned this week and was pleased to see some of the stock had gone and new stuff had taken its place, meaning I was able to add a copy of the original 1971 Olympia Press edition of S.C.U.M. Manifesto by Valerie Solanas to my library. The tenner asking price was more than fair, especially given the condition.

Does The Inkwell represent the vanguard of the counter-revolution in the world of retail? Perhaps not, but I’d like to think that other independent stores will begin to pop up, not just in York, but in every city, and soon. It’s unlikely that this is how the economic situation will be recovered, but being able to rifle some good books and records in a pleasant environment certainly makes these dark times a lot more bearable.

The Inkwell Online is cool – www.ink-well.co.uk – but not nearly as cool as being there.

 

Inkwell

 

And if you’re loving my work, there’s more of the same (only different) at Christophernosnibor.co.uk