It must have been a relief for HMV workers when it was announced this week that Hilco had tossed the retailer a lifeline, much as it was for Blockbuster when Gordon Brothers Europe stepped in with a last minute reprieve. But to this old sceptic it’s just a stay of execution. Question marks still hang heavy over many of our national stores, and the only winners in this story will be plywood sheet makers. So when the last of our high street stores have boarded up their windows the only question left will be did we give enough of a damn?
Skip forward twenty years and you’ll find yourself having a conversation with someone a generation or two below you, espousing the virtues of physical shopping. You’ll tell them of the benefits of having a large library of art, music, movies, and literature all at your fingers tips, there to peruse at your leisure. The convenience of being able to pluck any one of these items at will and purchase it in the moment, to have immediate ownership of this piece of art. You’ll sing the joys of being able to judge a book by its cover, of taking a chance on something new, of rummaging and discovering whenever you felt like it, of being in the presence of likeminded art seeking individuals. You’ll tell these young folk how much you miss it now that it’s gone, and how little you did to stop it.
With an economy still tip-toeing along the precipice of collapse, the future fate of physical retail is of little concern to most of us; we just want to be able to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads at the moment. But once the dust settles on the eradication of our retailers, the bigger picture will emerge from the cloud; a future where the purchasing of art, that commodity which makes life a more enriched experience, is done via the cold portal of a laptop on the dinning room table.
As Jeanie Finlay’s 2011 movie Sound It Out (2011) rather beautifully, and ironically, pointed out there is an enchantment in the local record shop, book store, or movie rental barn that is completely lost when swapped for the indifferent interface of another online retailer. As if five days a week staring at an office computer screen wasn’t enough, we are now downloading and consuming our art, our music, our movies, our books, via a computer as well. Author Nick Hornby championed just as strongly as Finlay with his record store novel High Fidelity. Did we listen? Did we shit; we just wondered why the postman hadn’t delivered out latest order from Amazon. For just a month prior to this latest announcement from HMV, the Royal Mail revealed that it loses approximately a quarter of a million letters a week in Britain. Where do all these mislaid DVDs and novels end up, no one quite seems to know. One thing is certain though; it’s a lot easier to get a refund over the counter with a paper receipt than it is from a faceless internet website with no where near as much enthusiasm for returning your money as taking it.
But that’s what this battle between the physical and the digital comes down to, money. For the sake of saving £2.00 on each CD or book purchase, the British public are happy to wave goodbye to its high streets. A world of small savings and convenience perhaps, but a world that’s more impersonal, more predictable, less adventurous, and less full of discovery. That other fast disappearing commodity, the decent local pub, is another realm we’ll miss when it’s gone. I’d much rather pay an extra pound a pint for a decent jar of ale, then drink watered down fizz in another soulless Wetherspoons that’s inhabited by piss humming tramps during the day and orange faced, alco-pop swilling, screaming teenagers at night.
Our large national supermarkets aren’t helping much either. Despite an outward attitude of being all for this country and its people, stocking super cheap CDs and DVDs just to get you through the doors to buy more of their wares is sticking the boot in on other retailers. Every little helps? That’s right Tesco; every little bit of change you can prise from our pockets is helping to kill off our high streets and independent retailers. Don’t be fooled; if you looked the other way for a second, ASDA, Morrisons and the rest would lift your wallet if it helped push up their profit margins. So next time you want to add to your DVD or blu-ray collection give Tesco, Amazon and Play.com the two fingers and pay your local retailer a visit. The fresh air will do you good, you’ll be helping to revive your country’s economy and you might even meet some fellow humans of like mind. What a novel thought that is.