The Daily Telegraph recently reviewed Boutiques by Lucien Boucher, a volume of lithographs of Parisian shopfronts published in 1925 and reissued by The Mainstone Press. It records a world poised at a moment of change, as reflected in its high street shopfronts. A grisly ensemble of prosthetic limbs in the Bandagiste’s window recalls the enduring devastation of the First World War, while a jaunty constellation of gramophone horns looks forward to the jazz age.
In 1938, at another moment of flux, Eric Ravilious published High Street, his own lithographic record of the British high street. More than 80 years on, his vision of the urban high street survives, despite the creep of coffee bars and fashion chains, in market towns across the land.
But for how much longer? In January 1948, the first British supermarket opened and self-service shopping was born. Now technology is poised to eliminate both queuing at the checkout and shoplifting, replacing tills with surveillance technology that records the items a customer selects and charges them via their phone. Amazon, with the major supermarkets, is in the vanguard of this shopping revolution, with hundreds of contactless shops reportedly planned.
Shopping utopia or dystopia? The latter, certainly, for the checkout assistants who worked bravely throughout the Covid lockdowns; people who lack the necessary technology, and for whom a chat with a kindly assistant is their only human contact of the day and even those (I am one) who cherish the rich theatre of queuing. For retailers, a reduction in shoplifting (which costs around £5.5bn per year), along with a lower wage bill is an unarguable win.
In the UK, the closing of village shops is a perennial theme. My grandmother endured it and my mother endures it now. Having survived the supermarket revolution, those indomitable women might conclude that till-free shopping is better than no shopping at all. In Sweden, people living in villages with no local shop have welcomed the advent of small contactless stores.
As for the sinister creep of surveillance technology – if the modest purchases of a harassed working parent or independent nonagenarian are really of interest to Jeff Bezos and his chums, that might be a price worth paying for a frictionless pint of milk and loaf of bread.
Three cheers to the return of the bookshop
As a passionate collector of physical (or, as my partner calls them, “superfluous”) books, I am delighted by the evidence of their survival in the face of technology. Last week the Duchess of Cornwall was photographed in a phone box library in Abergeldie, Scotland, and my local farm shop and railway station maintain bookshelves offering treasures in return for a charity donation.
Imagine, then, the pleasure of discovering that a new generation of young booksellers is defying the online trend to sell real books in real shops. No algorithm, one new bookseller observes, can replace the human touch. The life of a bookshop owner is not easy, and new booksellers would do well to avoid Penelope Fitzgerald’s brilliant, bleak novel, The Bookshop, based on her own experience.
But when almost all is lost, Fitzgerald’s proprietor salvages two volumes, one bookmarked with a pressed gentian – a skeletal bloom that would blossom into her masterpiece, The Blue Flower. Real books offer real rewards, in unexpected ways.