I have never worked on a shop floor, but I know people who have. I also know people who could lose their jobs because of the HMV crisis. Where I live the slow death of the high street is a big issue, much discussed at midweek evening meetings and on Facebook groups by anxious and well meaning people on a quest to turn Levenshulme into Chorlton. The collapse of HMV sent liberal broadsheet writers into one of their frequent fits of pop nostalgia. Throughout January a barrage of thinkpieces appeared on approximately these lines: HMV, eh? Soundtrack to the English childhood, Saturday mornings, bus into town, buying the latest EP from Soundgarden or Prefab Sprout, a bag of pick ‘n’ mix (That’s Woolworths. Ed) jumpers for goalposts, enduring image, hmm? You get the idea.
Bizarre as it was to see the organic cheese and homespun wicker brigade lamenting the demise of a clone-town avatar, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs over this, and could fall between the widening cracks of austerity Britain. And yet I don’t think it is insensitive to wonder if the death of HMV may not be a good thing. A close friend who worked in a local branch told me that her massive store didn’t stock anything approaching a decent range of music. HMV contributed to the crash of numerous independent record shops, which do stock good music and are run by people who love and care about music. No Guardian memorial for these guys – but do check out the film about independent music retailers, Last Shop Standing, produced by my amazing Flashmanesque friend, James Harris.
Furthermore, from what we know, HMV treated its staff very badly. The HMV corporate Twitter account a few weeks back was briefly hijacked by angry shopworkers in the middle of a mass firing. ‘Under usual circumstances, we’d never dare do such a thing as this,’ the hackers tweeted. ‘However, when the company you dearly love is being ruined and those hard working individuals, who wanted to make hmv great again, have mostly been fired, there seemed no other choice.’ Then: ‘Especially since these accounts were set up by an intern (unpaid, technically illegal) two years ago.’
Employers consistently fail to get to grips with social media. (‘Just overheard our Marketing Director ask: ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’’) The digital world is an obvious threat to retail bosses because people can get goods and services more cheaply online. In theory this could wreck the whole high street. Again though, long term, would that be a bad thing? Retail is hard. It is long hours, loads of physical wear and tear, rigid hierarchies, little progression and, in terms of disposable income, you could make more slinging drinks. The retail union USDAW has to campaign regularly on shopworker safety, because counter staff are regularly abused, threatened, assaulted, groped and held up at knifepoint or gunpoint by customers. It’s a hard and grim life. And aside from the forced labour and dubious legality of the whole thing, what hacks me off about Iain Duncan Smith’s retail workfare programme is the self-satisfied rhetoric that he is doing jobseekers a favour. Why do we want to force graduates and the unemployed into a dying industry? One might as well send half the North’s claimant count into ‘voluntary’ placements down the pit mines.
But what’s the alternative? What will the high street look like if we just let the market do its thing? The big supermarkets will stay, because people need cheap food. A bad portent is the multiplicity of payday loan sharks that have colonised English cities like bindweed. More optimistic thinkers have predicted that the death of big chains will leave a gap that independents can fill. I hope so. The ideal situation is that we get rid of the clone towns and have loads of independent food shops and hipster bars. But people have to work hard and step up for that to happen. It is also worth remembering that many independent businesses are run by the same kind of grasping simpleton that has evidently been in charge of HMV’s commercial strategy over the last decade.
My sanguine approach to all this is only dented by the possibility that the internet could also kill the gorgeous L-spaced interweaving of independent bookshops. Every time I go back to my home town, I buy something from the second hand bookshop that has been standing on a little street by the canal ever since I was a boy. Last time I was in there, the genial Pratchett-esque old man who runs it told me: ‘This is only my second job, and I love it. Everyone else is working in places they hate, and struggling to stay alive. If you find a job you love, son, you’ve made it. You’ve won.’
Insert generic high street decline photo here. (Image: Telegraph)