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The wonder of Woolies plus a dash of vision makes for retail heaven; COLUMNIST.

Byline: CAROLYN HITT

BRITAIN'S Best and Worst Shopping Districts were revealed this week and the only Welsh town to make the latter category was Tonypandy.

The list ranking UK retail centres was compiled by property advisers Harper Dennis Hobbs, who judged 1,000 shopping districts on how well the store mix suited local needs. Other criteria included vacancy rates and the numbers of "undesirable" shops, which they defined as encouraging debt or addiction - the likes of betting shops, pawnbrokers, pay-day loan shops and e-cigarette stores.

The list - topped by Cambridge - reflected a big geographical divide. The most vital retail centres are all in a ring around London, apart from the odd exception like north Yorkshire's picturesque heritage town Harrogate. The shops at the other end of the scale had seen strong declines for "wider macro-economic reasons".

As a town that has borne the brunt of the devastating economic hardship that has hit the south Wales valleys, Tonypandy certainly fits the profile. But it was still sad to see it languishing in Britain's Bottom 10 Retail Locations.

Like many struggling High Streets across Wales, Pandy - as the locals call it - is also a victim of poor planning decisions. Councils never seem to see the irony that pedestrianisation of small towns can actually reduce footfall. Likewise bypass roads, as nearby Porth will testify.

And, of course, seismic changes in consumer habits - from the online shopping revolution to out-of-town retail parks - have crushed the whole concept of community shopping.

My heart aches for the economic struggles of Dunraven Street because Tonypandy was my first retail mecca. I lived a mile further up the valley in Llwynypia, where our options were limited to the post office, the betting shop, the newsagent and the small grocery store run by a lovely family who had fled Uganda when Idi Amin expelled the country's Asian minority in 1972.

So in comparison to Llwynypia's tiny consumer cluster, Tonypandy was our childhood metropolis. Indeed, I sometimes think I owe my entire career to its most exciting shop because it opened the door to a wonderful world of words.

The Wishing Well was a book and toy shop run by two fabulous ladies called Dora and Enid. It was the stuff of dreams when you were eight. Not only did it stock every conceivable Sindy plus accessories, it had shelves stacked with the best of children's literature, both classic and contemporary.

My father took me to The Wishing Well most Saturday mornings to buy a book. The journey began with Topsy & Tim and progressed through Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, E Nesbit, Ian Serraillier, Noel Streatfield, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and continued until I could access the adult section of Tonypandy Library just down the road.

Tonypandy also had Thoms. This is where you got your bargains... but didn't necessarily let on they were from Thoms. People could be a tad snooty about Thoms.

And there was the Bracchi cafe with the silent waiter and - in those pre-Jamie Oliver days - a plentiful supply of chips 'n' curry sauce and dandelion and burdock for our alternative school dinners.

Plus Mortlocks, Jean and Mal's record shop, the Army & Navy store, the Plaza cinema and the sports shop, which also sold our leather school satchels.

But, of course, what really made Tonypandy a thriving Valleys town was the wonder of Woolies. Woolworth's was its beating heart. In years to come tales of its myriad delights will be passed on to future generations who will marvel at the incredible concept of a multi-purpose shop that people actually walked to.

Yes, imagine, on two feet, not via a 4x4 and three acres of giant out-oftown car park.

It was a place where children could roam free - as long as they could endure the glare of the tabardwearing shop assistants, who assumed they were Fagin's devil spawn pick 'n' nicking their way through their sweet counter.

I was one of those children - but not a pick 'n' nicker. You would never have risked that crime in Tonypandy Woolworths. They had aisle patrollers who made the wardens on Prisoner Cell Block H look like Nanette Newman.

Yet despite their terrifying presence, between the ages of eight and 11 I must have spent almost every dinnertime in the big square store that glowed with retail promise at the foot of the hill to our junior school.

It was an emporium that catered for every possible pleasurable need - confectionery, music, Miners glittery make-up, toys. Plus all the boring stuff your parents might want - lightbulbs, hem webbing, extension leads, Ronco Wool Bobble Removers.

And not forgetting Ladybird clothes. Vests, pants, white lacy socks... every undergarment I ever owned in the first 11 years of life had a spotty red and black insect stitched on it.

The shop that is now deemed an anachronism used to have its finger on the pulse. Or should we say beat? Woolies told you what was in the Top 40 and stocked quite a lot that wasn't, like those Top of the Pops albums of chart covers which always featured on the sleeves women in macrame bikinis eating apples.

You could mooch among the records for hours, where the cooler holiday-job teenagers would man the cash desks and not necessarily assume the kiddie flicking through the Bay City Rollers albums was a pick 'n' nicker.

I particularly remember being there on the hot afternoon of August 16, 1977, wondering why there was a sudden rush on Elvis classics.

As the vinyl 1970s gave way to the techno 1980s, Woolies was the place to buy your pink ghetto-blaster and stacks of purple TDK cassettes for home-taped compilations.

Christmas shopping at Woolies was as much a festive ritual as driving up and down the Trealaw Mile to check out whose extravagant lighting display was in danger of blowing up the National Grid. The frisson of seeing the display of Electronic Mastermind boxes. All those Quality Street tins, all that tinsel, all those weird carrot-carving gadgets from Ronco.

But just as Yuletide advertising no longer resounds to the mantra of "Ronco presents..." so a nostalgic Woolworths stock-take sounds like a script for Life On Mars. Retro chic couldn't save it.

We have shifted our allegiances to those soulless cathedrals of consumerism sited off dual carriageways. Woolworths was once the lifeblood of small-town shopping centres like Tonypandy, but the High Street experience has been draining away since the supermarket leviathans carved up the nation between them. The arrival of Asda on the outskirts of Tonypandy has left the independents remaining on its main shopping thoroughfare unable to compete.

When the Woolworths chain collapsed, it was predicted the administrators would struggle to find buyers for as many as two-thirds of the stores. After all, who wants to open a shop in the middle of a community in the 21st century? The wonder of Woolies wasn't just pick 'n' mix, toys and the Top 40, it was the wonder of the High Street itself - a whole retail way of life that we should have fought harder to preserve in places like Tonypandy.

The presence of one or two big respected chains and a host of independents is what the High Street ethos was built on. But the big names now shirk the challenge of the districts with "wider macro-economic" issues, preserving the commercial safety of out-of-town retail parks or more prosperous towns.

They don't feel the responsibility to stay and help communities ride out tough times. The people of Pontypridd, for example, were rightly outraged by Marks & Spencer's abandonment of the town, in which it had been the flagship store since 1939. The retail giant's decision sent such a strong signal of economic decline to outsiders even though Pontypridd has long-term potential to continue to develop as a commuter belt to Cardiff.

Tonypandy's placing in the UK's th th ww Bottom 10 Retail Locations similarly creates a vicious circle for its development. The firm which conducted the research suggests that the locations with highest scores, whether they are large city centres or small town high streets, are places brands might choose target when considering opening new branches.

la ss bto sb There's also the implication that if you live in a certain im y pde be place you don't deserve a consumer experience beyond betting shops and e-cigarette stores. Thankfully there are people who are willing to see beyond the stereotypes. Treorchy is an example of a Valleys town that still offers a lively retail scene.

Thp It has advantages over Porth and Tonypandy because its shopping thoroughfare is still built around the main road so there is a daily buzz of activity in Bute Street. But it has also benefited from local entrepreneurs recognising that, believe it or not, Valleys customers like an aspirational consumer experience as much as the citizens of Cardiff.

The High Street Social embodies this vision. Owned by Treorchy native Geraint and Catherine Hughes, from Porth, the eaterie continues the 70-year strong tradition of community culinary excellence on the site of Treorchy's former Carpanini's Cafe.

It mixes Valleys values - the name reflects the long tradition of communities coming together in social clubs in the Rhondda - with the cool industrial decor common to more metropolitan cafes. The menu mixes quality Welsh produce with flavours from the couple's travels.

Catherine, a former teacher, explained how the concept was created: "It took us two years to renovate the site as we changed it quite a bit. As well as being inspired by the Sydney cafe scene, and other places around the world the team has travelled to, we loved the vibe of London's Pollen Social. The key part of our name is Social - we are a place to come with your family or your friends to meet, relax and enjoy great food, awesome coffee, camaraderie and a new vibe."

But the most exciting aspect of the venture for me is the attitude of its owners: "And at High Street Social we have a unique perspective of the Rhondda.

"We are truly respectful of the past, the people who established their roots here, who worked the black seam and who created this amazing community - full of energy and culture - in music, sport, art. But we are also prospective, looking forward with a new energy to a brighter future for our valley."

That's the kind of vision we need if we are to save our Welsh shopping centres from the bottom of Britain's retail heap and make our Valleys High Streets social once more.

CAPTION(S):

<B 'Councils never seem to see the irony that pedestrianisation of small towns can actually reduce footfall' - Dunraven Street in Tonypandy in September 1977 and, inset, as it is now
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Words:1788
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