Some readers of this blog will know that I don’t really do shopping. Well, high street shopping I mean. I hate the same blandness that 95% of the stores here in the UK represent these days. I despise the way that the big chains and the corporates assume that we’re a bunch of brainless, zombified sheep – sleep-walking our way to unecessary consumer tosh accruement and purchasing-oblivion.
I am a big fan of Quakerism. Of keeping the material things in our life plain and simple. Of spurning the constant need that many of us feel – To Have, To Be, To Own. But a great number of Quakers themselves – were actually the leading capitalist-philanthropists of their day (I am talking pre-1950s here – I am talking the Rowntrees, Cadburys, Frys and hundreds more who were committed to Quakerist life and practice in business.) So I can’t really blame the Quakers for my horror of anything that involves numerical transaction. They were quite happily pootling along – selling widgets to punters. In as ethically and perhaps as paternalistically a way as possible of course…
So, no. Instead, I nominate Bill Bryson to blame for all of this anti-shopping malarky. Bill’s ‘Notes from a Small Island‘ had a huge effect on me when it was first published. This book is one of our 20th Century travel and civic classics. A must-read where Bill charms us with take on Brit-life but also comments on the monotony – the bleak and barren landscape which now forms the shop frontages of most UK towns. His hilarious anecdotes and sarky-arse commentary precisely depicted what I was feeling as I hung out in various abodes during my late teens and early twenties; “Bloody hell! Am I in Manchester or Oxford or Oldham or Birmingham? It all looks the sodding same, these days!”
And don’t even get me onto some of the crimes of the built environment that have been carried out here in the UK. The wanton destruction of stunningly beautiful architecture – some of them hundreds of years old – in order to slap a franchised ‘Coronary 2 Go! Geddit it Gulped!’ cladding for your latest fast food outlet. Yes, Bryson’s gripes got into my head. So much so, that I’ve been pathologically avoiding Britain’s High Streets for many, many years now. (Mind you, thinking about it – the man has clearly saved me a bob or two. Cheers Bill!)
But this aversion to all things-high street extends to my other half. And the kids too. A suggestion of “let’s hit the shops” in my family is tantamount to saying “anyone fancy a bout of gastroenteritis this weekend?” So yesterday’s little excursion messed with my head somewhat. I visited a department store…. I know! A business named ‘Harvey’s of Halifax’.
Now, not being a born n’ bredder of Halifax (me being an East Mancunian defector now living on t’other side of the Pennines) I was informed beforehand by ‘real locals’ that this trip to the shops might be a slightly less traumatic experience for me than giving birth without pain-relief in the Kalahari (which happened to be a barrel of laughs, believe you me.) “Oooh – Harvey’s is lovely!” one friend said. Another neighbour told me that she was “reet jealous!” that I was popping out to this particular shop. My mother also said that she had heard of them. And my mother is a lady for whom Lidl simply doesn’t cut the mustard…
So, I was all set to visit the shop. And okay, the plan was to just have a quick brew in their cafe. But I was initially impressed by the presentation of the building. And oh…dear, dear reader – if you are at all interested in urban design and heritage – you HAVE to check out Halifax for some stunning examples, the Piece Hall to begin with of course, as a ground-breaking bit of architecture. But Harvey’s building is also rather impressive. The business began back in the 1920’s. But today it stands proud – with three historical buildings merged – to form the modern-day Harveys. Although, I have to use the term ‘modern’ loosely – because the minute I stepped into the place I was catapulted back into the past. A reminder of that wonderful store named Lewis’ in Manchester. Many childhood memories of accompanying my Granny there via her Datsun Cherry (one of Granny’s first jobs back in the 30s was as a shop assistant in Lewis’).
Immediately, I breathed in….what was it? Old World gentility. But not old-fashioned. No – it was far more upmarket than the Grace Bros (anyone remember ‘Are You Being Served?‘) Meaning that Harvey’s clearly rings those top class bells. But … without that sense of snootiness. Without making you feel that you can only shop there if you enjoy the feeling of Being Better Than Thou. So the place doesn’t possess the up-itself attitude of your Harvey Nicks. Sure, it’s enormous in size, but had been designed so that you didn’t feel too lost (although you probably were – if you were me – it happens to me a lot. I have a tendency to walk round ten square feet at least fifteen times without realising it.) The place was utterly bustling with what clearly were very loyal customers.
And I can tell you why the customers were loyal. This is because it’s a 100% family owned and operated firm. I witnessed many sales staffs assisting customers. Dealing with them in such a way that was a zillion miles from the USA-induced corporate Stepford Wives customer-service faux friendliness. And I also saw the owner and Chairman himself stopping and chatting to at least a dozen customers – filling in for his daughter who is MD of the business. I noticed the Company Secretary dashing over to assist a disabled customer, I clocked her getting read to help with clearing up tables in the restaurant…
This was down to earth, genuinely-give-a-toss-about-people northern customer service. To date, the closest I have seen to this attitude has been – not from a high street shop – but from a social housing landlord (the award-winning North West’s Irwell Valley Housing Assoc.) Irwell Valley’s Tom Manion will tell you that employee happiness levels are utterly transparent to the general public and convey immediately either very good or very poor management. Roger Harvey would probably agree with him. Of course, there is the off-chance that the staff at Harveys are not *truly* a happy crew and that they’re just damned good actors (and are being bribed to put on a good show for the consumers as their families are actually being held at gunpoint in the lingerie section.)
But the bees-knees of this particular visit was when I learned about the charity work that Harveys are involved with. Again – none of your off the shelf corporate big charidee names stuff. The store is heavily involved with a range of local charities and arts groups. Many of them being the smaller names that you may not be familiar with, but which (in my opinion) are more worthy of praise than the Big Guys in terms of bang for bucks. And real heart. Indeed, I happened to meet one of their latest recruits – a member of staff who had been part of a programme run by Halifax based charity ‘Project Challenge’ and who had been unemployed but was now working at Harveys and still dedicated to raising money for them.
And best of all the store is an INDIE! Not part of a big chain. Independent…going it alone…sailing the seas of creativity and entrepreneurship. Like me in many ways. But with better underwear. Yes indeedy, inspiring people in an inspiring place. I came over all giddy. So much so that I actually ended up buying things from the place. Flexing the old plastic. Now, this is a dangerous practice for me. The flabby muscle of rampant consumerism was beginning to twitch. I was only saved from purchasing a new coat by the fact that I was about to wet my pants (excessive caffeine) and that my parking ticket was about to run out. And we all know how evil, twisted and jobsworth those West Yorkshire Parking Attendents are…
Driving back towards homeland, I realised that I needed to break this new buzz of mine. All recovering addicts know that if you feel a new, heady vibe – you had better get back on the waggon – quick. Try a spot of ‘what used to work.’
So tune in for Part Two (“Breaking the Addiction – with thanks to a local charity shop. And the consumer demands of my budgie.”)