Death of the High Street?

Reading the English press a few days ago, I found myself particularly irritated by an interview with the Boss of one of the major supermarket chains. He was claiming that the proprietors of the small, specialist shops that used to inhabit British high streets were largely to blame for their own demise, a situation that has left our towns and cities colonised by identikit corporate clones selling junk food, junk coffee and apparently horsemeat burgers, to a “Public” left with little option. The prevalent opinion of “big business” is that it was the failure of such minnows to grasp modern marketing, provide “what the Public wants” and run lean, efficient businesses that led to their extinction. Just being an expert in selecting vegetables or repairing shoes or running up a pair of curtains is not enough. You have to be a businessman before you are a butcher.

Strangely he forgot to mention high street rents inflated by chains such as his, landlords inclination to rent to corporations that can reasonably guarantee a ten year income stream or the ability to squeeze suppliers’ margins in return for promised volume, until the pips in the un-ripe lemon squeak or someone comes up with the bright idea of fobbing them off with a lasagne that runs faster than Shergar. Certainly, as an eight-year-old boy walking home from school, the contents of the old fashioned (even then) sweet shop on the corner was definitely what this public wanted.

Luckily in Buenos Aires, other than the streets of clothes shops, the high street has never really existed. Small shops pepper each block; the commercial and the residential intermingled. There are few areas where you cannot find a deli, a baker, a greengrocer, a pasta maker, an ice-cream shop and a butcher within a 2-block radius, making your evening constitutional a purposeful and sociable event. Some of these make a vague stab at looking modern but most simply don’t bother. When getting a pair of shoes repaired recently, I had the choice of two locations. One was a zippy, open plan one-stop-shop offering a range of other services such as shortening your trousers while cutting you some keys. Possibly what the public want? The other was a hundred years old and just did shoes. I went with the latter, figuring that if it was so old and all it did was shoes, then it must be pretty good at it. And it was excellent at it!

The relevance of all this was bought home to me yesterday. Early morning and my builders ring. They can’t open the door to the property. Can I come with the spare key? I did but to no avail. Even though of fine German construction, the seventy-year-old lock had finally failed. Kaput! So what to do? In England you would have one choice, to ring the experts (the ones with the biggest presence on the internet of course), who will send someone round on a bike in an hour (if you sign over your first born son) or in a van sometime that day (if you only feel inclined to part with a pound of flesh). And that charge will just be for the consultation, because how are they going to replace a 70-year-old lock while leaving the lovely brass fittings intact? And how likely is it they have the right inventory on their bike? And by the way, your whole door closing system is obsolete and needs to be replaced with the latest Korean security device! But don’t worry about the fact that you have to take out a second mortgage to pay for all this because it is now considered semi-respectable for your daughter to pay her way through university by working in a lap-dancing club.

Here you just walk round the block, find a shop with a sign that says “Locksmith, established 1940,” that looks as though they haven’t repainted in the meantime, has no air-con so is roasting inside, and guess what? They only do locks. So you explain your situation to the nice woman inside and while reluctant to hand her full scrotum leverage by admitting that you have 15 idle builders waiting outside, you try and instil a little urgency into the conversation. And she asks for your address and then the key and squints at it and says no worries, I think my husband’s father or possibly his grandfather installed that lock. That’s when you know this is going to turn out alright.

So she grabs hubby from the workshop and he’s ready, willing and able. He brings a tiny box of remarkably unsophisticated tools. You get him on site and the first thing he says is “what beautiful door fittings, you have to preserve them, don’t change them, comprendes?” So you know he’s your kind of guy. And he unscrews and jiggles, and does locksmith stuff that doesn’t involve any of your worst-fantasy power tools and gets the door open and your building work springs back to life. Then he gives you the bad news, couched in admiration about the fine German mechanism that he officially pronounces Kaput. But don’t worry; they still make a copy of this mechanism in Argentina.

“Really? How long will it take to get one?”

“Give me an hour or two, I’ll have it fixed by the end of the day.”

Which he did and without balls-in-the-vice price negotiation! So he is now my locksmith. He is responsible for the smooth functioning of every lock in my little hotel. He is responsible for re-coating the brass door furniture with nickel to restore it to its 1940’s glory. And as I walk down the street I will always give him or his wife a wave. I won’t care if it costs me a few more pesos than the next guy might charge. He understands the history of my place. He will do a quality job and if something goes wrong he is just round the block. But he is never going to have a search-term-leading Internet presence, or indeed any at all. He will probably never be much of a “businessman”. He is just a guy who knows about locks and has a sense of history and continuity.

Possibly small things, but important to me.

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