Long live the high street

This month’s column comes to you from Oxford. As the Isle of Wight double-knots its bonnet ribbon in preparation for gale force winds, I’m sat in a coffee shop in the city of dreaming spires writing on my smartphone – as is The Modern Way.

As a trendspotting food blogger for over a decade I have watched the inexorable rise of the coffee shop. “Surely Newport cannae take any more?” the people cry. Well, with the arrival of the beautifully-renovated Caffe Isola in Node Hill, it seems it can.

We need to understand that the high street is a shape-shifter. Hands up who remembers video rental parlours or record shops. Right. Hands down old gubbers at the back. I SAID HANDS DOWN, GRANDDAD. As people finally get the confidence to shop online without fear of having their money stolen by remotely-located fraudsters, some old retail models have disappeared. I, for example, bought these fantastic flaming beetle-crushers from China via eBay. Others will book holidays, or purchase performance-enhancing pills online; flicking through virtual shops while on the toilet or in their pants (or maybe both) – a look wholly unacceptable in real life emporia (except maybe in Wroxall).

Of course there have been casualties, many of them. One national sporting goods supplier crushed its Isle of Wight competitors by underpaying its employees, potentially giving it a commercial advantage.

But we can fight back. What can’t you buy in cyberspace? Yes, that’s right – a haircut. A manicure. A decent Americano, supped with a pal as you discuss your indifference to the IW Festival line-up. A meal out. Or advice on whether you need a Whitworth or imperial thread on that replacement nut – hello Hursts.

Or, as the recent Christmas market in St Thomas’ Square demonstrated, the internet can’t give you a place to eat street food, play in foam ‘snow’ and have unscheduled gossipy encounters with your mates. Instead of generating new stuff away from our town centres, let’s actually regenerate existing well-loved public spaces.

The fortunes of our Island’s high streets ebb and flow. If we accept that some retail will be lost to the all-pervasive web, let’s fill our streets with cafes, florists, restaurants, barbers, and independents who aren’t subject to the vagaries of the mainland market. Let’s pepper the streets with services too: a design agency, a biltong factory, town council offices, a print shop.

Visitors come here because it’s different from their home. Let’s not give them clone towns, let’s create a new model and, while we’re at it, SAY NO to out-of-town retail behemoths selling us junk we don’t need. If we want that stuff we’ll get it online. The high street is dead, long live the high street!

This article first appeared in print in the Isle of Wight County Press on 15 December 2017.

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