Local hardware store Leigh & Sons is closing, which is apart from anything else a minor human tragedy: 150 years of family-owned business has come to an end. Sympathising with the woman who was working on the till on Tuesday, I could sense a current of bile flowing under what she was saying. This wasnâ€™t just her job she was losing: it was a foundation, a prop of her concept of village life. To her, the store was history, not just commerce. In losing it Witney was losing some of its soul, some understanding of itself.
But why is it closing? Well, she pointed to lack of trade, and the Robert Dyas that had opened nearby, both of which would of course contribute to a shopâ€™s decline. But when I said I hoped to come back at the weekend (when I might have transport) to buy a few things in the closing-down sale, I was told that they were shut on Friday and Monday, and I knew from experience that shopping there on Sunday was out of the question.
On three of the four busiest days for DIY in the year, this shop is closed.
Now, Iâ€™ve no idea whether Leigh & Sons is merely observing these holidays because itâ€™s in dire straits. And Iâ€™m sure that for most of its 150 years it observed them for legal reasons. But, given that (as K. pointed out) if a DIY shop has a bad Easter then it has a bad year, then if the business has spent the time from its inception to its fateful sesquicentennial closing at 5pm, just as people are leaving their offices to go to the shops, closing on a Sunday, closing on bank holidays and generally making it far more difficult to shop there than Robert Dyas do, then I know exactly why itâ€™s closing. The family that ran it didnâ€™t want to move their shop into the 21st century, and they got precisely what they wished for.
It reminds me of the village that started a loyalty card scheme for all of its shops. The Radio 4 reporter sent along, to interview a rather horsey-sounding woman, was impressed with the concept, and the tail of the interview went something like this:
Radio 4: So, a truly innovative idea for your village! You can shop in the local bakery, and get points on your card, and then you can spend them in the local butcherâ€™s, so thereâ€™s no incentive to go to the superma-
HORSE: No! No, no, no. Each shop has its own loyalty card.
R4: â€¦ What?
HO: The butcherâ€™s has a butcherâ€™s card, the bakery has a bakery card, the sandwich shop has a sandwich shop card, and the post office is always shut, but if it werenâ€™t then it would have a post office card.
R4: â€¦ So you can only spend the points in the single, individual shop you earned them in?
HO: (as if talking to some sort of idiot) Of course! Thatâ€™s the whole point!
R4: â€¦ Er, back to the studio.
When I heard this, it confirmed all my worst fears about the dominance of the market by the big chains, where one can go to a deliâ€™ counter, a bakery and an off licence and spread out any loyalty points accrued between them all, at hundreds of stores across the country. Yes, I thought, this is why they will win, and this is why, Mrs Hhorsey-Womanne, you and your friends, and my friends and I, will always lose. We are doomed, utterly doomed.