I’m not one to romanticise the late and popularly lamented Oxford branch of Gill’s. I’ve turned up at its door towards the end of a Saturday shopping in Oxford enough times—I think three—only to find it closed early. I have enough flaky people in my social life, without having to deal with customer-facing shops that open at hours sufficiently offbeat that they surprise yet sufficiently ordinary that you then forget.
Besides, most consumers are notoriously fickle: finding a shop closed more than once will drive them to the competition, even if it’s of an awful kind. Enter the reliably open but otherwise awful Robert Dyas which, if it weren’t a mere node in the stultified hive mind of a national chain, might have expressed gratitude at their city-centre competition sending all late shoppers their way, where “late shopper” was three hours’ worth of custom (it might have been reduced to 1.5 hours towards the end, but still.)
Nor am I one to look fondly on the haberdashery which resided until recently upstairs on New Inn Hall Street. I can’t remember their name, but I do remember the miserable customer experience of trying to buy elbow patches there. They looked at me like a Tory MP, or Trinny and Susannah, might look at a 1980s university lecturer already sporting said patches. An overly helpful fellow greenie appeared by my tatty elbow and tried to tell me I could make elbow patches from some leftover humanely slaughtered leather or something, but that surely wasn’t the point. I wanted an easy way into the craft of fixing my own clothes using stuff that by rights I should’ve been able to purchase from a haberdasher’s. Here was I, requesting that they sell me something. If they stocked it, I would give them actual money, not to mention gratitude and customer loyalty.
But they weren’t going to sell me any such thing, still less entertain the notion of stocking them or ordering them in when a customer requested them. The customer is always right while he’s still on message; otherwise, well, he’s only one customer, isn’t he? Well, far be it from me to question a focus on selling raw material for new dresses or cushions, or fiddly beads for arts and crafts and other hobbiyist endeavours. But I’ve noticed that the high street’s gamut of shops, starting off at Claire’s and Primark, and passing through Monsoon, Jigsaw and even beyond; that international conspiracy of people who sell finished clothing; they unfortunately contrived and conspired to ensure that new dresses, chichi bags with beads on them and all the rest remained steadfastly easier to buy than to make. Yet I still, every year or so, find a jumper that would benefit from elbow patches.
No, what I personally miss in the city centre is Palm’s, the delicatessen that was close to the heart of the the Covered Market. It was a lovely little shop: bright, spacious and cheery; with nice cheeses, olives and chutneys, and chocolate this and candied that. Breads, biscuits, sauces, lebkuchen, jam, spices. No longer living in Oxford, I could only go there rarely; but it became the place I fled to when I needed something for my foodier relatives around Christmas, or just some nice food to cheer myself up.
It looked like it was doing just fine, and I assumed was going to be there for years to come, a nice counterweight to the several branches of Taylors (a counterweight which the new one near Little Clarendon Street is finding it difficult to embody: their staff are friendly and their produce fine, but little of it was tinned or jarred last time I asked, which makes it nice for a lunchtime snack but harder to present to someone on a special occasion in the hope that it will last months.) But now it’s gone.
Maybe there’s a lesson here about using or losing the local shops you love; but as it wasn’t really a handy everyday haunt so much as my seasonal ace in the hole then I don’t feel I can learn much from it if so. Rather the lesson seems to be one of arbitrariness, that the UK’s still-unfettered economy continues to be one big poisonous game of unsympathetic chance, with no guiding hand and no accounting for preference, for love or loss.
Much as when we used to pop by Hunter & Todd out on the A48, on our sort-of annual car-based pilgrimage to K’s family in December; yet last time we found that they had shut up what turned out to be an unprofitable but lovely food shop; only then did we realise that we structured our enjoyment of the journey around their presence: a signal that as of this geographical location it was definitely Christmas… so is the passing of Palm’s is a small, sad surprise that has changed the way I feel about the space around it.
Now in my mind the Covered Market consists of a wasteland of eyewateringly expensive scarf, jewellery and sandwich shops, spattered with blood-stinking butchers and inhabited only by that tiny Italian deli that you can just about turn your gut around in; meanwhile, Cardew’s, Brown’s Cafe and Ben’s Cookies act like the palatable east and west coasts of this sprawling, meat-obsessed cultural desert. I finally realise that this must be how the few devoted customers of Gill’s and that haberdashery must have felt. while I’ve been waiting for years for capitalism to fall, you’d think that when it finally began to do so then it might be a bit more fun.