Primrose Hill: a Study of a High Street

Engels's House, Regent's Park Road

Primrose Hill: a Study of a High Street

The High Street is changing across the UK – perhaps across the world, and who is changing it? Governments? Local politicians? No, we are. Our own shopping habits are shaping our HIgh Streets, and retailers need to adapt to our demands or watch us take our money elsewhere.

Haven’t we all heard it? That there are too many coffee shops and estate agents taking over our high streets, while independently-owned shops are dying out. That our formerly individual High Streets are becoming uniform and bland. That family businesses can no longer make a secure living in the face of encroaching chain stores.

Tensions rose in Primrose HIll in November 2012 when an empty unit was leased by SpaceNK. Good quality make-up and toiletries and a tasteful facade, fitting in perfectly with the parade of shops; what could be more acceptable in Primrose Hill? Well, plenty, it turns out. A petition was started against ‘chain stores’ setting up in Primrose Hill, and the issue hit the local and even national press. A high-profile neighbourhood, considered aspirational and privileged, turning in on itself, arguing over the arrival of a high-end boutique, caused quite a spectacle.

But ‘no chain stores in Primrose Hill’? Whoever thought that up obviously hadn’t noticed William Hill. And Nicolas. Shepherds. Press. Anna. Melrose and Morgan. The Primrose Bakery. Negozio Classica. Many of our best-loved and most defining shops and restaurants are parts of chains, so to petition against chains is a bit late – and unwelcome to those who cherish those shops. And judging by the crowded launch party and hectic first day of trading, both of which I attended, as well as steady trade since, shows that Space NK has been welcomed by residents and visitors alike. Petitions can have their uses, but to campaign against individual businesses leaves me uneasy; at what point do campaigners feel that they can campaign, say, against individual s buying or renting houses? If it’s fair game to campaign against an individual shop, at what point does society tip over into campaigning against individuals? And why shouldn’t shop-owners expect to be able to rent units out at market rate, just as residential landlords do, rather than only to those shopkeepers who pass muster according to non-representative fellow shop-keepers. And if a good-quality, attractive-looking shop like SpaceNK is considered dubious, aren’t we setting the bar neither too high nor too low but in a rather strange place altogether?

Maybe the most meaningful changes have already taken place. Our grannies, certainly, wouldn’t recognize our current shopping habits. We shop online for groceries, clothes, electronics, and we have cars to load up with shopping when we go to the supermarkets. Is that a bad thing? Would our grannies disapprove? Of course not! Who would really prefer to walk every day to individual shops to buy fresh food, and carry it home in a bag or a trolly? Once upon a time, we had no choice but to visit the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – and by candlestick maker I don’t mean Jo Malone! We needed candles to light our homes. Now we have electric lightbulbs, so of course the candlestick maker became obsolete. That’s market forces, and these same forces are shaping our High Streets still.

What can’t we buy online? A flat white. A warm croissant. Human interaction. People-watching. Dog-watching, for that matter. Now that we have entered the era of online shopping for all of our necessities, we have also entered the era of the coffee shop, which is alive and well in Primrose Hill, and a very good thing it is too. The retired, those who work at home, parents, dog-walkers; all these folk are to be observed in their natural habitat, cheek by jowl in the coffee shops of Primrose Hill. And when you consider what our little urban village has to offer – a beautiful park with London’s most uplifting view, and a charming shopping hub with a range of gorgeous shops and cafes; what could be more enjoyable that a stroll up the hill followed by a browse in the shops, followed by lunch or a coffee, watching the world go by at the same time? And why shouldn’t shops, cafes restaurants and pubs cater for that particular demand and profit from it? Happy customers, happy restaurateurs and retailers: absolutely nothing wrong with that!

Perhaps the function of our village is no longer to provide locals with our basic provisions, which we can buy online or at supermarkets. If market forces decree that Primrose Hill should now be a hub for food and drink, a magnet for civilized social interaction where good quality, interesting boutiques can thrive, I for one am delighted, and wish all of our traders the greatest of success.