I have just been alerted (thanks to @LeighVBird) to a book recently published by the modernist on the topic of Small Shops. It consists of 45 black and white photographs of small shops from North Manchester, taken in the early 1980s – and a self photograph of the photographer Brian Lomas from the same period.
There are no words of description or commentary on the photographs. Each one is simply captioned with the line of business, the broad location and the year. Most, though not all, are of the exterior of the shops.
It is a lovely little book, redolent of a different time. Yet, this is an era I can recognise and stores that seem familiar in form, if not detail. It is hard (for me at least) to think of these being almost 40 years ago, yet of the 1980s.
No doubt readers, in looking at the photographs will make their own thoughts about the shops, society and economy and what we have lost and/or gained since then. At this point in time, the out of town superstore era was about to mushroom, the Thatcher government was massively relaxing planning restrictions and big retail was booming (the start of the era of “Cathedrals of Consumption”). These photos are the last rites on a dying format.
Yet, they hold fascination, meaning and hope for me.
Many of the shops show their history. Located in populated streets, often on the corner of intersections of houses (see also for example the Welsh Dairies in London and many of the Sanders Bros sites discussed before) and with detailed design and tiling, these stores are of the place and community and of the time. They wear their history, of the location or of the shop and shout their embeddedness in their community. Their personality and individuality shine out from their design and idiosyncrasies. Yet, these photographs were capturing the stores at the end of their lives; indeed many of these buildings may have now gone. The decline is obvious in the detail and the radical change to large format mass retailing soon swept them away.
Perhaps though we are now in a different cycle and place. Community and local independent businesses are increasingly recognised and valued. We desire again that store personality and individuality. Creativity, craft and local traceability are more significant again. And we thankfully seem to be valuing better design, a sense of place and protecting some of the legacies of the past (see Ships in the Sky in this regard). Retailing and places need to be interesting and engaging. This book reminds us of the power of personality.
To coincide with the book, the modernist is hosting an exhibition of 24 of the photographs in its gallery at 58 Port Street, Manchester, until 1st September. Details and how to order the book can be found at the modernist.
Brian Lomas (2021) Small Shops. Gomer Press. ISBN 9780109264718-0-1.