“The place-makers no one ever talks about”: an ode to the corner shop

A corner shop in Hornchurch, east London. Image: Getty.

When I think of all the different places I’ve lived, the first things I remember are my local newsagents. When I was younger and living with a somewhat chaotic life at home, I spent as much time out of the house as possible, usually hanging around outside a local row of shops with my friends under the watchful eyes of the shopkeepers at the paper shop and the convenience shop next door.

This paper shop gave me my first taste of independence when they gave me a paper round: my own money for sweets and Smash Hits which I’d spend before Saturday even came around. After a bad day at school I’d stop into the same shop and console myself with a big bag of crisps and a can of coke before facing going home.

When I was a bit older and unemployed, the only contact I had with the outside world for days on end was the newsagents over the road, where i bought packets of pasta for lunch or a snack to break up the day. These types of shops have provided me with samosas on my way home from work late at night, and Lucozade and chocolate bars that provided a respite from essay writing at uni, not to mention electricity and gas on my token to keep me warm in winter.     

There are tens of thousands of newsagents and similar small shops up and down the UK, all with similar, familiar characteristics, but all of them unique in their own way. They are a welcome break from the monotony of small supermarkets where you’ll find pretty much the same offerings no matter which city you’re in and which remain unchanged with the passage of time.

Newsagents and similar smaller shops are different. You go in never knowing which new flavour of drinks or crisps you might find in there. And they’re better able to respond directly to the needs of the local community making them completely of the place they are based. I’ve just got back from the Scottish island of Islay where their newsagent at first looked like any other on the mainland – until, that is, I saw the range of fishing hooks nestled alongside their unusually large selection of fancy soft drinks. 


Their customers tend to be diverse too. There aren’t enough places left in our cities that can be and are used by a wide range of people, but newsagents are one of those places. The shop across the road from the Civic Centre in Southampton has residents buying their daily newspapers, local government officers and councillors grabbing a sandwich or coffee before a meeting, and visitors to the city often asking for directions to the train station. My boss once told me a story about how he ended up behind Harold Wilson in a queue to buy a newspaper on the Isles of Scilly. 

Why have I been motivated to write this niche ode to newsagents? Because newsagents are the place- makers that no one ever really talks about when they talk about placemaking. They are part of what makes our urban spaces liveable, part of the delicate balance of how we use cities day in day out. But they are unfortunately dying out – and many that remain are struggling to survive. 

Part of the problem is the decline in print media, which will of course be having an effect on shops that were originally set up to provide people with their daily news. But the problem also lies in how we are regenerating, rebuilding and planning our cities today. Regeneration happens through bigger scale developments that are carefully planned out with chains in mind. Lip service is paid to the idea of “mixed use”, as every development provides retail units under blocks of flats and near housing – but these units are on a scale only suited to bigger businesses. We are getting rid of the types of low rent spaces that newsagents pop up in. 

I’m not someone who thinks chains have no place at all in our towns and cities. They often provide food, either to cook at home or to eat in a restaurant, at a price that makes eating well a lot cheaper. But they aren’t going to let you off with 20p if you’ve not got enough for milk that day. Mix is important. We need these small spaces that encourage conversation, where someone would notice if you stopped coming in for a while. Places where the person running the shop lives nearby and understands the nuances of a community. These are the places that are being planned out of our cities and towns – and that’s not good for healthy urban living.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Beyond the wall, with John Lanchester

A sea wall in Japan. Image: Getty.

This week it’s another live episode, of sorts. In early April I was lucky enough to chair an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

John was mostly there to promote his latest novel, The Wall, a “cli-fi” book about a Britain trundling on after catastrophic climate change has wiped out much of the planet. In the past he’s also written about other vaguely CityMetric-y topics like the housing crisis and the tube - so he’s a guest I’ve been hoping to get on for a while, and was kind enough to allow us to record our chat for posterity and podcasting purposes.

Incidentally, I didn’t find a way of turning the conversation to the tube. We do lose ten minutes to talking about Game of Thrones, though.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.