Mainly covering the 110 year period from 1870 to 1979, this book discusses the changing face of the British High Street through history. This book was written to accompany a BBC TV series (which I did not see) that used the market town of Shepton Mallet in Dorset as its setting. For that series, several shops were temporarily adapted for use as period-style shops. Although many pictures in the book are from the filming that took place in Shepton Mallet, and although some quotes from the participants are used, the book does not give any great detail about the experience.
The book begins with three paragraphs that discuss the making of the TV series. It seems that four shops were involved over a six-week period. Each week was set in a particular period in history, and each shop had to operate according to the rules for the period concerned. At least, that`s my interpretation of what is written, combined with the quotes I see elsewhere in the book. Thus, when the baker was in the Victorian period week, he had to make the bread exactly as it was done in Victorian times. However, the bulk of the book's text could have been written without any reference to the TV series.
It would have been nice to know more about the reaction of customers and whether the retailers who took part changed anything in their normal business as a consequence, but we are not told this. As such, I could well understand people down-rating this book, but I am very pleased with the book for what it is.
The six periods that the book mainly focuses on are the later Victorian era (from 1870), the Edwardian era (up to the end of the First World War; Edward VII actually died in 1910, but I`ll let that slide), the inter-war years, the Second World War, the post-war years (up to 1969) and the seventies. There are also chapters covering the periods before 1870 and since 1979, plus a chapter on how to research the High Street story for any British town. While there are plenty of hard facts about the changing face of British shops and the way they operate, these are necessarily set in a social history context (because they would make no sense otherwise), but the social history dimension inevitably involves a lot of opinion, not all of which I agree with. I'll put up with that for the insights the book gives into the history of shopping.
It comes as no surprise that the biggest changes have been driven, directly or indirectly, by technology. Transportation developments played a part, as did changes in building technology, but there were also changes in packaging (the invention of cellophane in particular) and, later, the ability to freeze food. Politics, war and general household incomes all played their part in helping to change the nature of Britain's High Streets. Foreign influences are covered too - both Woolworth's and self-service began in America but later crossed the Atlantic, while many countries have helped to broaden the range of food now available in Britain. The book mentions the influence of South Asian and Chinese immigrants, but while their influences on cuisine has been particularly strong, there are many other countries who have contributed.
So this book traces the development of the High Street from a time when retailers had to have either culinary skills or craft skills to an era in which everything is automated. It also takes us from an era when things were delivered to a customer's door to an era where that had all but disappeared, though the rise of online shopping is seeing a reversal of that decline. The author laments the loss of Woolworth's, but does not mention that the ghost of Woolworth's is still with us in the form of Foot Locker, which the old American Woolworth business set up in the eighties. I can't blame him for that omission; I found Woolworth's useful occasionally but I have never bought anything in Foot Locker.
Just now the future of the British High Street doesn't look good. At some point, the world's economies will improve again, but will that help? Or will the internet win all the extra business? Nobody can safely predict future shopping trends, but meanwhile this book provides a fascinating account of the changing history of Britain's High Streets.