So, not a great week for what’s now become known as “bricks and mortar” retail in the UK. That venerable old-stager of the British high street HMV and that uncouth upstart that turns out to be more missed than it was ever loved, Blockbuster, both went into administration in a week when music was still being bought and discussed in international news headlines (David Bowie) and films were none more of-the-moment (a refreshed Golden Globes ceremony, Oscar nominations fever).
In the case of HMV, other commentators went knee-jerk on the loss of heritage, waxing lyrical on the days they spent as teenagers poring over the racks of vinyl on Oxford Street and I’d add my voice to the chorus that bemoaned the loss of Tower Records on Piccadilly Circus, too – and the fact that the old Minis were nicer than the new ones and why not add “don’t get rid of red telephone boxes”?
What will you miss in a post-HMV world? It sounds like the answer should be a snide “nothing”, but that’s not true. Personally, I’ll also miss the tactility of flipping through CDs, arranged in genre, in alphabetical order, I’ll miss the cover art, I’ll miss the roof above my head under which to flip at all. Because while the cover for Emeli Sandé’s chart-topping album last year wasn’t worthy of a triple-vinyl gatefold affair, the best way to decide if you want to buy it, after having heard the singles on the radio, is to hold it in your hand and feel its weight.
Something strange happens to physical things that you can’t buy in physical places. You start to wonder what’s real at all. As a culture editor with 200gb of music collected since I was a teenager fan and now as a journalist, I’m considered prelapsarian for preferring CDs to digital downloads, in certain quarters I’d be considered the Ned Ludd of the hardware-free generation, for being a “cloud” refusenik. But how do I choose what I’d like to buy and when I get it home what I’d like to listen to without being able to see the spines of the CDs up on shelves in my sitting room? Scrolling through a wheel just seems… medieval, ironically.
And what about Blockbuster? That didn’t live up to its name (or maybe it did). Now there was a process: renting a building in an expensive postcode where people, sometimes four at a time, would come and browse through the boxes that videos come in, to choose their evening’s entertainment. And then the masterstroke – being able to drop the film off out of hours using a “letterbox”. There was a clip of a lady doing just this on the news yesterday, returning Bridget Jones’s Diary 57 or something, through the Blockbuster letterbox, and it just seemed as archaic an act as a pagan ritual or a religious sacrament or a man walking in front of a motor car with a red flag.
If you’ve been reading our magazine for the last few years, you’ll know what we like. Tsutaya in Tokyo is the finest chain in the world for selling CDs and vinyl and books galore. Japan’s a different market, sure; one that makes retail itself a sacrament. And just as Waterstones, British bookselling’s depleted powerhouse, recruited James Daunt, of his eponymous, high-quality London chain, perhaps the British high street should look east beyond Rough Trade’s Brick Lane outpost, to see how Daikanyama stacks them low and sells them dear.
Robert Bound is culture editor for Monocle.