Monday, 27 November 2006

High street blues

A large sign appears in the window of our local art materials store. Stock clearance,” it says, “we’re moving!” It’s not as if it is the only art shop around - there are a lot of artists in the area in which we live - but it still comes as a bit of a shock.

The shop is in the middle of a popular high street not so far from where we live. It is an average-sized shop, but with a surprisingly broad range of products inside. It isn’t, perhaps, the cheapest place in the world to buy things,
 but it’s certainly not the most expensive either. But it was where I would often - not often enough, I now realise - drop in to buy a sketchbook or two and a few pens.

What I dropped in for as much as anything, though, was to chat with Steve
 behind the counter. Without wanting to over-romanticise it, the shop could 
be considered the equivalent to the artistic community of the village 
stores. We would spend some time catching up on news, he’d help out with some query, such as making a telephone call to a pen manufacturer for me 
about the lightfastness of their range, and I’d walk out with a small bag of products that would keep me creative. Buying a new shirt or a pair of jeans is the cause of prolonged agony for me, after which I often leave the shop with something unsuitable. I have never, however, had to return a sketchbook for being either the wrong style or the wrong size (although I did, I think, once return a marker pen for being the wrong colour). If I have to be in a shop, let it be an art shop.

What had changed for Steve was the rocketing overheads and the changing nature of his shop’s customers: the
 growing number of people who order his products online 
couldn’t care less where, geographically, they are being dispatched from, as long as they arrive quickly. Why pay over the odds for a shop that depends less and less upon passing trade, if you can find yourself a barn and office with broadband in the Hebrides or on the Northumberland coast?

Steve’s new place will be off the 
beaten track and free of the high rents, and he is hoping in time that he’ll be able to 
spend more time with his family and get some of his own painting done, instead of just enabling others to do theirs.

I’m certainly no expert in business, but it is a mystery to me how small businesses can keep going on a busy shopping street, especially ones 
with relatively low margins, like art material retailers. Steve has been paying a rent 
of £35,000 a year for his average-sized shop, plus business rates of more than £6,000 (“and that doesn’t even cover refuse collection,” he groans, which is another extra), and a wage bill of £60,000, plus loans that need to be paid
 off... I marvel at how he has survived so long and been so cheerful when I have been in to buy something.

The most rudimentary mathematics suggests these overheads of more than
 £100,000 a year, or £2,000 a week, are hardly dented by my occasional purchase of a sketchbook and marker pen. If Steve gets, say, a £2 margin 
from a £4 sketchbook, it means he would have to sell more than a boggling 
1,000 of them each week just to cover these overheads, let alone pay himself a wage. Don’t even think about how many pencils that would 
translate to.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that such shops are disappearing from the high street. Choice is something we are always having thrusted upon us as being a good thing, whether it is for schools or hospitals. Buying art materials online is here to stay — getting good art materials at a reasonable price is always going to be an important 
consideration for artists — but it will be a sad day if the small, independent art materials retailer becomes a thing of the past.