These days we are becoming used to seeing high street stores closing. The big chain stores announce closures, and it comes as little surprise to us. When Woolworths failed in 2009 people were shocked, but now, when John Lewis and Debenhams say they are closing branches, we just sigh in desperation. “The bigger they come, the harder they fall” comes to mind. Of course for the hundreds of shop workers and suppliers affected the news comes as a sickening blow.
However, for me it is the closure of smaller independent stores that really hurts. These are not the ‘fat cats’, run by shareholders and accountants, that run big seasonal advertising campaigns, trying to convince us that we cannot live without them. No, these are the modest shops that have been on high street locations for decades, doing their best to survive, and undertaking all this with smiles on their faces, and always eager to give great service.
Such a shop is Smartex in Ruislip, in the leafy suburbs of North West London. They have been trading at 60, High Street since 1979. Today on one of my rare visits to Ruislip, I found out that they are closing down.
The big posters in the window declared something I had long feared, but it is not down to the usual circumstances – unwillingness to carry on under trying times, bankruptcy, death of the owner, etc. No, it is down to the suppliers not wishing to carry on supplying to small stores. This is crushingly sad. The two chaps working in the store, both of senior years, were quite adamant that they would be happy to keep serving, but the hard fact is that if they cannot get stock, they cannot trade.
As I wandered around the shop I found myself becoming more and more saddened. I am now fifty-one, and I guess I am showing my age. When I was a kid in the 1970s, going around town centres with my late Father, shops like Smartex were very common. You were attended to by welcoming assistants whose only desire was to ensure you got what you needed, and sometimes a bit more!. ‘Mens’ Outfitters’, as they were known, were places of wonder, and mystery. Every space was filled with every conceivable item of clothing or accessory. Glass-fronted cabinets, walls of pegboard, rows of chromium-plated rails, posters from companies like ‘Double-Two’, Peter England, Jockey Y-Fronts, Tootal….. and so on. This shop represents the dying gasps of such enterprises.
What replaces them? Well after decades of self-service stores, and high-end boutiques, we are now in the world of supermarket clothing and online shopping. Gone is the personal touch, so to the element of choice. “Would Sir like a T-shirt with a juvenile design on it to impress your peers at the public house?, we have it in three basic sizes Is it distressed? Well of course Sir, it looks just like you might find on a council tip”.
All the images in this article were taken by myself today, at Smartex. each one illustrates a world that is soon to go. A palace of accessible menswear, served by assistants who do not give you a strange look, who actually serve you , rather than hide away or give off-hand comments. It is the kind of place where, if you wished to speak to the manager, he would appear from behind a curtain at the far end of the shop and give you his full, undivided attention.
It’s the kind of shop where if you said, “I don’t suppose……”, that you would be given a solution. In short, it is the kind of shop that people will say “Isn’t it a shame shops aren’t like they used to be?”. Yes, it is a bit untidy, yes, it has not moved with the times, but for a legion of men of a certain age Smartex, and shops like them are bastions of a world that is disappearing as fast as grains of sand in a egg timer. I spent forty minutes in the shop and in that time several voices were heard saying the same things, all recognising the sad loss that the shop’s departure will bring to Ruislip High Street. So, a group of jeering youngsters may say, “It’s an old mans’ shop!”, well, there are a lot of old men in Ruislip, and they all have money to spend.
Of course this isn’t the first time I have written about a long established shop in the London suburbs closing, I wrote about Randall’s of Uxbridge closing in 2015, and another in that same town, being Boville Wright’s, which closed this year. Goodbye Boville Wrights Randalls RIP
Our high streets are changing forever, and for those of us who recall when shopping malls were a new thing, and when there was no such thing as an empty shop, these are difficult times to live in. I guess we have to accept that money is king and that the future is not ours. We must accept that clothes will one day be only purchased online and delivered by people in knackered old Transit vans. Mind you, whilst there are shops like Smartex still around , I will still go in them.
Oh…and I bet you are wondering “Did he buy anything?”. Well , as a matter of fact I did. I bought myself a rather nice Tootal ‘Harrington’ jacket with a blue Paisley lining.