A requiem for independent retailers

A requiem for independent retailers

by Hugh Andrew
article from Monday 6, February, 2017

IN ALL THE SOUND and fury of Donald Trump, Brexit, referenda and so on in which, what passes for our press, so delight, a small and poignant event will arrive unnoticed. At the beginning of March McAlister Matheson Music is closing. Another shop in a litany of closure. 

What of it one might say? For those who love classical music it is not simply the last independent classical music retailer in Edinburgh, but in Scotland, and one of the very last in the UK. There is much in my CD collection recommended by people who cared which I treasure and would not have discovered otherwise. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s transcendental account of Handel’s Theodora, a glorious recent disk of French song, much else besides to say nothing of the oddities and curios I never knew had been released. Perhaps you might say I should get with the times and the download. But I (and many others) do not want to, and in any case it is not the case that downloads are killing the CD market. In actual fact CD sales appear to be remaining steady. 

What is however killing the High Street is on line retail and Amazon – that most favoured retailer of the Scottish government, fawned over with over £10 million of public money, caressed with rate free Enterprise Zones, publicised by our ex First Minister. How Amazon must have laughed when a Scottish Government Minister was sent scuttling from his office to Dunfermline to confront them with their appalling employment practices – a combination of hypocrisy and self righteousness on the part of the administration which sent even my tough Caledonian stomach churning, particularly as those same employment practices had been open to view even as gold was being stuffed down their capacious transatlantic throat.

There is, however, a deeper message here. There are of course those who argue that this is the natural way of the free market. The strong drives out the weak. But what does this do for choice when an entire country is now being forced to purchase its music at the mercy of the flickering screen and the endlessly predictive algorithm, sterile in its cold logic?  Quite why having recently purchased some out of print baroque music I should be regarded as a suitable market for Nat King Cole I know not. What it reveals, as we all know, is the almost comic inability of a computer to understand the often irrational nature of human choice. 

I make no bones about it. I use Amazon too. It’s a wonderful thing to track down the unavailable or out of print. But that is where it ends. For my purchases of new CDs I want to use a physical retailer. I am now denied that choice. We have to remember it only requires a small shift in business to kill a shop. If 10 per cent of your customers migrate then one's profit is gone and 90 per cent of your customers lose the shop they want. Such is capitalist democracy.

We have seen this time and time and time again. When supermarkets open under specious excuses about choice and range and then decimate a local economy. Where, when one supermarket opens, then the others all plead foul until they are allowed in. When road systems are diverted and changed, planning policy altered all in the belief that the answer to economic growth is a blind acceptance that consumption can and will increase endlessly. Look at Inverness, choked on every major entrance road with giant Tescos, its centre strangled. 

And yet with each small requiem for a closed local shop there is another outlet closed for local suppliers and local business. Without the nexus still of tourist and gift accounts, my publishing business – employing directly or indirectly some 25 people – would not exist. Without their commitment and passion, many of our books would not even be commissioned.  Try and buy a Scottish book in a supermarket. You will look long and you will look hard and you will look in vain. In an industry where so much purchase (at least half) is predicated on the delight of the unknown these independent outlets are crucial. No computer can predict or regulate the quixotic and variable nature of human demand. Yet in the ceaseless cannibalism of Amazon we see true human choice subordinated to the relentless logic of the machine. If its march is not halted then it will crush the very process of creativity itself.

Yet what recognition or support does this network of business on which true difference, variety and choice rest, get from our masters? Nothing. Precisely nothing but to be the mulch for tax much diverted for the benefit of the corporate and the speculator – tens of millions of Tax Increment Financing (lets call it by its real name of ‘sweetener’ or ‘bribe’) for the benefit of the St James Centre redevelopment in Edinburgh with its monstrous golden phallus of a hotel at its heart, a redevelopment in whose retail I can guarantee now not one Scottish shop or outlet will find a home. What too does it say about our country that in one of the greatest strands of our human achievement – that of music – that we cannot even sustain one small shop?

I do not here propose a solution for the crisis of retail – though there is much that would be simple and cost free that a thoughtful administration could do. I merely highlight the scale of the problem and the ignorance of those that regard the destruction of choice with equanimity. That our press and politicians fulminate so endlessly and meaninglessly about things they cannot affect and yet ignore that which they can, speaks eloquently. 

It is left to me to thank Anne McAlister and her team for the many years of pleasure their thoughtfulness and commitment they have given. A little light will go out in Scotland and no one seems to care. 

Hugh Andrew is Managing Director of Birlinn, Scotland's largest independent publisher.

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