For the uninitiated, the ’Guy-Street’ is the part of the High Street that generally appeals to male shoppers - stereotypical for sure but it mostly holds up. Around 10-20 years ago there were a myriad of shops for the average bloke to browse through while the more retail-oriented part of the family properly hit the shops. I like to use Oxford Street as a benchmark as it is relevant to this particular article. Over the years it has been home to at least 4 record stores at the same time (2 x HMV and 2 x Virgin; actually 3 x HMV at one stage including Selfridges basement), 4 book stores, a Woolworths, and variety of gadget, tool and electronics stores.
If you had to accompany someone into town you basically had a variety of destinations to decamp to while the others did their shopping. My favourite used to be the HMV Megastore at 150 Oxford Street which was my main in-town haven until Hilco took over HMV and shut that one down in early 2013. HMV used to have a second store on Oxford Street at number 360 (now a Forever 21) which maintained trade until HMV re-opened back in its very original 1921 location at 363 Oxford Street - near enough on the opposite side of the street to 360.
Compared to ’360’ the new 363 store was a significant smaller down-grade - compared to the 150 Megastore it was a shocking disorganised shoebox - and I described some of its issues at the time of its opening in my ’Hilco downgrades HMV Flagship Store’ article. Of course right now this is the only remaining proper music / video / gaming store on Oxford Street, in fact in central London. There were notices at the start of the year that HMV was experiencing some financial difficulties - the gravity of the situation only came to light for me yesterday when I noted that none of the new releases - neither musical or DVD / Blu-ray were available on-display at sister store Fopp in Convent Garden. I hot-footed it to 363 to be met with the same scenario at the main HMV. In fact I noticed the place had been literally and liberally stacked with sales signage - albeit pricing was still not at a sufficiently appealing rate to appeal to any more than a few straggling opportunists.
It really does look like it’s coming to the end of an era, and that there will be no ’proper’ large-scale music store left in central London. I of course realise that with increased reliance on streaming services like Netflix - Blu-Ray and DVD’s days are probably numbered - I still need my 3D Blu-rays tough! Vinyl resurgence seemed to hit a peak last year, but generally by now digital music / streaming is so far and away the majority medium that possibly the economics aren’t right for an old-fashioned media store. And only Nintendo devices still use hardware cartridges - even for 90% of gaming there is little need for a physical store any more.
I still think the 363 store could have been so much better run - I had so many issues with it, not least the constant re-arranging of shelving and display racks so you never knew where to find things from week-to-week. I never liked the ’Pure’ loyalty scheme - it was engineered to make it as difficult as possible to use your points - and of course the ’HMV Pure’ site has been out of action since the start of the year - so probably £20-30 of credits lost there. HMV was understandably having to deal with changing retail conditions but it put too much emphasis on T-shirts and merchandising really over and above its core products. I also think that it never competed properly on price for console games - it’s ’2 blu-rays for £25’ was pretty much on par with Amazon, but in most ways HMV was still more expensive (I note Amazon prices are currently up!). Another thing that really annoyed me in store is that they stopped displaying ’New Releases’ per say and rather displayed ’Recent Releases’ - mixing in slightly older product that probably had not sold as well as expected - this in combination with the constant re-organising of the store made it increasingly hard to find things, and even the staff were frequently at a loss as to where to find the 3 items of the type you were looking for - which the computer said were definitely available at the store somewhere!
When it came to HMV’s website it did not have nearly the range offered by Amazon, and moreover you could not spend your ’Pure’ point on website purchases - they could only be spent in store! I generally found the website experience clunky and wholly inadequate - as a result I don’t believe I bought anything from the website - oh apart from a single experiment that took way too long to arrive and where the despatch wasn’t communicated properly.
I am actually much more sad to see the Covent Garden Fopp store go - at the top of the 7-dials district and right on Shaftesbury Avenue. Saturdays won’t be the same again as Fopp was on my route as I traversed the Golden Triangle of Central London’s comic book stores - Forbidden Planet, Orbital and Gosh!
Oxford Street really holds little wonder any more - I do still really like Selfridges, but it’s kind of dangerous for me to enter, and can frequently leave a significant dent in your wallet. I really miss those browsing style places where you could happily spend an afternoon thumbing through shelves and display-racks without ever actually needing to buy anything - it was a tactile and sensory environment to discover and experience new things - witness and unveil things you didn’t know existed or had long forgotten about. Paging through screens online is noway near the same experience - you don’t typically find things by happy coincidence - stuff that’s been mis-filed or fortuitously put in the wrong place - some rare item that the shop owner thought long since stolen or perished.
I feel slightly sad for the newer generations that will have to forego the experience of walking into a big HMV, Tower Records or Virgin Megastore - those grand temples of music retail had some magic about them that is even now fading into the mists of time.
Coffee Shops and Mobile Phone Stores are not adequate replacements for Woolworths, HMV and Waterstones - in fact I really miss the grand Borders store we used to have on Oxford Street - the first coffee-shop within a book store in Central London as far as I am aware. I guess we still have Foyles on Charing Cross Road, and Waterstones on Piccadilly, so I mustn’t grumble really - I will do everything in my power to keep those going.
As for Oxford Street this is now something of a soulless place for me really - it used to be peppered and punctuated by Music and Book Stores, and now it really looks like it will have none. I guess the younger generations can’t really miss what they never had, but part of me does pine for some of those older experiences - certainly not at the cost of streaming - I of course love the modern media, I just miss the tactile and sensory pleasures of old. I think that is a significant reason why current youth buy vinyl - the smell, feel and design of sleeve and liner-notes are an art form all of their own. Some modern reproductions have done wonders in re-packaging older material - but generally we live in more compact housing and have less storage space than before - and vinyl comes with a weighty overhead. My first record ever purchased was the Tears for Fears ’Pale Shelter’ 7" back in 1983, and my last was actually a couple of limited edition Skott 7" singles in 2016 ’Porcelain/Wolf’ and ’Amelia/Lack of Emotion’. Over those 33 years I amassed thousands of mostly 12" DJ Singles which are still in situ at the family’s Barnstaple town house, and I’ve no idea really what to do with them! Ideally I could donate them all to some sort of electronic / house music museum / library! - as long as they are willing to collect.
I guess this article is for us older folks who have lived through all this evolution - these are the remains of our youth which are being plucked from our lives one-by-one ...