Charting demise of the smaller traders

Geerings, draper of North Street, Chichester.

Geerings, draper of North Street, Chichester.

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PAUL Foster’s years in Chichester - from the early 1970s to the present day - have coincided with dramatic changes in our shopping habits, brought about by dramatic changes in the shops we have on offer.

The changes have been nationwide, but it is on Chichester that Paul, an emeritus professor at the University of Chichester, focuses in a new book celebrating Chichester’s historic independent businesses.

The book, A Baker’s Dozen: Chichester’s Lost Retailers, tells the story of their disappearance.

“It was the arrival of the supermarkets,” Paul explains, “and with the arrival of the supermarkets, landlords thought there was an opportunity to put up the rents, with the supermarkets’ national and international resources.

“You have got the example of a greengrocer in North Street in Chichester in the early 80s. It used to pay rents of £6,000 or £7,000 a year. The landlord put it up to more than £20,000.”

The rent was tripled overnight - and another independent retailer bit the dust.

Since then, supermarkets have emerged as powerful single-venue operators, offering everything you could need from the one premises - again a threat to the raft of smaller operators.

Inevitably, a very different street scene emerges: “You have now got nearly 50 places where you can get coffee within the city walls, and I haven’t counted the number of clothes shops - all the national chains.

“What we have lost is the distinctive quality provided by the independent retailers.”

Paul says the book wasn’t written for a political purpose, but a political message certainly emerges.

“I think there is a need to renew something of the distinctiveness we had in the community. One of the interesting things was that so many of these independent retailers were our civic leaders from 1920-1980. The independent retail community provided leaders for a lot of local societies as well as civic officers. The Purchases are a good example. There was a certain coherence to it all.

“I think it is now important that the council, landlords and independent people with flair and creativity attempt to return something of the distinctive nature to our city.”

Paul cites the David Paul Gallery - now D’Artagnan - which brought so much international art to Chichester, with exhibitions of works by the likes of Elisabeth Frink and Eric Gill.

He also laments still the passing of Prior’s greengrocers, victims of the 80s rent hike.

Their place in history was that they were one of the first firms to use “shelf barkers”, display labels which effectively shout the price at you.

Like so many others, they were part of a rich retail fabric which has now disappeared.

n The book, which Paul has co-edited with Sheila Hale and a number of other contributors, is available through the University of Chichester by emailing omps@chi.ac.uk.