Thursday, 2 December 2010

R. C. Matthews: Retail Development becomes Retail Wipeout.

For as long as we can remember, this corner-site on the border of Pitmuxton and Ferryhill had been occupied by an off-license. At the far horizon of our recollection it was an Agnews (at which there was always change), then a series of corporate takeovers and re-brandings: firstly Augustus Barnett, then Victoria Wine, then the shop was re-branded as Victoria Wine's downmarket sub-brand Haddows. Now, having succumbed to the loss-leading unfair competition and the monolithic procurement and promotional power of the large megamarkets, another local specialist outlet is lost. Pitmuxton is thus made that little bit poorer.

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The photos show that a much older signwriter-painted shop sign has been exposed during the shop refit work; "R. C. Matthews." It's fascinating that successive changes to the shop had simply crufted their new signs on top of that pre-existing sign, and it's satisfying (if saddening) to see these layers peeled back one by one in the final unravelling of retail history on this site. The "R. C. Matthews." sign is worthy of comment. It has substance. We can imagine the signwriter's care and art as he created it; his easy skill with brush and mahlstick, his efficiency of line and curve, his pride in a job well done and his worthy position as creator of townscape artifacts - see how the style of signwriting matches (but does not copy) the ceramic tile street-sign immediately above? There was no artifice in this coincidence, no branding strategy or focus-group feedback - it was just the way it was. Thus, the town created itself for the times during the retail period of R. C. Matthews.

Soon, though, the "R. C. Matthews" sign too will be gone, to be replaced by that of a hairdresser or tanning salon, these types of personal services being the predominant business model in this zone of replacement close to the town centre. Specialist retail at a community-based human scale with generations of continuity is replaced by transient services as monopoly power pulls consumer demand towards a handful of hangar-sized car-accessed retail parks only.

This story fits into an extraordinary continuity (or, rather, discontinuity) of retail development and competition. According to my old dad, R. C. Matthews was a licensed grocer which closed shortly after the Holburn Bar moved to it's (then new) purpose-built modernist block - where it remains to this day. Previously the Holburn Bar had occupied the ground floor of the neighbouring tenement block now occupied by a Co-op. Once the bar had moved out, it's former site was immediately occupied by one of the first self-service groceries in Aberdeen - a 1960's supermarket - the protozoic antecedent of today's megamarkets. Of course - with it's slick modernity and promise of convenience, speed, labour-saving efficiency and progress - this usurping business model from the United States soon condemed the old order of counter-service grocery to the past; it's days were numbered. So failed R. C. Matthews and countless other grocers around the country at that time. Now with this - the final end of it's rump; the off-license - having been at last wiped out by the descendants of the first supermarkets, the narrative arc of this story has reached its sad end.

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Thanks are due to local artist Mike Crawford for the splendid photos. We like Mike's photographic style; the grit and grime, the grain and gloom. Too often, we reckon, today's constant PR imperative is to always and firstmost indulge in a form of reality-distorting propaganda: to make bad things look good. In business and politics, entertainment and journalism we see this imperative deployed by reflex. That's why we like Mike's shots - they explicitly and expressly resist this temptation. What's wrong with a little gloom? What's wrong with a little woe? Down with Pangloss! Up with Buchstansangur! It's much more realistic.

In this case, we think that the downbeat atmosphere invoked by these photos helps to show us that, indeed, something is being lost here. Something which we may never see return...

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