Friday, 4 December 2009

They were the future once

Popped into the new Jack Wills in Islington today. It occupies an entire large, long and lowish building, formerly (and controversially) an antiques market, and before that a tram shed. On walking through the door and seeing a mannequin in tweed jacket with '70s-style sweatpants, I was immediately transported to a place that should be distant in every way from Islington: the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, of twenty-five years ago.

It was this outfit that was sported by the Rhodesian/South African (aka 'colonial') agricultural students (aka 'aggies') of the time. I guess the sweatpants, or alternatively baggy shorts for the warmer months, were inherited from their informal life on the range and the tweed had seemed a sensible addition to blend in with the locals (mistakenly, as it turned out).

I liked the shop - product and presentation had a lot of panache and a pleasing dash of quirkiness. It reminded me of an unstuffy Ralph Lauren or a funkier Hackett, but for youngsters. The look seemed to turn what I'd previously regarded as mix-and-match idiosyncrasies (such as those tweed jackets and sweatpants) and turn them into a formula (not meant as a criticism - this is retail).

Given the size of the store, Jack Wills must be aiming to sell barns' loads of colonial aggie kit to the youths of grittily urban Islington. I wonder how their self-description as 'University Outfitters' will help them in this? All-in-all I'm puzzled - but this may well be as it's not meant for me. Anyway, I shall watch the shop with interest and try to spot a varsity-inspired look being punted down the Essex Road.

Coincidentally, T went today to pay her respects to the local Borders (and fill her boots with cut-price children's books). I gather it was the busiest and most profitable branch; it certainly used to be buzzing with Islington's, well, Borders-shopping class. The buzz there now is the sound of bargain-hunters swarming over closing-down deals.

As T said, this is a particularly dispiriting sight as it seems only yesterday that, at least for the Friends generation, Borders seemed the future. What with its in-house coffee shops, its easy tolerance of browsing, its multi-media offer, and its relaxed and carefully lit interiors, retail and lifestyle were made one. This, I think, was how we pictured shopping in the twenty-first century. But, instead, it's turned out to be history.

Time seems to be running in all sorts of directions at the moment.


Brit said...

Yes indeed.

Borders came quite late to Bristol (it appeared on the Triangle, Clifton, as the funky replacement for the creaky and now extinct Dingles department store). Can't say I ever really got Borders. If you wanted a book Waterstones and Blackwells were better; if you wanted a CD most places were cheaper. If you wanted a coffee there were better coffee shops all around. Lot of international mags but how many people buy those?

A bit like Woolies in the end - one of those shops that sold things which, when you wanted one, you thought of buying somewhere else first.

Gaw said...

The Islington one seemed to be unusually successful. My wife has huge sentimental attachment to the place as she spent a good part of her maternity leave there. I was always impressed by the mags. But clearly not enough to build a business on.

Sophie King said...

Jack Wills - noooooooo! It makes Boden look like Primark. It's full of highlighted mummies buying their teenagers ridiculously over-priced clothes so they can be tribal in their own public school, floppy-haired way - it's the Sloane Rangers all over again (and I should know). I went into the outlet in Rose Crescent today, having been told it would be a good place to find stuff for my twin neices. I came reeling out about five minutes later, genuinely astonished that somebody might part with almost £90 for a fleece hoodie.

Without doubt, it's aimed firmly at the kind of people who holiday in Rock and Burnham Market. Islington seems an unlikely place for it to succeed but maybe their target market has been priced out of Fulham and Chelsea and migrated to the badlands of north London.

Gaw said...

Yes, Cambridge sounds just right (BTW I used to live in a building backing onto Rose Crescent). But it confirms my doubts about Islington. Even if the mummies had the money I can't see the kids around here wanting to look like that. They'd be picked off too easily! A better North London location would have been Hampstead.

dearieme said...

"What with its in-house coffee shops": which, in our branch, used to blare out popkrap and rockshite so loudly that you couldn't hear the CD you were considering buying.

Gaw said...

But I understand this drowned out the crying of babies very effectively. As I say, Borders had a very specific core market.

malty said...

Cheers Sophie, the George St cave belonging to JW is an overpriced hell on earth, full of Edinburgh uni students whose parents are cash cows on free vend, £230 for crap jackets. George St famous for its surfeit of barristers who unsurprisingly do not shop in Wills.

Anonymous said...

Portland, Oregon. Borders is our #2 hold-everything, but its suffering badly -- who can afford $4 for a cup of coffee anymore? (Like their usual customer will take it black. Pfft!) There are quite a few recent books they aren't carrying, I've noticed; it must have been a corporate decision to push old stock. In the NW, unlike most of the country, we don't just settle when it comes to our books! They've even resorted to draconian measures, rousting customers who sit on the few wooden slabs left to page through a prospective purchase. The knowledgable clerks were fired, and know-nothings hired on for base wage. Good business plan in a city that actually reads, yeah?

Powells will survive -- they still make interviewees prove they know the store and stock at the first interview, and if you don't have a couple of specialties you can make recs in off the top of your head -- well, there's another over-educated, over-pierced, unemployed smartass crowding up behind you. So Portlanders wander over there -- bonus, Powell's stocks used right alongside the new.

But any bookstore that closes its doors -- no matter that they overprice a bit, or try to push off magnets or rocks with lasered bits of brilliance -- is a heavy loss. It's one more place that you won't be able go to reach out for knowledge.

And not to be overly cynical and suspicious, but isn't that very much a bump for any government that would prefer we didn't ask all those annoying questions?


Gaw said...

Malty: Remarkable. But I wish we had an articulate eighteen year old to explain it from a youngster's perspective. Any out there? (I somehow doubt it).

Oreganbird: The UK business was sold by the US business earlier this year. Our local store too didn't have very good stock in recent months, and this was because they couldn't get credit. It tends to set off a death spiral.

I do regret its passing as it was a place full of knowledge, as you say. And although some are saying it will make space for new independent bookshops, I think this is as likely as new independent blacksmiths popping up.

worm said...

I concur 100% with Sophie. Jack Wills is horrendous sloane-tat for spoilt fools. Unfortunately I went to school with quite a lot of them.