A persistently empty shop is an ugly gaping scar. A sign of a life once lived, a missing tooth, a bricks and mortar cadaver. Behind a once gleaming door and window lies the detritus, the pile of unthinkingly delivered leaflets, empty shelves and scattered items of furniture.
Retail bereavement is a growing phenomenon – especially in areas of economic decline. The effect? Dispiriting. In a growing number of areas up and down the country – small towns, peripheral (even central) shopping centres there lies the perception that wealth and choice have seeped away. It ebbs local confidence and well being. One empty shop will very often be followed by another. But something else happens. Empty doorways become safe havens for those with no interest in aesthetics – like a theatrical backdrop for a murder drama it attracts the wrong clientèle.
Isn’t it time we used a bit of imagination and either find a purpose or use art and colour to make good these empty spaces?
In one suburb of Seattle (a city where neighbourhoods are empowered to make big decisions and draw down budgets) a row of empty shops were not just an eyesore, but a daily reminder of decline. Locals had a brainwave. Why not paint the shops we would like to see? They did just that (echoing the Ghandi philosophy). The result was amazing. Cars stopped – only to discover that these were elaborately painted façades. But, what followed speaks of real possibility. Entrepreneurs now saw opportunity and one by one the shops were filled – proof of how visual stimulus can ignite the imagination.
In Edinburgh, the Scottish Design Exchange occupies a difficult to fill two floor retail space in Ocean Terminal. Artists, designers and craftspeople pay a small rent for display space. They give full vent to their creative talents, while staff are employed to sell their wares. All sales proceeds go back to the creatives. It is a thriving social business and a real success story – adding value to Royal Britannia visitors and drawing in to the centre its own unique customer base. Now plans to open in Glasgow and perhaps, Dundee.
One spin-off from the Scottish Design Exchange is that the artists when they find their feet are renting small shops in their own right or as part of a collective. Galleries, local museums, local history exhibitions don’t just provide something to see, experience and buy they also provide nourishment, learning, inspiration and spaces to meet. Opening up possibilities for not-for-profit enterprises is a sure fire winner.
Pop-up restaurants and shops are a growing phenomenon – but they tend to be in areas with immediate commercial potential. In less salubrious areas, more and more empty shops are being used as community hubs. Reclaiming shops for community use? A fantastic idea.
But, as I travel around the UK, I still see too many reminders of an economy going wrong.
For those shops that are persistent voids. we really do need to use community imagination and make them either open for purpose, or their façades turned into an alluring vision.