Best books on shops: Author Patricia Nicol recommends tomes about retail

An actress friend has been working as a Tesco delivery driver. She applied online in March, when all her other jobs were cancelled. Far from resenting this emergency role, she has found bringing strangers their groceries a humbling, life-affirming experience. ‘You’re going to people’s homes and bringing them what they need,’ she told me.

The run-up to Christmas should be boom time for the retail sector. Instead, High Street giants such as TopShop and Debenhams have buckled. Tesco and Morrisons deciding to repay £850m of Covid business rates relief has been one of the few happy shopping headlines.

In desperate times for our High Streets, I’ve been wondering what, as a consumer, I can do to keep the businesses I value afloat.

Author Patricia Nicol recommends best selection of books on shops including Chocolat by Joanne Harris (left) and Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman Of Substance (right)

Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is exactly the sort of wilfully eccentric, mismanaged bric-a-brac establishment that would go to the wall in these hard times. It does in the book, too, beggaring Nell and her grandfather. As such it is a story of our times — Dickens shows us that behind every business, however humble, are people. It is not just Nell and her grandfather who suffer when the evil Quilp takes possession, but also their employee, Kit.

As a teenager, I devoured Barbara Taylor Bradford’s rags-to-riches shopkeeper’s saga A Woman Of Substance. It charts the success of single-minded heroine, Emma Harte, from sexually-exploited maid at Fairley Hall to head of a global retail empire. Would she have had the agility to survive these times?

Chocolat by Joanne Harris depicts a high street star. The enigmatic Vianne Rocher’s chocolaterie, La Céleste Praline, is one of those stores nobody thought their community needed until its sweet, attractive wares start to transform lives, and the town, for the better.

Local to us, we have a few imaginative independent stores. They worked tirelessly, through lockdown, to deliver to our community.

Last week I popped in to a few and picked up some one-of-a-kind gifts I might have spent soulless hours scouring for online.

If you have an attractive high street, use it or risk losing it.


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