I grew up in a small town in Scotland, which meant that getting anything other than the bare essentials required a trip into the next town over. I can clearly remember my Mum bundling me up in winter clothes, even when it was unseasonably warm, so that I would be prepared for the hike up the High Street in the big city. I find it a little sad that when I mention the High Street to my kids now, they assume that it’s some sort of code name for a place to go and buy drugs. Oh, how our world has changed. Yes, shopping may have become more convenient thanks to the internet and massive supermarkets, but has it really become any better?
If you were to ask me that question, I would answer with a resounding no. Back in my day (good lord, I sound old) there were no malls or major supermarkets that had everything. It was the High Street that was the mystical place where shops of all kinds were lined in a row. All of their wares were on display in the window, or sometimes even out on the street itself. You were encouraged to pick up the fruit at the grocer’s store to see just how fresh it was. Fish with the heads still on would peer back at you balefully from their new home in a tub of ice.
It was an exciting place to be for an impressionable young lad like myself, and I must confess to having a couple of little spots that I always looked forward to. The first was the butcher’s shop, which always seemed to have enormous men working behind the counter. They would wear a blood-smeared white jacket, oftentimes covered with a blue and white striped apron that seemed to be part of the uniform they all adopted. Stranger still, these men would be wearing a tie and hat, almost as though they had stopped in on the way to the office so that they might lop the head off a cow before heading back out to do a little accounting work. Sawdust would litter the floor, and the scent of blood always hung in the air, yet the place always seemed immaculately clean. I would always be amazed at how these men could hack bits of meat off of giant carcasses and somehow manage to get it within an ounce or two of the amount my mum requested.
My other favorite place was the bakery shop, for obvious reasons. If we went to the High Street on my dad’s pay day, a couple of little cakes would be guaranteed to be coming home with us. The best part of it all, though, was the little cafeteria that would be stuck at the back of the shop, always just out of sight. A fresh roll with bacon would be served, along with a glass of soda as a reward for having made it to the end of the street with no complaints.
The one thing that I haven’t discussed yet, and which may be the most important, was the social aspect of this shopping experience. Each of the shop owners seemed to know everyone by name and always had a keen sense of what the shopper needed. They would ask about the family or just talk about the weather or some other item in the new. There was an unrushed camaraderie about the experience that no longer exists. The High Street is fast becoming a thing of the past as the supermarkets force the little guys out of business. Some see that as a natural progression, but I see it as a failure. We have all become so consumed with getting as much as we can with as little effort as we can, that we have lost touch with the need for a little humanity.