Bill Evans and Andrew Lawson, A Nation of Shopkeepers (Plexus Publishing Limited, 1981)
When I reviewed Benson and Ugolini's A Nation of Shopkeepers (a collection of scholarly essays) a few weeks ago, I went to Amazon to look up the price, which wasn't listed on the publisher's Web site. That's where I found this book same title, very different format and purpose. This one is a slender volume just over 125 pages in total, of which about half are photographs in color or black and white. Concerned about the imminent demise of a way of life, the authors spent time in the mid-1970s traveling around England looking for small local shops that demonstrated a particular aesthetic appeal. They recorded images of storefronts and window displays, architectural details, interiors and shopkeepers. In some instances, they obtained photos of the same shops taken at earlier periods in their history, usually with proprietors standing proudly in front.
The authors organized the photos and accompanying narrative into twelve chapters. With the exception of the introduction and two closing chapters on signs and architecture, all of the other chapters refer (if somewhat loosely) to particular kinds of retail or service establishments. So, for example, we find a chapter called "Ironmonger" that is primarily about shops that sell hardware and housewares. The black and white photo that fills the page facing the start of the chapter shows a window display of saws, knives and cutlery. The photo laid in the copy on the next page is small enough so that it requires careful inspection to determine what it represents. It appears to be a glass-covered display box attached to an exterior wall. In it, someone has meticulously and quite laboriously arranged nails, hooks, screws, washers, bolts and other fasteners into an attractive pattern with a rayed circle at its center. Good grief! The authors take special delight in displays of this kind. Another photo later in this chapter shows a blue-framed window entirely full of balls of string in an attractive arrangement.
The narrative for this chapter is typical of that in each of the other chapters, both in organization and in content. Its six paragraphs are wrapped around photos on the first two pages. The first paragraph describes the diversity of materials that may be found in a typical ironmonger's shop and notes the pressures placed on the store layout and the shopkeeper's skill by the presence of so much stock. A second paragraph describes some of the more artistic signs that might be found on ironmonger's shops although the authors begin to wander a bit here, referring to locksmiths, housepaints and plumbing supplies. The third and fourth paragraphs lament the ways that are passing, referring to the problems introduced by changes in measurement systems, the introduction of plastic goods to replace those made of more traditional materials, and finally the replacement of the old ironmongers' shops by "do-it-yourself" shops that sell things prepackaged and don't offer the same level of service or advice. (I think of my favorite hardware store, where a sales associate I know on a first-name basis opens tiny drawers to take out special brackets for a mirror I want to attach to a drywall surface.)
Paragraphs five and six reveal the somewhat odd drift in subject matter that characterizes the other chapters in the book, as well. Without warning or explanation, they refer to corn chandlers (what Americans would probably call feed dealers), pet stores and aquaria. Indeed, several of the photos on the following pages depict stores of this kind. The authors could have made this drift more intelligible with just a bit more in the way of transitional narrative.
The photos really make the book. The storefronts in particular are incredibly appealing. I can easily imagine slipping into the door of Jesse Smith & Co., Black Jack Street, Circencester, Gloucestershire, in search of a few fresh pork sausages or a rasher of bacon. The shop interiors are also highly evocative. I can practically smell the shaving soap in the Waldorf Hairdressing Salon, Clarence Street, Albert Square, Manchester. I can certainly imagine myself (as a cat or a very small child) perched on the stairs in Thorps, High Street, Guildford, Surrey, gazing around at the books and papers that are piled everywhere in apparent disarray. I have seen used bookstores just like this one in several New England towns.
The juxtaposed photos of the same shop at two or three different points in its history are fascinating. Captions provide additional information about some of the shops, including in several cases the observation that the shop closed shortly after the photo was taken. Also most impressive and entertaining is the periodic use of extended quotes from historical texts (such as Charles Dickens' Sketches by Boz) to describe similar shops as they appeared over a hundred years ago.
This version of A Nation of Shopkeepers does not pretend to be an academic work. Indeed, the aforementioned direct quotes are not fully documented (no editions, no page numbers) and none of the twenty-odd entries in the bibliography are actually referenced in the text. Nonetheless, the authors suggest the origin and intended meaning of the phrase used as the book's title. They attribute it to Napoleon Bonaparte, who meant it as an insult, suggesting that a people so interested in buying and selling couldn't constitute much of a military challenge. (A Google search finds it first in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, where its meaning was considerably less derisive.) Napoleon was not successful in conquering England, and many British subjects used the appellation with pride for decades. Evans and Lawson strongly suggest that in the years following the Second World War, England became far less a nation of shopkeepers and thus lost some precious and irreplaceable part of its national character.