Is York losing its retail identity?

What happened to York’s once-thriving small business sector? investigates

Allan Rostron

Allan Rostron

York is famous for its dazzling mix of cobbled shopping streets, independent boutiques, vintage stores and popular high street names, attracting people from across the country and the world. However, this unique mix is at risk with some of York’s oldest independent stores closing for good in the last few months. The closing of such stores is unlikely to be followed by the opening of new ones, leaving them either vacant or taken over by high street brands, leaving York on a slippery slope towards becoming just another generic city centre.

One of the most high profile closures of late has been the Danish Kitchen on High Ousegate, which recently closed after serving York for 36 years, leaving only parts of a traditional street lamp within its store before work began to prepare it for its new owners. The owner, Anthony Gibbens, decided to close the well-established café after being approached to sell the lease on the property to Byron Hamburgers Limited, dubbed a favourite chain of the chancellor, George Osborne.

Another recent casualty has been the Barbican Bookshop on Fossgate, which has closed after 53 years of operation, 46 of which have been at its final location. The shop, which had for most of its life been a family owned store, was bought by the Christian bookshop company Wesley Owen in 2006, but even this has failed to save it. Even York’s cobbled streets are not safe anymore, with a section of cobbled path close to the shambles being recently replaced with modern paving.

The closure of the Barbican Bookshop is just one of many blows to Fossgate which – despite the banner proclaiming it to be the ultimate street of local independent businesses – cuts a sorry sight today, with at least four of its stores now closed. This includes the ‘Army and Navy Stores’, which opened in 1919, that has been vacant for almost two years after its owner’s retirement.

The world of retail is a harsh one, and the closure of stores and chains is not uncommon, particularly in recent years. Jessops, Woolworths, HMV and Republic are some of the many retail chains that have either closed completely or have seen a drastic reduction in store numbers. For independent stores like the many found in York, this world is an even harsher one; this can be seen in many other towns and cities in the country, where independent shops are an increasingly rare sight.

The reasons for the massive reduction in independent stores are many; the store closure notice on the door of the Barbican Bookshop highlights the rapidly changing world of bookselling, particularly the rise of online shopping and people switching to reading online or on kindles. The owner of the Danish Kitchen blamed high street coffee shop chains pushing local businesses out for why the café was no longer economically viable. The changing of customer’s shopping habits and the growth of high street bands at the expense of small, independent shops are arguably the two key factors behind the loss of many towns and cities’ unique retail identities.

The cases highlighted prove that York is not immune to this loss of identity, though its popularity as a tourist destination has protected much of it. Some sound of advice for those who view the loss of York’s unique retail identity as a tragedy is to enjoy the experience of shopping at its independent shops, and eating at its bars, cafés and restaurants, as they may not be there for much longer.

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