When I was a kid there were all sorts of shops that don’t exist today. And I don’t mean a few local stores went out of business. I mean those kinds of shops hardly exist any longer.
Our town had a little local hardware shop and a plant nursery, both of which were gobbled up by a big box hardware store and garden center. The haberdashery store closed. So did the pinball parlour and the billiards hall. The local post office closed and moved into a tiny shop above a Chinese restaurant.
I get it. Things change. I guess there were blacksmiths and coopers before my time.
But there is still one last vestige of the 19th and 20th centuries holding on, although I think it’s days are numbered. I’m talking about the once ubiquitous newsagent’s shop.
The newsagent’s shop is a particularly British thing. North America has its newsstands, but in Britain and Australia we had these stores that sold newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, snacks and sweets. They were usually dark because their windows were plastered with newspaper advertising. They doubled as the local stationers, the only shop where you could get your school supplies like pencils and pens, exercise books, cardboard, glue, and plastic for covering your textbooks.
The newsagent’s was a place of fascination to children, a darkened room full of comic books and dusty novelty items like packaged magic tricks and small toys, and greeting cards.
In 1940, George Orwell described the small newsagent’s shop to be found in “any poor quarter in any big town,” this way:
The general appearance of these shops is always very much the same: a few posters for the Daily Mail and the News of the World outside, a poky little window with sweet-bottles and packets of Players, and a dark interior smelling of liquorice allsorts and festooned from floor to ceiling with vilely printed twopenny papers, most of them with lurid cover-illustrations in three colours …
I remember it well. They hadn’t changed much by the 1960s when I was visiting them.
Back then, I had a Saturday morning habit. My father would give me his empty soda-water siphons and a handful of money and send me off to the local newsagent to get the deposit back on the siphons and buy him two more, plus the weekend paper. Whatever money was left over I could spend on a white paper-bag full of mixed lollies. The agent would joke about all the “soda” my father was drinking, and some old bloke would tell me to avert my eyes from the girlie magazines at the bottom of the rack, and I’d protest indignantly that I wasn’t looking at them. On Saturdays, you always saw a friend in the store, and you’d talk about the comic books you wanted to buy, while their mothers puffed on cigarettes and told us too many lollies were bad for our teeth.
Nowadays, you can get all that stuff in the big supermarket chains and Officeworks. But you don’t run into anyone you know. And newspapers and magazines are all online anyway.
Maybe newsagent’s shops are still needed in small towns, but in the city and the suburbs they are going the way of the Dodo. In Australia, their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years from 4,635 in 2007 to 3,150 today. By 2021 there are expected to be 2,856 newsagencies.
Cath Feely from the University of Derby, UK, is a social and cultural historian of modern Britain. She has written about the history of the newsagent’s shop. Speaking of her own experience, she says,
Proper newsagents now seem to me to be an endangered species, a misplaced habit. Some are still there, clinging on, diversifying as they always have done, in the face of competition from supermarkets opening ‘local’ shops. My local newsagent in Withington, Manchester, closed last year as it sat opposite a new Sainsbury’s Local… For me, the newsagent has become a place of nostalgia. But I imagine there are still many communities in Britain where the newsagent remains a gateway to the wider world.
A misplaced habit? I guess so. I frankly don’t remember the last time I went into one.
But I still read the papers and put soda water in my Scotch. So, I still need what they sell. I’m just not finding my way into their stores.
This reminds me of a guy I met at a dinner party once, who upon discovering I was a minister of religion held forth about the challenges facing the church: “You’ve got a bloody good product,” he opined, “but your delivery system is screwed.”
He’s kinda right. Churches still have what people need – spiritual refreshment; rituals and liturgies that bind us together and anchor us to tradition and history; a strong sense of local community; a family that will be there for you in times of need, and help you raise your kids with decent values; encouragement to love others and share our possessions; faith in Jesus, hope for a better day, and, of course, love. But, like the newsagent’s down the street, churchgoing is a misplaced habit, a broken delivery system. No one is walking through the doors.
I’m not proposing we try to restore newsagencies to their former glory. I might be nostalgic, but I’m not stupid. The Internet and Woolworths or Sainsburys or Officeworks is consigning them to the dustbin of history. But I’m not so willing to give into the effects of privatised religion, social isolation, and secularism that has contributed to the closure of so many churches (I also recognise that the churches have brought their demise on themselves in no small measure). Before we go the way of the newsagent’s shop, is it possible for us to rediscover the best things we have to offer our community and to find out how to provide those things in ways that connect to contemporary social rhythms?
As my friend, blogger Darren Rowse says, “While newsagents are a dying breed, people are consuming content at larger rates than any other time in history. I see evidence of amazing Kingdom of God stuff happening every day outside the church too. Maybe it’s time for us to rethink how we join in rather than hoping people will come to us.”
A misplaced habit is a habit nonetheless. It’s a good rhythm we’ve just forgotten to live into. Let’s hope it’s not too late for us to learn how to join in.