Word has come that, after trading for 97 years, the last of the big family owned stores that used to line the main street of the town in which I grew up is soon to close its doors. It dealt in clothing, manchester and haberdashery, a range of goods, or at least words, that may suggest it had fallen a little behind the times, and there’s no doubt that people who used to shop there now gravitate towards the outlets of chain stores where the goods are cheaper and probably more fashionable. The market has spoken. Nevertheless, it’s possible to feel sad at this news.
The family who operated this store for generations were famous for being good employers, and they certainly retained their staff; I remember going there with my mother when the menswear department was staffed by men wearing ties who seemed very old. The store was a reliable advertiser in the local newspaper, itself locally owned in those days. It gave discounts to the families of clergy, and supported school functions by awarding prizes. In short, it was deeply embedded in the life of the town, and a good citizen of it.
It’s hard to imagine the managers of the chain stores which have replaced the old department stores acting in these ways. Indeed, it’s unlikely they would have the autonomy to do so, for even if they wished to dispaly the good citizenship and community spirit at which the old store excelled, their hands would probably be tied behind their backs. A good society is one in which people behave with generosity, but I wonder whether there isn’t a deeper issue: a good society is one that offers people possibilities of acting with generosity. It can be a chilling experience finding yourself in a situation in which the exercise of good impulses is blocked off.