Back to the Shops by Rachel Bowlby

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Reviewed by Harriet

I’m not sure what attracted me to Rachel Bowlby’s book when I spotted it in the OUP catalogue. But I’m very glad something did, as it’s proved to be not only informative – which of course a non-fiction book is supposed to be – but also a really lively and entertaining read. Essentially it’s a social history of shops, shopkeepers and shoppers in the UK, which mainly covers the past two hundred or so years, but has occasional forays much further back, as far as the Middle Ages. The book is divided into three sections – Settings, Roles, and Specialities – all with pleasingly short chapters. Its purpose is to give an overview of shopping history, which, says Bolwby,

can be set out with utmost simplicity, in five stages. First there were pedlars, markets, and fairs. Second, there were small shops. Third, there were chains and some very big shops. Fourth, there was self-service and supermarkets. And fifth, there is online shopping.

But, as she goes on to point out, this can’t be seen as a straightforward linear development, ‘inexorably moving from markets to supermarkets, pedlars to Primark’. Instead, so-called stages often co-exist, and old practices re-emerge in new forms.

The first section of the book, Settings, provides an overview of different general types of shops, from Chains – many of which are still with us after more than a hundred years – to Local Shops (‘nostalgic and old-fashioned, all nooks and grannies’), from Markets to Shopping Centres. The second section, Roles, is a bit of mixed bag, ranging from Counters to Credit and Credibility, Customer Loyalty to Motor Vans and Motor Buses, Nineteenth Century Bazaars to Pedlars. The most enjoyable chapter for me here was ‘Scenes of Shopping’, in which Bolwby dives into a wide range of literary sources that show how people behave in shops. Here, in a 1785 poem by William Cowper, we meet ‘Miss, the Mercer’s plague’,  who gets the shopkeeper to show her all kinds of fabrics and then leaves without buying anything. This seems to have been a very 18th-century problem, probably because this was the era when people started visiting shops in person, as it pops up earlier in a 1712 letter to The Spectator  and in Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778). By the time of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) Fords, the local shop, plays a significant role in the novel.

All of this is fascinating, and I learned a lot. But my favourite section of the book has to be the final one, Specialities, in which, as the title suggests, different kinds of shops have their own chapters devoted to them. A wide range of sources, literary and historical, go to build up a picture of everything from Bakers and Butchers to Jewellers and Umbrella Shops and much more. A surprising number of help books appeared in the mid-twentieth century, advising shopkeepers how to succeed in their chosen outlet. Bakers were counselled not to worry about the ubiquitous advertising by big companies (Hovis springs to mind) as they should ‘welcome the sight of every bakery advertisement as an advertisement for the products of their own shops’. Bakers, like butchers and hardware shops, have changed little over the centuries, but others have modified with the times.Chemists, which Bowlby describes as ‘beautifully hybrid, combining the mysterious sense of secret arts with a show of white-coated medical expertise’, were quick to pick up on what the public wanted, selling beauty products very early on and, by the end of the nineteenth century, photographic goods. Boots famously also had a library. And of course there were those glorious coloured jars in every window, inviting a reference to The Eve of St Agnes by Keats (who was in fact a trained pharmacist). A florist’s shop, with its beautiful colours and scents,  is evoked brilliantly in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), which actually opens with the line ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’.  The final chapter, on Sweet Shops, had a special appeal for me, reminding me of a local one I used to visit as a small child: it was in an old lady’s dark, poky front room, and I still remember the magic of those great jars she used to take down and shake into a little paper bag.

In this age of online shopping, there’s a general view that physical shops will disappear altogether, but, as Bowlby points out in her Afterword, although the pandemic caused a number of big chains to shut down and board up, people working from home were only too glad to be able to pop out to a local shop for ‘essential shopping’, so that ‘the shop down the road, if not round the corner, became somewhere to go for a walk and a chat, as well as whatever it was you wanted to buy’. So hopefully the small shops can continue to play such a vital part in our lives. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Rachel Bowlby, Back to the Shops (Oxford University Press, 2022). 978-0198815914, 288pp., hardback.

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