The other day I was in Windsor. Although a beautiful place, looking down the main drag felt like anywhere in the UK, the vast majority of shops recognisable brands.
Having the same chain stores everywhere is convenient and fulfils one’s needs on some level, but as we all know, bland and boring too. People lose their sense of adventure without knowing potential alternatives; they pass on what could be a fabulous lunch for a mediocre but reliable chain feed. In addition it’s been proven that chains make it harder for a local, independent shop to start up and become successful.
A few weeks back I visited Portland, Maine, where they have created a zone covering most of the inner city that does not allow chains. Any company that has more than two branches elsewhere in the US may not open a shop in the centre.
The result is amazing. The centre is filled with unique and independent stores that are a pleasure to browse around – art galleries, boutique clothing, individual bars, restaurants, cafes, greengrocers – all charming and most that you will not find anywhere else in the US.
Imagine if we did the same in Kentish Town. Kentish Town Road could be zoned from, say, Camden Gardens to Fortess Walk including side roads. Shops would be filled by small independent businesses supplying products and services not found anywhere else. Kentish Town would become a one of a kind place in London drawing in people from all over.
Many of our high street outlets would stay: Earth, Phoenicia, Harry’s Fine Foods, the various fruit, vegetable & flower stands, Owl Book Shop, Mike & E. Mono, Kentish Canteen, Pane Vino, Tolli, Doppio, Flaxon Ptootch – we already have unique shops and restaurants. But what if we had more of these and less of the chain variety? One great local pharmacy and not a Boots or Superdrug?
What if we filled those empty shop fronts with designers from Spitalfields or Portobello and market style wares from Camden Town? The word would spread. People would come to Kentish Town to buy something distinctive and one of a kind. We could become a destination. A place where we would all be prouder to live.
Granted, implementation would not be easy. I can already see the legal issues and shop landlord revolt – those chains probably pay high rents. Initially supply and demand may cause rents to decrease allowing independent shop owners to start-up but longer term the area would become more valuable as a result. Chains who own their premises would be another hurdle altogether.
How many other branches should we allow a company to have elsewhere? None? Two? Five? This is an important decision that would affect the final outcome. None would ensure originality, but would also prevent creative businesses such as Pizza East setting up shop, whereas a low but greater-than-zero number would not. Should we make an exception for banks? What about estate agents?
It’s certainly a tricky one. And please note this is not an attack on chains, capitalism or globalisation. I simply have the desire to keep Kentish Town a special place. (I’m not even going to bring up the car-free zones they had in Portland – but how nice would it be to cobblestone Kentish Town Road and make it pedestrian only.)
So Kentishtowners, what do you think of chain-free KT? Is it pie-in-the-sky, or is there any way this could realistically happen in NW5?
Words: Dennis Peper.
Dennis is an IT Network Engineer and has lived in KT since February.