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The marketplace can be a civilising force, but only when there is no “bagging area”

"A tiny business with proper values can make a disproportionate contribution to civic life."

Two attempts to buy something – both everyday purchases – left me with a wider sense of how marketplaces should function and gave me an insight into capitalism good and bad. First, the bad. The retail theory here was to entrap, disorientate and confuse customers, then to foist unwanted products on them. Before being allowed
to buy anything, I was involuntarily funnelled through sugary temptation, helplessly following the queue to the self-service checkout as it snaked around heaped piles of cheap and almost out-of-date chocolate bars (coloured refined sugar injected with animal fats).

I was trying to buy some magazines at a leading newsagent located deep in the bowels of a train station. The magazines in my hands were all designed and produced – sometimes even written – with care, ele­gance and style. The experience of buying them was the antithesis. The shop lighting amplified hangdog pallor. The queuing system was designed to prevent a swift purchase. There seemed to be no staff at all.

After a garbled series of instructions about “the bagging area”, I had to swipe a barcode that wouldn’t register. How about a chocolate bar? OK, you’ve wriggled out of that one. But surely I wanted a bottle of ­sparkling water instead? No? Time to cough up 2p for a plastic bag. Don’t want one? Then why hadn’t I placed my own bag in the bagging area at the very beginning? The idea of me being able to carry three magazines with my bare hands seemed inconceivable.

The questions were flashed at me by a computerised till, which was programmed to assume that my character was an unpleasant combination of untrustworthiness and weak will. The shop had mastered a rare combination. It was totally impersonal (talking to a human being was impossible, let alone laughing or flirting with one), yet simultaneously chronically inefficient (I considered giving up and walking out empty-handed). The commercial strategy, doubtless dreamed up by graduates from blue-chip business schools, followed the latest fads for “optimising sales” by extracting as much money as possible from each victim (sorry, customer).

Having finally escaped outdoors, life picked up. I headed for a small stall on the pavement, sandwiched between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations. It’s called Noble Espresso. Before I arrived, they were making the type of coffee I would have ordered. “It’s not exactly that I ‘remember’,” the barista explained. “It just sort of happens instinctively.”

Though I was theoretically rushing, I stayed put and got chatting to ­another customer. “I’ve just come from Canary Wharf,” he said, describing the experience of being at ground level in London’s biggest financial district. “It felt like a million people were getting off the Tube together, none of them ­wanting to interact with anything or anyone. In one minute here, I’ve already experienced more life. That’s often the case. People talk and engage.”

Noble is the opposite of “bagging areas” and cheap chocolate “offers”. It’s run by talented people who own their business and love the product they sell. They are brisk and efficient but also quick to digress. The spirit is youthful but long term.

A tiny business with proper values can make a disproportionate contribution to civic life. The area where I used to live in London lacked a proper local restaurant. Then a small, independent restaurant called Hereford Road popped up with reasonable prices and a long-term outlook. It knitted the community together. Neighbours who had passed each other many times in silence suddenly started talking to each other. It became not just somewhere to go out for dinner but also a place to stand outside and talk. People stopped looking so busy (usually a mask). Put differently, they became more civilised.

I once asked Tom Pemberton, the chef and owner, why he kept prices lower than he might. “I’m in this for the long term,” was his reply. Instead of creating a temporary splash with a view to rapid expansion, then a lucrative buyout by private equity, he wanted to serve the community for decades. If he did that well – and he does – he would, as a by-product, make a living at the same time. The central priority was to create a good restaurant, not to make fast money using food and wine as a cynical vehicle.

Sometimes I wonder what might have persuaded me to carry on playing professional cricket for another few years. Two things would have helped. First, a great news-stand at every ground. Second, the prospect of hotels with windows that opened. The team was usually billeted in a hotel chain of identikit, Lego-style structures, mostly nestling just off the M1, all of them so similar that you were never sure if you were in Northampton or Sheffield, and each kitted out with a fake white grand piano in the foyer that “played” itself.

Complaining about taste is a privilege. But taste has little or nothing to do with price. Give me a tiny B&B any day, with windows that open and run by someone who cares.

I like to think of myself as not being particularly materialistic. But a high proportion of my social pleasures derive, incidentally, from the marketplace – the real marketplace, that is, not the online void. As a typically solitary writer, the act of buying things, usually small things, is a surprisingly important part of life. The café, the restaurant, the bookshop: these places curate serendipity. We go looking for one thing and find something else – gossip, ­surprise, the exchange of ideas. Good shops do not just sell goods. They provide a stage for experience, a social canvas. When it is done right, commerce is not just a question of “amenities”. It is elevating.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken