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Stewart Home writes in his Mister Trippy blog reports that in London of “empty retail units and what only a couple of years ago would have seemed like really unlikely pop-ups in place of tedious corporate chains.”

I can’t imagine rents have dropped more in London than they have in New York, but this would be a welcome development. I haven’t seen it here yet, but you never know – retail units are emptying out in Manhattan as well.

If it IS happening in London, it would be reversal of what was happening when I moved back in 2007, when the old London of independent stores and second-hand shops seemed about to disappear completely.

I’m thinking of one place in particular, a second-hand booksellers in the St. James shopping arcade, just behind St. James Park (between Buckingham Palace and Westminster for you non-Londoners). The bookseller was a garrulous English guy, whose small store was wedged between a newsagent and some kind of coffee chain. He had all kinds of books you didn’t see in the chain bookstores (including a full range of titles by Stewart Home), and perennial sales – books for a pound. His store was ramshackle, with boxes all over the place, but he was a big friendly guy who liked to chat with anyone who came into his store – and there were always a couple of regulars around the counter. After he spotted my accent, he told me his wife was from Canada, that he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with the store since the landlord wanted to raise his rent beyond any reasonable amount, but that if he lost the store, he and his wife were going to sail up and down the coast of British Columbia “like we’ve always wanted to do.”

A week after our conversation, he was gone. A couple of chain shops – a gift card place, a chain juice shop (I’ve forgotten the name of most of these chain places) moved in, but were never too successful and when I left London last year, the storefront was empty again.

I saw his departure as the end of an older London, since that was what I’d always loved about the city, that you could find an independent bookseller ten minutes walk from Buckingham Palace. From that point on, central London seemed exclusively for the rich – wages were already going down for anyone not in the higher echelons of the financial district, and the prices kept going up, up, up. And the chains were everywhere.

Maybe that’s why I liked the Elephant and Castle shopping mall – in it’s own grubby way, it retained a little of that old anarchic London, with it’s mixture of Columbian cafes, the African market, (the Chinese herbalist with the sign in the window promising relief from ‘man problem’) the good second-hand booksellers on the lower level. Despite, or perhaps, because it was still a miserable place to spend more than say, twenty minutes.

So readers, have you seen any examples of interesting stores taking over empty ‘tedious corporate chains’ like Stewart Home writes about in his blog?

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