Christmas is a strange time for walking around the city. The festively illuminated streets are made to look so much more inviting than usual. But, why is this so strange; surely every street is designed to beckon you down it? Surely every shop is always trying to entice you in, all year round? Well, no.
Try this: walk into Princesshay and find the Hollister shop. Look at the nondescript, black façade, which gives no clue as to what’s inside. Look at the dimly lit entrance, hiding the shop interior. Look at the elusive advertisements shimmering across the enormous screens, which stand in place of the shop windows. Now, walk back up the High Street towards John Lewis and head down Sidwell Street. After a while you come to Simply Pleasure, the sex shop. Tell me that the impression that these two shop fronts try and give are not identical.
In a way, what these businesses do with the aesthetic of their shops is ask us “are you sure you want to come in here? It might not be your kind of thing.” Shops like this market themselves using these very subtle and exclusive forms of advertising because they don’t want people to simply wander in off the street. You have to have been looking for one of these places to find them. Of course, the reason that Simply Pleasure do this is because public taste demands that they keep their enormous dildos, ball gags and vibrating bullets out of sight. Hollister, however, are not subjected to the same restrictions. Perhaps Hollister don’t want just anyone coming into the shop because they don’t want just anyone to be seen in their clothes…
I don’t want my streets, our streets, littered with places that seem to select their customers out of the crowd
Doesn’t that annoy you just a little bit? After all, the streets that are occupied by these exclusive, uninviting shops are public spaces. They are ours. I don’t want my streets, our streets, littered with places that seem to select their customers out of the crowd. Who wants to walk past a shop that they can’t go into because the symbolism of the shop front effectively tells them “you’re not attractive enough to own our products,” or “you’re not wealthy enough,” or any other criticism of your aptitude as a customer based on who you are as a person?
So as you head back to your home towns and cities for Christmas (or annual secular gift exchange day, as I call it) think about those shops which, even at this most commercialised time of year, still don’t invite just anyone in off the street. If, in your exe-plorations this Christmas, you walk past a shop which seems to want to shut you out, don’t let it. The act of walking around the city needn’t be mere idle wandering, it can be a mode of resistance against the businesses that try to keep us away.
It was in this spirit of civil resistance to heartless urban commercialism that I roused my housemates from their post-deadline comas, and took them on what I’m going to call my Middle Finger to Shops Like Hollister Walking Tour of Exeter. We began at the infamous Hollister. Ducking into the gloomy interior, you seem to find yourself on a distant planet of sensory depravation – loud and weird music deafens you, pointless lighting contrasts distort your vision, and the world’s most magnificently average clothing adorns the walls at prices that would make a Saudi oil baron wince. We all walked around and awkwardly handled clothes that we didn’t want, for just long enough to elicit disapproving looks from the professional beautiful people who patrol the shop and make sure that no undesirables stay for too long, then apologetically made our exit.
I was tempted to go to the Apple Store, walk up to an Apple ‘genius’ as ask, “if you’re so clever, can you tell me how many iPod Shuffles an underage Chinese sweatshop worker needs to make in an hour so that they don’t get whipped,” but my friend pointed out that I was searching for the Apple store on the Apple Maps app, on my iPhone, and that I was massive hypocrite and that this was why she didn’t want to live with me next year. So instead we went to the enormous concrete box that casts every quarter of Exeter into shadow, the self-proclaimed focal point of the city: the majestically ugly and oversized John Lewis.
John Lewis makes an appearance on the Middle Finger tour, not so much because it is as exclusive as Hollister, but because it relentlessly hangs over all of us – it is a great leviathan of a shop, built big to make those who can’t afford to shop in it feel small. That day, what the clientele of John Lewis would have seen was five ragged looking students, stride confidently amongst the solid oak dining tables, three piece suites, luxury beds, glassware, and sofas, glowing with contempt at the fact that a modern cathedral had been built in the middle of this beautiful city to house storeys of this consumer garbage. To my great disappointment, we weren’t asked to leave by a customer service rep concerned that we were about to begin a revolution, so eventually we just got bored and went somewhere else…
By this point, one of us complained that our Middle Finger tour had failed to establish a new world order. He was also hungry and his feet hurt, so we walked down Sidwell Street to Hubbox for a burger. “It’s going to be at least an hour’s wait, I’m afraid” came the response to our request for a table. This is the sad thing about Exeter, everything that is cheap and popular is massively oversubscribed, and everything else is restrictively expensive. We all stood shivering in the winter chill, wondering what to do. Then we were all simultaneously struck by an epiphany: the Christmas Market!
Before you leave Exeter for Christmas, I urge you to head to the cathedral green and spend an afternoon getting lost in that glorious little village. At one stall a friendly French woman ladles creamy potatoes and bacon into Styrofoam serving bowls, at another, a man stirs goulash and turns thick sausages on the grill. There are local ales served in a makeshift Bavarian beer hall, someone selling something called Chocolate Wine, whatever that is. Everything is wonderful, and it’s not the fact that it’s all local, reasonably priced and beautifully decorated, but it’s also what the Christmas Market represents that made it save our day.
The Christmas Market is a counterbalance to places like Hollister and John Lewis – the tented city that springs up on the cathedral green is a place where all different kinds of businesses sit side-by-side. Each gets its own little space, and each is temporary. No shop towers over the competition like John Lewis, and no shop puts up an unkind and exclusive front like Hollister. The Market is as egalitarian as Christmas and capitalism can get, and my housemates and I approved so much that we totally forgot about our Middle Finger tour, and instead decided to happily amble around the stalls, trying the amazing food, and eventually getting very drunk in the beer tent. The new world order could wait until next year, I thought. For now, all I really wanted was an incredibly itchy Christmas jumper for my little sister, and another pint of Otter.
Thanks for reading this column, exe-plorers! Remember to keep exe-ploring the little undiscovered quarters of your home towns this holiday, and have a very happy secular gift exchange day!