Today we start a new occasional series on shopping, shops and shopkeeping.
I have unreasonably sentimental feelings about ironmongery. Or at least I thought they were unreasonable.
As kids in South Wales my brother and I used to collect small, pearl-handled penknives, the sort you might use to scrape out a pipe (the perfect thing to keep young boys amused, though probably now illegal). Gem-like little things, in a variety of colours, but quite cheap, and affordable on a pocket-money budget.
We bought them from an ironmongers, a place that seems now to have been the platonic ideal of a village ironmongers, a treasure house of interesting but obscure bits of metal, as well as much else. I remember the ironmonger being a friendly old chap. But it couldn’t have been that special, could it? Just the usual nostalgia.
Wondering whether there were any photos of the place online, I idly googled ‘Taff’s Well ironmonger’ and immediately turned up a documentary piece on YouTube, Arthur the Ironmonger, described as:
The first part of the completed documentary on Arthur Bickerton: Ironmonger of Taffs Well. He kept a wonderful ironmongery shop in the village – it was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave.
Well, knock me down with a feather.
The documentary has something of an elegiac tone, as one might expect – I mean, local ironmongers have gone the way of the blacksmith and corner dairy, haven’t they? But no, not quite. I bring you news from Islington’s Upper Street: ironmongery is still alive and may actually be on the mend.
The newly-opened Upper Street Hardware (top) is packed with product but very smart and well-organised. Not only is it open all hours, it also offer a handyman service, a useful bit of added value. They look as if they’re doing well – certainly, whenever I’ve passed they’ve always boasted a modest queue.
It replaced a woman’s clothing shop, a rather chi-chi boutique, one of a great many that has infested this part of town in recent years.
From boutique fashion to ironmongery – might this be an indication of the future of the high street? Perhaps we’re entering a period in which mundane but useful products will return, but only so long as they are offered with service and convenience at a premium. And we’re not just talking in-store service – I suspect the handyman offer is a very important part of Upper Street Hardware’s formula.
I think it’s those high street businesses that have the flair and commitment to provide a bundle of goods and services that will be able to compete with the online and out-of-town giants. As Mr Arthur Bickerton, ironmonger of Taff’s Well, says, “I live to satisfy my customers. My life depends on making people happy, solving their difficulties and one thing and another.” A simple mission in some ways but one that, at least as far as the high street retailer is concerned, needs constant re-thinking.
When contemplating the devastation of the high street – and, increasingly, out-of-town retail parks – it’s only too easy to see nothing more than the demand-sucking depredations of online, price-driven monsters like Amazon. However, thriving in the shadow of these great beasts are as big a range of niche retailers as there’s ever been. The ironmongery sector is no exception.
Here’s a business that it’s difficult to imagine existing without the window on the world that the web provides: Labour and Wait. Whilst they have a shop in Shoreditch I imagine they do a lot of their business online.
This is ironmongery – along with quite a bit more – with a mission. The shop’s name is inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s exhortation to ‘Learn to Labour and to Wait’, but it’s no accident that there’s something of a Ruskinian ring to it. This is anti-fashion fashion. Artisanal ironmongery, if you like.
Readers sensitive to the use of language (and I imagine The Dabbler has few who aren’t) will probably have noted how rare it is nowadays to come across the word ‘ironmongery’.
It’s been more or less replaced at some point in the recent past by the far less interesting ‘hardware’: it’s Upper Street Hardware, for instance; an Americanism, I believe. It’s a shame we lost the original term, and words with the suffix ‘–monger’ more generally. I guess ‘fishmonger’ is all we have left in regular usage.
The loss of ‘ironmongery’ is something that the French – with their equally magnificent quincaillerie – would not have tolerated. Language must develop, of course. But it’s worth making an effort to hold onto its more characterful elements.