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The death of a music shop

We shouldn’t accept the decline of the high street

Artillery Row

It was 1756, and the musical world was buzzing. The great composers of the Baroque era, Handel, Telemann and Rameau, were all still alive — but a new generation was on the rise. Haydn was beginning to make his mark, seeking out his first aristocratic patrons, whilst Gluck was busy reforming opera. Meanwhile, in Salzburg a baby by the name of Mozart was born. Nobody knew it yet, but he would go on to become one of the greatest composers the world had ever known.

The high street itself is in peril, failing to weather the financial storm

Printed music was a desirable commodity. Spotting a market ripe for exploitation, a man called Thomas Haxby set up a shop catering for all the musical needs of the good citizens of Georgian York. The business went from strength to strength under various owners and passed, a century later, into the hands of one Henry Banks who turned it into a thriving family firm in the heart of the city. As musical tastes changed, Banks Music expanded its publishing wing and adapted its stock. Musicians professional and amateur from all over the country would order music to be posted out. Banks became an institution.

From this March, Banks will be no more. The company Hal Leonard Europe, which bought the shop in 2006, has announced the closure of all stores in its “Musicroom” group, bar a flagship London store: Edinburgh, Exeter, Lincoln, Salisbury and Stratford are also to lose their music shops. In a separate development, Les Aldrich of Muswell Hill, the oldest music shop in North London, is also about to close its doors.

The Banks announcement has been greeted with dismay. People took to social media to reminisce about spending hours there as a child or undergraduate, about buying their first LP or their first flute. Some shared anecdotes about the eccentric, chain-smoking “Miss Banks”, a figure of local legend who ran the shop in the 1960s and 1970s. Many had clearly travelled from afar, making trips to York specifically to visit Banks. It was that kind of place: a destination shop. 

Banks was bound up with my own discovery of music. As a teenage pianist who was initially self-taught, I spent hours rifling through the sheet music at Banks and at the wonderful music library at York Central Library (long since turned into a café). Last year, I took my son to Banks and saw the same excitement on his face as he chose some Grieg and a book of Harry Potter arrangements. “Isn’t it fantastic”, we remarked, “that shops like this still exist?”

The closure of Banks is part of a larger problem, of course. The high street itself is in peril, with even national chains such as Paperchase failing to weather the financial storm. Independent businesses of all sorts are now struggling, as Covid losses, the cost-of-living crisis and the rise and rise of internet shopping conspire against them. All of this creates a bleak, vicious circle of decline, which is apparent even in historic tourist centres where you would expect to find charming one-off shops and restaurants on every corner. Bath still appears to be thriving, but Oxford, where I live now, is far less commercially vibrant. Numerous independent businesses have closed, the result of a toxic combination of high rents, the opening of an uninspiring, chain-driven shopping mall, and punitive council measures to limit cars and parking that send shoppers to Reading or Milton Keynes instead. 

A shop like Banks can’t be recreated online

Among the independent businesses that have closed in Oxford recently, some are of very long-standing, including Boswell’s. Founded in 1738, this  department store sold useful things like kitchenware and suitcases, as well as toys, which are now almost impossible to find in the city. The Covered Market, which dates back to 1774, has lost most of its traditional butchers, famous for their extravagant Christmas displays of deer, pheasant and wild boar. Most lamented is the Nosebag: a welcoming, oak-beamed restaurant serving generous portions of home-cooked food that for half a century was the place to go to eavesdrop on eccentric Oxford conversations. We shall never see its like again. 

It is mortifying that businesses that have stood the test of time through countless economic crises, pandemics and wars past should be allowed to die on our watch. These are the truly tragic losses to the high street: the businesses that are unique, distinctive, specialist. They are more than just places from which to buy things: they are places where you can pass the time agreeably, discover and develop hobbies, see friendly faces, strike up conversations and forge a sense of community. They really mean something to people — they become part of who we are

Some people will no doubt respond to all this coolly. Market forces, shrug. You have to get real, move with the times, accept that internet shopping is where it’s at — cheaper, more convenient (supposedly), more “relevant”. Yet, who will want to visit a city where half the premises are boarded up and the other half are occupied by American Candy stores and vaping shops? If we want city centres with soul, we have to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is.

A shop like Banks can’t be recreated online. You can’t judge a book of sheet music by its cover. You have to flick through the pieces inside, ascertain the level, see if they are your type of thing, ask knowledgeable staff for advice. You certainly can’t choose an instrument online: each one is unique, and you have to hold it in your hands, touch it, listen to it, work out if the fit is right. 

These are hard times for music. Many schools no longer teach it; there is precious little (of the classical sort at least) on mainstream television. If we take away music’s “shop window”, it recedes yet further out of view. There is not even the possibility that someone might walk past, see a display of shiny saxophones or attractive mahogany-hued violins and have their curiosity piqued. It is to be hoped that Channel 4’s heart-warming new series The Piano will inspire a new generation to take up an instrument — but where are they going to find their music?

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