Charity Shop Urbanism
One of my favourite streets in the world is Shirley High Street, Southampton. It's long, and very straight, with tall, bulbous streetlights, as if it's a promenade rather than a shabby commercial thoroughfare. Architecturally, there is nothing here that will ever get listed status, though there are many curios: the shadow of a Regent cinema, a slatted concrete screen above Superdrug, Art Nouveau ironwork sprouting at unexpected places, Polish delis, a mock-Byzantine church, a formica caff, a block of flats called Hatherley Mansions. Overlooking the central part is Shirley Towers, a tower block that is approximately 18 storeys higher than the entire rest of the area (from the atelier of the noted L. Berger, City Council architect), somehow fitting quite appropriately into the out-of-time ambience of the area, and the centrepiece of a largeish, increasingly forlorn estate. There is, however, one major reason (other than sentiment) why this street has this place in my affections. Or, more specifically, ten reasons.
Shirley High Street has ten - count em - charity shops. For one thing, this means a visit always involves a hoard of excellent tat (The Shell and BP Guide to Britain, Gary Numan LP with free poster, a tie, Hancock tape etc), but more interestingly, it involves an uncovering of the unconscious of this supremely average place - a huge amount of New Romantic vinyl in most shops implies a hidden history of glamour, although sadly clothes from same period are harder to come by (save the fur coat I found in 1997); books, with some unexpected things poking out amongst the Anita Shreve that speak of the street as an outpost for sedition (Victor Serge's Memoirs in Help The Aged was a personal best). You can discover, to a certain extent not only what Shirley has consumed, but what it believed, its occasional efforts to educate itself, as much as its liking for James Last (or Duran Duran, or Rick James). There's also a shower of truly irredeemable ephemera from the late 80s and 90s, which reminds that this was perhaps an all time nadir for popular design, with endless sub-par rearrangings of Victoriana and Swede-ish pine thingies showing a depressing lack of imagination. Nonetheless, the street itself is almost mimed by the insides of the shops: messy, unwanted, ageing, scattered with gems if you can be bothered to sift through for long enough.