Before the advent of out-of-town malls, superstores and online shopping, Britain was called “a nation of shopkeepers”
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WHILE THE NUMBER OF SMALL, independent shops may have dwindled in recent years, many companies have survived for decades and even centuries, and remain fixtures on Britain’s High Streets. When Brits say they are going to the shops, rest assured that one or more of the places named below will be on their list. But these shops also draw their share of foreign visitors. How often has a tourist popped into Boots for a tube of toothpaste, or in to W.H. Smith for a newspaper, or into Burberry for a splurge on a raincoat that will last a lifetime? These are the shops that are part of Britain’s history. But they have also reinvented themselves over the years—to march into the 21st century and serve new generations of shoppers.
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Anyone who has ever visited Britain has passed and most likely stopped into Boots. With its familiar blue and white logo, Boots has been on High Streets all over Britain since the mid-19th century, when John Boot started a small herbalist store in Nottingham. The original strategy was to buy stock in bulk and to sell goods much cheaper than competitors with the slogan “Health for a Shilling.” Today, Boots sells beauty products and toiletries (including its own “No. 7” collections), items for the home, stationery supplies and food. Many Boots stores include a pharmacy, as well as an optician to do eye exams and provide glasses on the premises. With more than 2,600 locations across Britain, it is never difficult to find a Boots. www.boots.co.uk
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Think of style and fashion and the Burberry label, known around the world, comes readily to mind. Founded in 1856 by Thomas Burberry in Basingstoke, Hampshire, the first London shop opened on Haymarket in 1891 and can still be found there. Burberry’s familiar trench coats have been worn on Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, by British officers in two World Wars and by glamorous movie stars in memorable films. Burberry’s trademark design was first introduced as a lining for rainwear in 1924, and the camel, black, red and white tartan is recognized around the world as a symbol of quality. With Royal Warrants from both the Queen and Prince Charles, Burberry keeps developing new clothing designs for men and women, as well as fragrances. The lifespan of a Burberry raincoat may justify its price, but pop into the Burberry Factory Shop in London’s East End at 29-35 Chatham Place for considerable discounts on its raincoats and other clothing.
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While the company dates back to 1778, the Debenhams name first appeared as the partnership of Clark and Debenhams in 1813 in London. Throughout the 19th century, the business grew to include a number of retail outlets all over the country—as well as clothing manufacturing operations. In 1905, the first Debenhams department store opened, and the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1928. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Debenhams introduced its own exclusive brands of merchandise. Aside from 154 locations throughout Britain and Ireland there are branches of Debenhams in other parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The book titled Fine Silks and Oak Counters by Maurice Corina gives a history of Debenhams between 1778 and 1978.
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The idea for this shop was planted in 1953, when Laura Ashley and her husband, Bernard, decided to try printing some of their own fabrics after she could not find what she was looking for in existing stores. Without any knowledge about printing, they borrowed books on the subject from the library and soon were making placemats and scarves with unique designs, which they sold to London stores such as Fortnum and Mason and Harrods. In 1968, Ashley Shops Ltd. was formed and their first shop opened in London. While the Laura Ashley brand may not be all the rage it was in the 1960s and 1970s, people continue to flock to its stores for its line of creative, colorful home and clothing items. www.lauraashley.com
MARKS AND SPENCER
Affectionately known as “Marks and Sparks” to its regulars, fans of Marks and Spencer swear by its underwear (for men and women), ready-made foods and various designer collections. Renowned for its good quality at reasonable prices, the company grew out of a partnership between Michael Marks and Tom Spencer in the mid-19th century—when they opened a number of market stalls in Yorkshire, advertising them as penny bazaars and appealing to people at the low end of the economic ladder. When Marks and Spencer started to open branches throughout Britain that transformed the High Street, it posed a threat to smaller, independent shops. Now, as superstores have run amok over the last decade, they in turn have threatened the existence of Marks and Spencer. By reinventing its stores and modernizing its merchandise, while keeping prices moderate, Marks and Spencer has proved equal to the competition. www.marksandspencer.co.uk
John James Sainsbury and his wife, Mary Ann, opened London’s first Sainsbury’s grocery store in Drury Lane in 1869. Drury Lane was then one of London’s poorest areas, and the Sainsbury’s shop became popular for offering high-quality products at reasonable prices. Over the years, Sainsbury’s pioneered self-service shopping, and it was one of the first companies to stack sweets near the busy checkout counters to encourage impulse purchases. Today, there are more than 800 stores. About 30 years ago, Sainsbury’s began to open stores away from the High Street on the edges of towns, where space would allow for ample car parking. The Sainsbury family is also known for its philanthropic work—including the wing of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square bearing their name. A unique collection of documents, photographs and objects that illustrates the history of this supermarket chain is housed at the Museum of London; it shows how shopping and eating habits in Britain have changed since the first Sainsbury’s shop opened more than 140 years ago. www.sainsburys.co.uk
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THE BODY SHOP
The newest of the shops in our gazette opened its first store in Brighton in 1976, using the name of an auto repair place that Anita Roddick had seen on holiday in America. Roddick believed passionately in environmental and human rights issues and wanted her business to be about responsibility. Her body care products consist of all-natural ingredients—and made without any animal testing. The Body Shop has an extensive range of natural beauty products (in the early days, made and packaged in Roddick’s home), including such bestsellers as coconut body butter, banana shampoo and hemp hand cream. Out of concern for the environment, everything is packaged simply. These days, the familiar green façade of The Body Shop can be seen on more than 2,500 stores worldwide. www.thebodyshop.co.uk
Whether planning a trip, exchanging currency or buying travelers checks, many people still look to the company started by Thomas Cook in 1841—when he planned and advertised a rail excursion from Leicester to a Temperance meeting in Loughborough. Cook was innovative in creating ticketing systems that saved travelers money; he also created what we know as traveler’s checks. Not only does Thomas Cook book air and hotel reservations, but it creates and oversees tours and cruises, issues its own travel credit card and travel insurance, and publishes travel guides—including its new series of small volumes, each devoted to a single British city. The company has locations across London, including one at the Visit Britain Center at 1 Regent Street, as well as offices throughout Britain and across the world. They deal with leisure travel, foreign exchange and travelers checks—under the motto “don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it.” www.thomascook.com
Its shop windows are filled with beautiful boxes of dark and milk chocolates, and the smell of chocolate fills the air. Founded in Sheffield by Joseph Thornton and his two sons in 1911, the company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Their traditional recipes are decades old, and their chocolate-covered Easter eggs, some 3.5 million a year, are still painted by hand one at a time. While other chocolate companies have either disappeared or, like Cadbury’s, succumbed to a buy-out, Thorntons is still independently owned, and continues to make the High Street a little sweeter. In 1996, Thorntons opened its first café, on Moorgate in London, serving delicious hot chocolate and coffee. A chocolate is served with each drink. There are now 38 Thorntons cafes across Britain. www.thorntons.co.uk
The number of shops that bear the name W.H. Smith has decreased in recent years. Fortunately, there are still enough of these stores to make it easy to pick up a newspaper, a magazine or a book. This chain began when Henry Walton Smith and his wife opened a small news-agents shop in London’s Mayfair in 1792. The business was named for William Henry Smith (W.H. Smith), one of the owner’s sons, who turned it into a newspaper distributing house in the early 19th century that prided itself on the fast delivery of daily newspapers. W.H. Smith can usually be found at railway stations and airports as well as on High Streets. www.whsmith.co.uk