Last summer, Kentish Town Marks & Spencers [currently Iceland in 2021] narrowly escaped being closed down for reasons that are understandable; the branch is over-shadowed by the nearby Camden Town and Holloway Road branches, both considerably larger. Though it was purpose-built in 1930, and carefully enlarged since, it has only 7000 sq. ft of floor space compared with the modern M&S average of 20,000; it has been failing either to carry a full range of goods or to pay its way for some time. But equally understandable was the reaction of local shoppers and traders – particularly the latter – who took the line that once Marks’, today’s linchpin of High Street shopping, pulled out, Kentish Town’s main thoroughfare would lose credibility all round and become a ‘ghost street’ of unlet and unlettable premises.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter St Michael appeared to be touched by the fuss and was persuaded to stay – for the moment. But what is interesting to the historian in this present-day event is the relatively short time-scale of the evolution of the chain-store from interloper into institution. In the inter-war period, when empires like Marks’ (and Boots, Sainsburys Woolworths Timothy Whites and the Home and Colonial Stores) were busy staking out their territory in the high streets in and out of London they were seen as characterless, cut-price upstarts. The presiding genii of the High Streets were then the department stores each unique to its particular locality. They were still apparently in their hey-day, though a discerning shopper might have noticed that overhead cash railways, oval mirrors, bright electric lights and life-size models hardly proclaimed, any longer, a particular modernity or sophistication. But the dividing line between being attractively well-established and unattractively dowdy is always hard to discern, and Daniels – the Kentish Town Big Shop – may be forgiven for having imagined that its well-established ways would do forever.