The shop around the corner
David Lloyd thought top shops were a symbol of a lost youth. But in Wallasey, he stumbles upon a Christmas miracle
By David Lloyd
When you’re a kid and you can’t legally take the keys to your dad’s Vauxhall Astra and go on a present-buying expedition down Church Street, Christmas shopping meant one thing. A stroll to the top shops.
From Five Ways to Cherry Lane, Broadway to The Rocket, every neighbourhood had a little parade. A prototype strip mall of its very own. They’d cluster around roundabouts, huddle darkly in the shadow of flyovers and cauterise the ends of those great interwar housing estates to stop them bleeding out onto Queens Drive and Walton Hall Avenue.
I’m not talking about the great shopping streets of County Road, Smithdown or Aigburth Road — but the mini arcades of grocers, chemists, butchers and boutiques — those joyous little incursions of colour, industry and gossip. The pivots on which a community’s whole world rotated.
A school, a stately pub that looked like a Loire chateau, a pocket-sized park, a library and a row of shops. Liverpool as a cosmos of happily contained 15-minute cities. A golden era that 15-minute city conspiracy theorists would kill to return to. Those that weren’t fretting about how sun cream is a deep state mind control serum, that is.
My love affair with the shop around the corner began with Mitchells of Stopgate Lane — the Harrods of Fazakerley, where the East Lancs Road air is sweetly perfumed by the Jacob’s Crackers factory.
Mitchells was probably no bigger than the Spar at my local garage but, as a seven year old, my yearly spending spree was like a devotional pilgrimage past the Stations of the Cross. A nod to our lady of the cream cakes to the right, a prayer for the wheezing old man on the pipes and tobacco counter to the left. Onwards, ever deeper, to the fierce sentinels of the coal scuttles and the ceramic collectables. Go on, they’d taunt, make our day. Break one of those cut glass ashtrays with a careless brush from your duffle coat, and we’ll take your soul as down payment.
I did just that. Well, almost. One Christmas I shattered one of those little glass dividers between the rows of greetings cards. A constellation of diamonds cascaded beneath displays of tinsel-garlanded Soda Streams and a dismembered leg swathed in American tan-coloured tights. I stood, frozen to the spot, while an army of aproned ladies overturned the tables and brushed away my sins.
Like a fun-sized department store, Mitchells squeezed in homewares and hardwares, post office and milliners. Mr Mitchell sat on a golden throne (or was it a Parker Knoll recliner?) in a wood-panelled office at the back, benevolently sucking a panatella beneath a framed picture of the Queen.
Every Christmas he’d give my sister and me a Curly Wurly to thank us for our custom.
“Have you been good this year?” He’d ask us, dangling the complimentary confectionary before us.
“Well, we’ve spent all our pocket money in your Jokes and Tricks aisle, turning my mum’s face muddy with the comedy soap bar, and bruising my nan’s finger with a snappy piece of chewing gum. You decide.”
Whatever Mitchells stocked, my family would receive. Choice paralysis wasn’t an issue. There was no punching ‘foot spa’ into Amazon and getting 3,000 bubbling made-in-China variations on a theme. And, to my memory, no-one ran after us as we left the shop begging for us to give them a five star review for the way they sweetly handed over my Beano.
I’d spin the twirly bookstand to land on a yellowing paperback of Noele Gordon’s My Life At The Crossroads. Mum watches that, I’d reason. Done. I had a vague awareness that my Dad did something called shaving, so he’d get a five pack of razor blades tucked into a slim paper sheath — Watch your fingers when you unwrap this, Dad…
One year, my sister and I played a deft two hander: she’d get mum a mop, and I’d follow through with a bucket. I can still see the look on Mum’s face now. It wasn’t surprise, exactly — you need a lot of wrapping paper to camouflage a mop — but it belonged to the same family of emotions. Shell-shocked, possibly.
These are the Christmasses you remember.
Of course, these shops still exist. And no doubt in 30 years’ time, another nostalgic middle-aged writer will wistfully recall strolling to their local parade to buy blueberry-flavoured vapes for his mum, a voucher from the Turkish barbers for his dad and an aqualung of cider from Bargain Booze for his nan.
I get it. When they’re competing against an incoming tide of Home Bargains and Tesco Express, the little shops of Liverpool have to adapt to survive. And, until Tesco installs dog grooming salons and sun showers at the self-service checkout, this is what survival looks like.
I make a fatal mistake. I return to Stopgate Lane. The little parade clings on, but gone is Harvey’s sweet shop, vanished is the Versailles-stylings of The Crown pub and Mitchells is now a Lifestyle Express; a stark white shell, as hollow and cold as an igloo. But, admittedly, with a better selection of Monster energy drinks.
That’s OK I think, resigned to the fact that there are better Christmasses gone than those that remain. That’s the point of Christmas. A time for remembering and imagining. Of summoning ghosts.
It’s the midwinter solstice. Above me, somewhere, a sluggish sun is stalling. Pausing. I do too. Just for a minute. Just long enough to see me and my sister walk past, heading down the lane to my nan’s house, into another amazing Christmas.
All the while, a crackling cloud of commerce above my head keeps the tills ringing for someone, somewhere. But not here. Not in the long-gone gift shops of Dovecot, or Speke or West Derby village. According to the internet Mitchells never existed. So it can’t have done.
I’m thinking of Christmas past as I drive back home to the Wirral. Somehow, I take a wrong turn. I spot a pharmacist’s window display, piled high with dinosaurs, cuddly monkeys, mini tool kits and model aircraft. Cosmic wormhole, or Poulton, I wonder, as I slam on the brakes to take a closer look.
Inside Campbell’s chemist, I meet Val, arranging a display of Matchbox cars and slime-making science kits.
Every shelf, every square inch in this bejewelled cave is overflowing with the kind of gift any wise seven-year-old shopper would hungrily snap up.
“Well, you can’t sell space,” Val says, squeezing a Link gift box into a hollow between packs of cable ties and gleaming manicure sets.
“We’re in a time warp here,” she says. “This shop hasn’t changed in 50 years.”
Val knows, because for the past 50 years, she’s been here: creating the window displays, choosing the gifts, delivering Christmas to generation after generation of Poulton families.
“I drive up to the wholesalers in Manchester every year to get the toys,” Val says, her eyes twinkling like fairy lights. “This is our own little world here. Customers might move away, but they still come back at Christmas. We’ve built our own community.”
“We’ve all grown up with these people,” says Val’s assistant, Julie, reaching into her pocket and fanning out a series of Polaroids on top of a box of squeezy unicorns.
Julie shows me photos of the shop taken some time in the 80s. In a tinselled-off corner of the store, Santa is chatting to a wide-eyed toddler.
“That’s my little girl. She’s 37 now. And Santa was my Dad,” Julie says.
Val tells me she’s 72, and, for the past half-century, she’s witnessed Sooty and Sweep and Sindy dolls, Tweed perfume and Hai Karate. Rubik’s cubes and Platignum pen gift sets.
“Val’s a Christmas problem solver,” Julie says. “Everyone would be lost without her.”
“There was a butcher along here,” Val says, “a lovely cake shop, a pet shop and a haberdasher. They’ve all gone. We’re the last ones standing.”
Abdul, the shop’s owner, pipes up from the back, in between processing prescriptions.
“Amazon can’t fake this,” he says. “Nothing will affect this shop. It will always be here.”
I suppose I thought that about Mitchells. I suppose, as a seven year old, I had no concept of the great day ending, of time passing and loved ones leaving. Of the need to bank those tiny magnificent moments so that I could cash them in later. The gifts that keep on giving.
These little shops of Liverpool, strung out like bright paper chains across the city, might never play a starring role in the story of this city’s Christmasses. No Black Friday sales, no trucked-in markets. But this is where my story starts. And as I stand in this lovingly tended grotto of a shop, I’m more convinced than I have been for years, there will always be Christmas.
“Hey Val,” I ask, “how much is that Vileda supermop?”