In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Dougas Adams’ character Pizpot Gargravarr tells the sad story of Frogstar World B, which had been
“a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the numbers of these shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well known economic phenomenon, but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine. Most of the population died out.Those few who had the right kind of genetic instability mutated into birds ….”
As far as I can tell, the number of shoe shops in Brighton, where I live, and indeed in other places I visit, is normal. However, I am getting worried about the proliferation of coffee shops. Recently, in London Road* – the “high street” of north Brighton, once a thriving street with a large department store and all the other features of the average high street – more and more shops seem to have been turning into cafes. The latest is the old Blockbusters video library; a few months ago an antique shop became Moe’s Café. And a few years back, one of my favourite shops – George Rose Office Products Ltd – closed and turned into the Moksha Café. The picture above shows it after recent winds brought down part of the fascia, uncovering the old name underneath.
Now, my knowledge of economics is certainly no better than Adams’, and probably a whole lot worse. I don’t actually think we will end up being drowned in coffee, or starve to death because there is only coffee to eat. (Can you eat coffee?) But I worry that somehow this situation is not sustainable. How can there be enough customers to keep a steadily-increasing number of cafes going? Going to cafes is something we do in our leisure time, right? So does an increasing number of cafes mean more and more leisure time for everyone?
It might have meant that, if the predictions being made for the future about 20 years ago or so had been accurate. We were being told we would have more and more leisure time as machines did more and more of the work. And we wouldn’t have to commute or work in office blocks; we’d work at home, or near home in communal business centres (that is, unless our job was one of those few left that couldn’t be done by sitting at a desk with a computer).
Of course it didn’t work out quite like that. Most of us are having to work longer hours, and retire later. So when do we manage to go to cafes, and where do we get the money to spend in them? Many people don’t even have a job – they get benefits, sure, but not enough to spend all day in a café.
My simplistic notion of economics requires there to be, not just leisure activities, but some sort of productive work being done somewhere to balance out the leisure. I hesitate to use the term “create wealth”, since I am not sure I understand what wealth is; but surely somewhere along the line there has got to be some way for the café customers to earn the money they need to go to the café in the first place, and, while of course the café staff are earning money while at work, surely an economy consisting solely of people who work in cafes and also eat and drink in cafes won’t work?
No doubt an economist would say that it’s OK, it’s just that the “wealth-creating” side of the economy has been moved away from the leisure sector – a long way away in fact, probably to China – but that it all still works out OK. And maybe they are right. Perhaps, in fact, the growth of cafes in London Road is a consequence of the influx of relatively rich “media types” into the nearby New England development, and is not a general cross-city phenomenon?
Perhaps. But I still worry. And I am annoyed that, because of those market forces that are supposed to bring us some sort of “choice” under capitalism, in reality our choices are diminishing. I used to visit George Rose Office Products frequently; I love stationery shops anyway, but more to the point, at one time I believed it to be the only place where you could get transfer files locally (I later discovered that Ryman’s do them). But you could get all sorts of stationery stuff there, and I imagine it was a valuable resource for local small businesses.
So instead of having a choice between coffee, stationery, videos/DVDs and antiques, now it’s just coffee, coffee, coffee or coffee …..
*Some of the places I mention are actually in adjacent, contiguous streets such as Beaconsfield Road and York Place. But it’s all London Road really.