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New Photographic Display Documents The Demise of Britain's Small Independent Retailers
Basket Maker, 1982 by John LondeiOliver Meek, 34 Station Street, Swaffham, Norfolk. Copyright: John Londei.

LONDON.-The National Portrait Gallery presents Shutting Up Shop, on view through May 4, 2008. In 1972, photographer John Londei started taking pictures of small independent shops the length and breadth of Britain. Often family-run businesses, well-established in their local communities, Londei strove to capture the timeworn presence of these already anachronistic businesses ­ the butchers and bakers, button makers, cobblers, fishmongers and chemists of our high streets. Over a fifteen-year period, he photographed 60 shops. In 2004, when he retraced his steps and revisited the shops he'd photographed, he found that only seven of the 60 were still in business. His subsequent book of the series, Shutting Up Shop is a fitting tribute to Britain's independent retailers.

Coinciding with the recent publication of Shutting Up Shop, the National Portrait Gallery presents a display of a selection of photographs from the book. Proud proprietors are pictured outside their enterprises, such as Frank Gedge, owner of a contraceptives shop opened in Stoke-on-Trent in 1935, and Oliver Meek, 86 years old and last in a line of basket makers stretching back seven generations in the small town of Swaffham, Norfolk. The interiors of some of the more idiosyncratic shops are also shown as a backdrop to their proprietors, for example Philip Poole photographed in his perfectly organised pen shop, His Nibs, formerly of Drury Lane, London and Bill and Joan, standing at the counter of the provisions store they've run together in Lincolnshire since 1947.

For Londei, the shopkeepers themselves were vital to the portraits of the shops. 'To these people running the shop meant so much more than a business. Somehow it felt as if they'd turned the premises into living entities; and they themselves were cherished and long-serving members of the community. And how proud they were to still be serving it!'

The decline of Britain's traditional retailers, documented by Londei in the seventies and eighties, continues apace. In its 2006 report, the House of Commons painted a bleak picture of the future of the high street. The report estimated that if the steady demise of independent shops continued at its current rate, the majority of Britain's 26,800 independent retailers would be out of business by 2015. In light of this disheartening assessment, this display of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery presents a piece of our shared history.

On the forthcoming display in the National Portrait Gallery's Bookshop Gallery, John Londei says: 'Shutting Up Shop is the fulfilment of a promise I made to those shopkeepers that, one day, they would be in a book. I never thought it would take so long to keep my promise. How thrilled they would have been had they also realised that their contribution to our nation's heritage, and a way of life now almost entirely vanished, would be acknowledged by the National Portrait Gallery in London.'

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