There was a quartet of barbers waiting to attend me as I entered, although they were actually barbarettes or whatever female barbers are called. Surveying the options I was aware that the parking meter outside was out-of-order so I was hoping not to be too long and avoid a parking ticket. I chose the one who showed most interest in the hope of an expedient haircut.
I was not anticipating the traditional barbershop banter between blokes, but found I even barberettes natter; it’s just not the sort of natter that appeals to me. One of the other three was trying on and modelling some pants for the other staff that she had bought online. The pants were bottle green instead of the black she thought she was getting, she lamented that the waist fitted a bit funny and the length wouldn’t look so bad if she had different heels on, but otherwise an exciting and successful online shopping mission was completed.
“So how are the shops doing around here?” I enquired. “Oh its terrible,” I was told, “so many have closed down all up and along the street.” “Mmmm so I suppose fewer people coming in to their hair cut then?” I speculated, noting that three of them still looked on idly while the fourth was tending to me, their sole customer and one other bloke who popped in for some tobacco that they didn’t have in stock (would have to get the boss to order more). Anyway, sensing my opinion on the subject, my barbarette assured me that she preferred going to the shops because she was too short and wide to shop online. But there won’t be any shops left to attend to your short, wide needs I thought. At least I hope I only thought, these days I have a tendency to think aloud without realising it.
I recalled a few days earlier noting the name “Johnson’s” still visible at the top of a building in George St and starting to recall what businesses were actually along the main street when I wore a younger man’s clothes. Johnson’s was a fish shop. A good one too; nowhere near as good as the Best Cafe in Stuart Street, maybe not even as good as Fresh Freddy’s in St Andrew Street, but certainly in the top 3 or 4. And as I went along I remembered Wing On Fruiterers, Eskrick’s butcher shop, Queen Anne pastry shop, Pacific Fruit Supply and on and on I could have gone. George Street was just like an old European market. Who could have imagined such a retail landscape change back in the heady, hippy days of the sixties and seventies. Now their windows mostly promote Australian Banks, the fine purveyors of credit and debt rather than meat, fruit, fish or pastries, holistic healing crystals & incense emporia or ‘For Lease’ signs.
But now the ‘market’ shops are mostly all gone as the ‘think-big’ eighties dawned and we all bought into the convenience and excitement of the supermarket. The independents collapsed and the supermarkets grew. Now in a blind taste test the only way that I could differentiate between beef and lamb is by the flavour of the sauce normally used with either. The meat itself could be anything; it is water-logged, preservative-polluted, indeterminate flesh. I have a lot more salads these days and it is nothing to do with moral vegetarianism.
And now we are watching the rapid closure of the boutique fashion stores because we prefer to shop online at the global supermarkets based in China or Bangladesh. So exciting, so much more convenient. So what? just a few shops. But when the shopping for every conceivable product goes off shore to the global online super-shops, so does the manufacturing.
In the same time that I recalled the shops that once lined the main street, I also recalled the things we used to make and do here. I recall the number of printers we had in Dunedin in recent times, before it became more exciting and more convenient to get printing done in Hong Kong. Now we don’t need so much printing because we no longer have any printers working here to buy things off other manufacturers. They used to print brochures for businesses like furniture manufacturers. But furniture can now be imported online from Indonesia in flat pack, much more convenient and cheaper. Where have all the furniture makers gone? long time paasssing..?
In Dunedin we used to make Fisher and Paykel appliances, now made in Mexico. We used to make soap! McLeod’s soap; we used to make electric heaters, Zephyr heaters in Kaikorai Valley. We used to make mattresses at Arthur Ellis, we used to make trains in Hillside Workshops. We made biscuits when Cadbury still had the Hudson name on its letterhead. We made woollen yarn and blankets at the Roslyn and Mosgiel woollen mills; Ross & Glendining, Hallensteins and Sew Hoys manufactured clothing; Methvens made taps and all sorts of plumbing equipment, McSkimmings made bricks and pipes at Abbotsford; engineers were everywhere making all sorts of products. And on and on it went.
I was in the advertising agency business back in the 70’s. Princes St was our Madison Avenue. Not the Mad Men, we were the Princes of Advertising. Our agency was only one of four national ad agencies with an office in Dunedin: Ilotts, Inglis Wright, Charles Haines and Dormer Beck who were all busy little creative beavers selling Dunedin made products around the country and beyond. We all organised photography, brochures and advertising campaigns for a vast selection of Dunedin businesses. That is how much productive business that Dunedin had back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Now there are no national ad agencies in Dunedin, they followed the yellow brick road.
Collectively over one or two short decades, we all bought into buying at the big overseas supermarket, we went global. We travelled a lot more. We travelled. We made overseas contacts. We imported. We have absolutely destroyed the economy of a great little city (and country). Now the most creative business in Dunedin is the Australian banking industry. They create credit and false hope. Where once money issued had to be linked to the value of gold stored by the government, now money has no foundation other than the will over governments to keep putting more numbers onto more digital accounts so perpetuate an illusion of wealth in the hope that they will survive another term in government. The truth will lose an election, the people only vote for hope. Our individual and communal debt builds and, in reality, the Australian banks own Dunedin. And they bought it cheaply as they gave us all the credit we wanted to buy whatever we wanted from the global supermarkets rather than keep on making it ourselves. Our Scottish forefathers would weep into their Wilson’s.
Today Dunedin essentially is a University town and that is probably successful because the University operate quite independently of Dunedin City Council and has the managerial talent to run a very smart business. But they have also setup Otago University branches in Auckland and Wellington and no doubt are embracing online technology as well to sell their education. So don’t bank on the Dunedin campus growing. The Dunedin campus experience is probably more to do with the well publicised, willingly tolerated, party culture that students can experience in Dunedin.
While all these nostalgic thoughts were running through my mind and I was wondering what job prospects faced our young people I passed this scene. Three able-bodied men spending the best part of a morning painting out the illegible social protests of someone with a spray can. I wondered whether one of these men was formerly a skilled wood-turner in a furniture factory? or could one have machine-lathed steel parts for a train carriage? Could one have once been a skilled brick-maker? Who knows? But if so and if they wanted to continue to ply their skilled trades, they would have needed to have moved to Asia. Nothing here in Dunedin but a paint-brush a hi-viz vest and minimum wage, less tax to spend on the cheapest goods the internet can provide. And successive governments at both local and national level have let it happen, even encouraged it, as they went on trade mission junket after trade mission junket and were wined and dined around the globe. Sister cities, trading partners. Our politicians have been babes in the wood. Today we no longer have the resources or skills to actually make the basic products upon which we depend for our survival. One well-directed solar flare, from the hundreds that are emitted annually, and our satellites will be fried, along with our ability to dial-up the internet or even make a phone call.
That haircut really ruined my day. The barbershop quartet were singing a depressing song and the harmonies were well off. If I want to invest in any business for the future, I think it would be the “Hunting and Fishing” retail franchise. After a single generation experiment in global trading and subsequent loss of our skills of manufacture of the products required to sustain our civilisation, I think the farmer and hunter gatherer may again find a vital role in our Kiwi society. Meantime, if you want to save what little economy you have left in your community, whenever you have a choice you must buy locally made and sold. It might cost a little more but at least they won’t be bottle green and they might fit better. Throw a local manufacturer / supplier under the global supermarket bus and you are throwing another chair on the fire.