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Generation Jumpers:25 years Dialling in Christmas

This issue’s history column comes from a more recent era as Mister Adam spends two and a half decades window shopping…

Brighton’s history isn’t just a distant past of fisherfolk, seawater pox doctors, dandy princes and Victorian machine heads. For many locals, sharing reminiscences of “back in my day” with contemporaries or descendants is far more interesting. This writer moved to Brighton in the autumn of 1996 so I’ll have lived here for exactly a generation (25 years) when this Whistler lands in your Inbox.

Handily, the first thing I bought after moving down was the FootSavers Guide to Brighton Shopping. This quirky book consisted of maps of major commercial streets with the name and category of every shop and service along them. So last week I dusted it off, turned to the Dyke Road section (a perfect snapshot of the area a generation ago) and walked the same route looking out for changes.

FootSavers covers from what are now Parker Kitchens and Hi Cacti up to the Good Companions and Ridgeland House. Other than Dyke Road, only the Post Office and shops on Prestonville and Chatham feature. I’m not sure what criteria the 1996ers used re client facing offices, but my modern comparison includes any with visible signage, eg Close Brothers and Austin Gray. Retailers that straddle two categories (hi Sawdust and Puck) I’ve counted towards whichever element dominates at street level.

The 65 shops and services from a generation ago drops to 62 today. Double-sized stores such as Kindly and Magdusia are probably the main reason. Building works at 107-109 are offset by a hairdressers and veggie café where the mid 90s had (locked) public toilets. Fourteen names from 25 years ago remain, a few slightly shifting location or focus: Fullerton’s, Tinker’s, Ashton’s, Parker, Berry, Jasmine, Uden, Just Gents, Curry Inn, Dial-a-Pizza, Seven Dials Flowers, the Good Companions, Coop and Post Office.  

This resilience demonstrates the area’s community spirit and nature, although the online era has shunted out a few store types. Say goodbye to all our video libraries and banks, for example. The supermarkets and corner shops category is up by one and several of these are now physically larger. By the way, if you’re puzzled by the area having two Coop stores in such close proximity, look at the colour of their branding. Blue ones are owned by Coop itself, greens by a local co-operative – as strange as it seems, they’re technically competitors!

One of the biggest gains is in places to eat and drink, be that takeaway or inside, which have jumped from a total of 14 to 19 venues. It seems the biggest factor here is that the modern Dialler drinks a helluva lot more. This is particularly true of bean-based beverages with coffee shops and bakeries (which, let’s be honest, are just coffee shops with slightly more crumbs in their beard) springing up where once lived an opticians, TV repairer and building society.

That’s not to say grape-based drinks miss out as we now have more wine bars, bottle merchants or whatever the hip name for them this week is. As for pubs, it’s a common lament elsewhere in Brighton and beyond that many have been turned into supermarkets, eg the St James’s Street Coop usurping a former Tin Drum bar. All hail Seven Dials then for somehow reversing this trend. The Cow, which was also a Tin Drum in recent times, was actually a Happy Shopper supermarket back in 1996.

As for specialist retailers, this is the time of year when people are encouraged to shop locally for Christmas rather than feed more money into tax dodging online behemoths. So how will going on a local present buying spree differ from a quarter century ago? If it’s clothes or second hand fare you’re after, not too well. Both categories are down from three local outlets to a single one. Furniture/antiques, meanwhile, have a sole survivor from four. Should you wish to buy your loved one dry cleaning or a festive fiver on the 2.40 at Aintree, you’re also down to one (formerly two) location apiece.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the proliferation of suburban megastores, the household and hardware sector has held up well, dropping from six (one being a super niche cash register pedlar) to four. OK, we’re counting Parker as more than one here given separate names/frontages. Either way, you can still locally buy little baby Bella that socket wrench she’s had her eye on.

On an even happier note, if your kids want to swap your 1996 Xmas gift of a hamster for a clarinet, the local pet store is now a musical instrument vendor… and if physiotherapy or vape juice are what Great Uncle Bulgaria craves, fill your boots/lungs from these totally new arrivals. Looking to treat your postperson to a house for Christmas? You won’t be surprised to learn there are now a load more local estate agents, up from five to nine.

When it comes to more traditional gift buying, the Dials now has two rather than three flower shops – cacti count, yeah? Traditional card and gift shops have stuck at two. The category that has seen the biggest jump of all is the hair and beauty sector which has actually more than doubled. There are now eight (not three) places where you can get granny’s head or downstairs area shaved for Christmas – some do gift vouchers.

So that’s how to shop locally in either 1996 or 2021. We wonder how different the area’s available shops and services might look a further generation into the future. Will the community spirit of Diallers see us hoverboarding our way to an even broader selection of local outlets in 2046, or will the entire area just be one giant Amazon Locker? That, dear readers, is largely down to you.

Ruin your Christmas by visiting factmeup.com for Mister Adam’s mildly annoying Brighton history videos.

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