Published on February 10th, 2015 | by Kate Ellis2
“Independent shops are not above criticism”
Reading is very protective of its independent businesses. Looking at the dearth of small and local shops in the town centre this might not appear to be the case – but we will fiercely defend the few independents we have. As a town overwhelmed with chains and clone stores we are keen to protect and celebrate our independent shops – however, to nurture local businesses in Reading we must also be brave enough to criticise them.
Two recent experiences brought me to this conclusion. The first was when I had a few friends come visit me in Reading last weekend. We decided to go out for lunch and I was very keen to show off the more interesting and trendy parts of Reading, so I took them to one of my favourite coffee shops in town, Workhouse Coffee.
However, to my surprise, neither of my friends particularly liked Workhouse and were more interested in visiting some of the chain restaurants along the Oracle riverside. I was quick to defend the café which I’ve always felt is the closest Reading has to its own Central Perk: a trendy, independent coffee shop which is a great place to chat away with friends for a couple of hours. However, I realised that my defense of Workhouse was not based on its products or service, but on the fact that it is the only coffee shop of its kind in Reading.
The second experience was a recent review by Edible Reading in which they rightly argued that people in Reading shouldn’t settle for ‘good enough’ and should instead be encouraged to criticise disappointing events and businesses. Edible Reading’s example was the recent ‘Winter Wonderland’ in Forbury Gardens which ended up being little more than a tacky funfair. Not a bad thing by any means, but it could have been something so much better.
My friends who visited recently come from a town with an abundance of independent and local businesses. For them, Reading was fun to visit because they could go to Jamie’s Italian, Apple or Wagamama’s – chains they didn’t have in their home town. Independent businesses held no special value to them and could be judged on an equal level to chains.
To people in Reading, ‘independent business’ often conjures up images of trendy bars, boutique cinemas and quirky coffee shops. But ‘independent’ can also mean nail bars, mobile phone repair shops and greasy spoons. Because we have so few independents we treat them with reverence that isn’t entirely deserved, as an independent shop can be just as lifeless and soulless as a chain store. Alt Reading, for example, exists to champion independent businesses but mostly focuses on the trendier and more interesting places opening.
As a town we are scared to criticise local businesses because we fear we might scare them away. That if we encourage people to be critical of our cafes and bars we might lose the few independent businesses we have. But if we ever expect our local sector to improve then we need to be brave enough to criticise restaurants whose service is poor, pubs who actually don’t offer anything unique and shops which aren’t that special. How can we claim to support good local businesses if we’re unwilling to recognise those which are bad?
We should definitely be encouraging and supporting independents that want to open up in Reading: a good independent shop is able to provide a service and experience that you will not be able to find anywhere else. But we mustn’t hold independents to a lower standard than chain shops. As Edible Reading said, we must not settle for ‘good enough’ and instead champion those shops, restaurants, bars, pubs and cafes that truly are special.
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