On 25th January 2020, the Stirchley Co-op sadly closed forever. The urge to see it one last time was strong. It was a strange feeling, after all it was just a shop. And yet… this was the supermarket I had grown up with in the 1970s-80s and returned to in the 2000s-10s.
Now, as we entered another decade, it was finally disappearing. The Co-op had been in Stirchley since 1875 and on the Umberslade Rd/Hazelwell Lane site since 1914. Its closure was big local news. In the era of late capitalism, it felt as if this was part of a wider crumbling in the way we run our society, the Co-op somehow a victim of a race to the bottom.
But that's a different post… To say goodbye I wanted to take a slow walk around Stirchley’s greatest ever retail character.
My Co-op memories
It was a supermarket I grew up with from childhood. I remember it when it was a thriving shop with a large dairy and rows of milk carts, where the lower car park is now.
I remember being allowed the treat of licking the Co-op Blue Saver and Green Shield stamps and sticking them in a stamp book so Mum could get some money off the groceries. Someone said on Twitter today that Stirchley was never a working class area – "as working class as Shoreditch". I beg to differ. There wasn't a lot of money around here in the '70s. Any money off was coveted.
It was also our local pop-to shop where our Irish catholic working class parents got their whisky ‘n’ fags before KwikSave moved into the high street and undercut them. I moved to London in the late 1980s but would help Mum shop there. She often bumped into friends and would stop for a catchup chat in the aisles. I have no memory of my Dad ever setting foot in it – feminism came late to our house and arrived courtesy of the women on the belt at Cadbury's somewhere in the 1980s.
Years later, I was back and single and heartbroken – and grieving. I recall many Friday/Saturday nights when popping to the Co-op was the tragic highlight of my evening. A place of comfort and loneliness all in one. Is this what my life had become I wondered as I walked across the two pedestrian crossings, past the brimming Three Horseshoes, tears rolling silently down my face. Still, be positive… I got a good Coop saver deal on my saucepans.
The ‘Society Café’ past the tills was where I went on a date circa 2003 – for dating irony at this point. We had tea and cake on the sofas while a mini brass band ensemble and carol singers played Christmas carols. Then he lent me music and books that I pretended to like, as was the dating tradition.
The café was also a destination for pensioners, local councillors, kids and hipsters alike. These were the days before Stirchley had many daytime cafés to escape to. Where you could get an unbranded cuppa char for £1.50.
I didn’t realise I was building up such nostalgia for this shop that many other B30 residents lambasted for its high prices and empty shelves, especially in its final years. The arrival of the cut-price German supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl, and food e-tailers were sounding the death knell.
At a corporate level the Co-op Group had been going through some turbulent economic times, with the near collapse of its bank in 2013 (it is now out of the banking business). But I always forgave the Co-op because it had more ethical policies in place than other cheaper supermarkets.
Still I was sad to see it run down over the years. More recently, with nowhere else to go in the rain, it became a place we took my new great-nephew for a pram ride around the aisles (if that isn't an indictment of our capitalist society and leisure offerings, I don't know what is). And when he started toddling, a trip to The Works concession at the back of the store for a book or toy. To him, it was still a world of exciting colour and riding the shopping trolleys.
The Co-op walk we had to cancel
The Stirchley Co-op’s last day was a Saturday and there wasn’t much shopping to be done anymore. The shelves had been slowly emptying over the previous weeks and whole sections of the store were now being closed off. The number of open tills shrank and then were removed. The raw infrastructure of the supermarket was being revealed in a slow uncovering of hook-on shelving, wire racks and easy-clean metal racks.
Locals were tweeting about the ‘apocalyptic scenes’ as if the end were nigh. Given what was to come, it was prescient.
Little did we know that a global pandemic was about to hit. That panic buying loo rolls and hand sanitiser was about to become a national sport. Or that we would soon have to travel much further afield to get basic food supplies during lockdown.
Before we knew any of this was coming, fellow Stirchley resident and psychogeographer Andy Howlett and I decided to walk the Co-op.
To: “mournfully walk up and down the empty isles, browsing instead the infrastructure that remains”.
To embrace: “The stark angles of empty metal shelving! The receding vistas of shopper-free aisles! The rhythm of its layout and walkways! The final beeps of the disappearing tills! The barren promotional structures offering no deals!”
To say a last goodbye.
We decided to put it up as an event on Facebook for friends and residents to join us. But when 120 people expressed an interest, we knew we’d hit a nerve and this walk would either be a great thing – or trouble.
Sadly our funereal store procession was not to be…
We received a nudge from the councillor and an alarmed email from a respected Neighbourhood Forum member that the walk wouldn’t go down well with staff. Although staff had all been offered new jobs with Morrison’s, who had taken over the site, it was felt a walk by the public would be inappropriate.
And so we cancelled the event. (It still lives on at LiveBrum listings archive – someone added it to the site and it lives on as a memorial marker perhaps.) To be honest we didn’t think so many people would want to come. We probably shouldn’t have formalised it into a group ‘walk’.
I sometimes wonder if the staff would have understood the sense of occasion and the community's wish to mark a historical day. Perhaps even enjoyed the shenanigans like the flash mobs of old. Instead the Co-op slipped quietly away.
Goodbye Stirchley Co-op
On closing day, just three of us went ahead for a last walk up and down the aisles of this iconic store. We met outside, slightly worried that 100 people might still show up. They didn't.
Keri, Andy and I walked slowly around the store, visiting every area that was still open, talking about the changes and taking photos. Staff were laughing and joking. Maybe they were relieved. A near-empty supermarket, shorn of its shiny goods, has to be demoralising.
The Stirchley History Group had set up a small exhibition of the history of Co-ops in the area. It showed the incredible Harrods-like original building on the corner of Umberslade Rd. My elderly friend Rita, now 90, fondly recalls a hat concession on the upstairs level. Why it was knocked down and replaced with a box and the upstairs never used, I don't know. Progress, I suppose.
The exhibition also had a supercuts model of a local TASCO (Ten Acres & Stirchley Co-operative Society). More local TASCO historical photos here.
After visiting it, the three of us went for a ceremonial tea in the Society Café, where we reminisced. Then, as a surprise, Keri pulled out a poem he had written to mark this day.
It was his way of saying goodbye to the Co-op. He read it out for us and I wished the staff could have heard it, too. Reproduced here with permission.
Elegy to a Co-op
In Stirchley, fair Stirchley, a proud beacon burns
To a positive wealth of cooperative firms
There’s Artefact, Loaf and of course the Bike Foundry
But now we are faced with a very sad quandary
By the gyratory, where the cars stop,
The mum of them all is now shutting up shop.
Over the years, we have given a wave
To Fitness First, Ten Pin and (less missed) KwikSave
The Co-op has fallen foul of a sad plot
So more than a Lidl – we’ll miss you a lot
You’re not just a supermarket. You offered more
As Stirchley’s own miniature department store
With bedding and linens, and cheap deep fat fryers
Tellies and vacuums and big tumble driers.
And there at the back an enormous amount
Of books that you’d not even want at a discount
When needing some supper we’d pop along late
To shuffle through food near its best-before date
Each one yellow-stickered and begging ‘choose me’
Like sad Cinderella, disconsolately
An eclectic selection contained in our hand,
Then we’d be faced with a different demand
The challenge that buying your purchases posed
With nine tills and checkouts – and eight of them closed
And on Sunday mornings, now where will we go for
An eight-item breakfast on black leather sofa?
Though some people avoided you, some people dissed
Please understand that you’ll always be missed
And so what approaches us from the horizon?
The future is brought to us by Mister Morrison
He means well, I’m sure, with his newly found operatives
But sadly for us, they will be un – Cooperative
A new beginning
And so it ended. We each left and turned in different directions.
The Stirchley Co-op is dead, long live its new cooperatives (Loaf, Bike Foundry and Artefact). And with their Stirchley Co-operative Development plans for the corner of Hunts Rd/Pershore Rd currently going through local planning and endorsed by MP Steve McCabe, perhaps in some way the baton has been passed on.
From upper case Co-op to lower case co-ops, perhaps this shift in in our high street augurs for a better society and a more modern 'Stirchley'.
Next week on 9 July 2020, delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, a new Morrison’s will open on the site. Anyone fancy a walk?
Further info and walks
This Stirchley walk and photo essay is part my 'Perambulate With Me' series of 12 walks around Stirchley. More about this and other walking projects on the Walking page.
Currently I'm involved in the Mapping Stirchley project through Walkspace, and we will be creating some walks from the community sourced 'map of noticed things' soon. Join the Walkspace Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for the newsletter to find out more.