When I was seven my dad took me to a magical place where I was rich.
I had always imagined what it might be like to be able to buy anything I wanted. And so it was in a pound store that I walked up and down fluorescent-lit aisles, sauntering through different gems, picking up and putting down, and choosing without having to look at a price tag. The dull, heavy pound coin (before its rebrand) in the centre of my palm allowed me this luxury and I remember the aisles and the dim smell of disinfectant and the new paper in the stationary aisle that thrilled me. The pound shop was the best place on earth.
My dad worked at a Poundstretcher on Southall High Street in the '80s – his first job when he arrived in this country armed with broken English from a village in Punjab, and so began a slow integration into British life. It wasn’t at the tills (that honour would come later) but as a cleaner that he began work life in this country, and I always wonder what kind of things he must have thought mopping those aisles. Coming from a village in India where a faulty electricity generator was the height of luxury, to watching parents come and buy heavy loads of crayons, batteries, party streamers and hanging baskets all for a pound – surely the epitome of British excess.
Though my dad worked there, I wasn’t alone with my early love affair with the pound shop. The concept was one that took off (by the '90s, shops like Poundland and Everything’s £1 were thriving) and this week, as Poundworld announced that it was closing its 355 shops across the UK, with an estimated loss of 5000 jobs, there was a collective slump – not just for those who rely on a pack of multipack Walkers for a quid, but for the nostalgic magic of how far a pound would once go. The demise of the pound shop is also the demise of the pound – it used to signify economic sovereign strength, with the Queen’s head regally appointed to remind you that you were royal-adjacent every time you presented it at the till. It was sterling, it was gold! The pound as an object alone was designed to invoke a sense of beauty – one that has faded as we’ve moved towards a cashless society, as it’s lost value, and as we hurtle towards a political climate where British heritage nostalgia has given rise to sinister right-wing political ideologies.
But the glamour didn’t sustain. While my early wonder was of tasting the high life and a brief, tantalising respite from penny counting, the demonisation of the pound shop as a representation of working class consumer habits prevailed, seen as mass producing plastic crap that was terrible for the environment, and cheap. They were a by-word for something you didn’t really want to be associated with. This week, when David Lammy described Boris Johnson as a “pound shop Trump” the underlying message was clear – a pound shop version of anything is a cheap imitation.
In 2018, the pound shop takes on two functions; one, for thrillingly tacky treats: unofficial Bieber calendars, phone chargers that last a period of two weeks before dying, and party packs of hats and Harry and Meghan masks for your last-minute ironic party. Their other function is more crucial. In a country where food banks gave out a record 1.3m food parcels to an estimated 666,000 people in 2017-18, they are a lifeline for those in low-income families where buying a multipack of crisps for a pound makes the difference (the jury’s still out about whether or not pound shops are actually even cheaper than supermarkets but it’s what they represent that really counts here). They provide crucial quick fixes for stressed single mums like mine who, after my parents divorced, shopped in them, picking up bread, shampoos, family essentials – cupboards stocked thanks to the ability to make that pound work hard.
The demise of the pound shop and places like Poundworld was perhaps always going to lose a battle against perceived quality (read: taste and class). Even geographically speaking, the existence of a high number of pound shops became a hallmark of 'impoverished' areas - along with betting shops and off licences. Gentrification has put pressure on that, but something else too – the idea that quick, mass produced products are out of vogue in a world where we want to feel like individuals. Real taste is about catering to the individual, making you feel special through the idea of craft and care. Perhaps fragile consumer egos need to feel considered, while low income families are happy to forfeit it to ensure they get what they need.
For my dad, having his first look at an alien country through the lens of a pound shop, you can see the possibility, the opportunity. The sheer abundance of choice and accessibility, that you could give your daughter options with a pound must have been intoxicating. While the world outside the fluorescent lights of Poundstretcher was more unforgiving, inside them, there was a dizzying promise. For most immigrants, unaware of the class politics of high and low culture, yet to learn how the places you love and frequent will inevitably become subject to ridicule by the mainstream, these little shops really were magic. What says 'making it' more than buying a pack of 10 plastic cars, water guns and felt-tips and sending them back to India in worn, brown suitcases?
For me, the pound shop, still a representation of working class spending, will always have a special place in my heart. For their simplicity; for their forgotten magic. And for my dad, they represented his naive, wide-eyed immigrant dream before he knew better. You could build anything you wanted in Britain, one pound at a time. Bless him.