Despite rumours to the contrary, HMV's flagship store on Oxford Street is very much open. Overnight closures happen to unstable camera shops, but not to the last major music retailer in the High Street. A couple of TV camera crews are lined up outside, and a woman pauses to snap a last photo on her smartphone.
Those entering are greeted by staff in bright pink t-shirts. They're older than you might normally expect to see here, presumably drafted in from managerial offices where they're no longer needed. They smile, because what else can you do, and hand out leaflets for January's unprecedented blue cross sale. That ought to have been a hint that something was wrong, a blanket 25% off the majority of discs in the store, but now it merely improves the bargains as the consumer vultures alight.
It may be Tuesday afternoon, but business here is brisk. Not last-Saturday-before-Christmas busy, but rammed enough that if this had been normal footfall the company wouldn't be in trouble. They flock around the cut-price CDs and money-off DVDs near the entrance, whereas very few are staring at the wall of latest releases. Today's customers are here to rescue their past, not take a dip into the future.
Within the store product is laid out pretty much as normal, with the exception of a grab-box of books placed near the front doors. It's as if HMV had already spotted that printed pages were clogging up their shelves, so were trying to ditch the lot, fairly unsuccessfully thus far. Next they have to come to terms with the fact that silver discs with music on aren't as popular as they'd hoped, especially at £15 a time.
The games section is busy, and the sofas in the "gamezone" where the time-rich come to play. Further back in the store are several gentlemen attempting to fill the remaining holes in their record collection while they still can. They wander past the One Direction calendars and retro t-shirts and settle in the aisles where their teenage years reside. One man's overflowing basket suggests he's buying CDs like they're going out of fashion... which of course they are.
A lady is looking for Lemon Jelly and asks a pink t-shirt for assistance. She can't find it the L rack, maybe it's under J, or maybe it's not here at all. The latter turns out to be the case. This megastore probably holds the widest range of titles in the country but these days that's merely the tip of the iceberg. It's tempting to wander over and offer the disappointed customer a card with Amazon's web address on it, because they stock the long tail with ease, and at less than half the price, but best not.
The queues are the checkout are long, but not extreme. There's no sense of panic - the punters have recognised that HMV will be here in some format for some time yet. In the background the in-store radio is playing Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins. The song may be more than thirty years old, from the era before CDs had even been demoed on Tomorrow's World, but the target audience are lapping it up. Echo Beach, far away in time.
The rest of the nation might have latched onto downloads and CDs-by-post, but a significant minority of the population still want to browse for music in store. HMV still accounts for more than 20% of the UK's music purchases, in physical formats, however outdated you might think this behaviour. Not everyone has the streaming apps and Spotifys that you take for granted, nor the wherewithal to buy their music with postage and packing.
I'm still a regular HMV customer - it's where I'd choose to buy a new album rather than wait two days for a package and two more to pick it up from the sorting office. But I still manage to wander round the store and out again without buying anything. The racks are stocked with old product, like last year's blockbusters and the same old La's album, and if I'd wanted old product I'd have bought it at the time. It's January and there are only a handful of featured new releases by the door, and none of those excite. It's not necessarily HMV that needs to up its game, it's the music industry.
I realise that, as a Londoner, I'm in a very privileged position regarding the purchase of recorded music. Even if HMV goes bust I still have numerous independentrecordstores I can get to, very easily, when fancy strikes. Were I further out I'd have to rely on the limited selection stocked by Tesco, which almost certainly wouldn't cover my needs, or forget browsing for real and join the future. That's music by post, and/or digital files hosted on some electronic device until it breaks or the subscription ends. Cheaper tunes, yay, but fewer UK jobs, bugger.
Along Oxford Street the shutters are down at Jessops and the shop's entire contents are stacked in packing crates, ready for removal. Beyond Oxford Circus is the site of HMV'sfirst store in 1921, now a Foot Locker flogging trainers. And close to Tottenham Court Road is the once mighty Virgin Megastore, recently transformed into a humongous Primark. I hear they sell clothes on the internet these days. Britain's High Streets had better watch out.