A closer look at secrets of the shop fronts


WHEN I was little, my Granny took me to a shop to visit some distant relations. Mr and Mrs Freer weren’t distant to her – they had a large family and she brought their children up, but they were not people I knew.

We went in through the shop. Behind the counter was the parlour door, which we were welcomed into.

Mrs Freer was large, cheerful and of a sedentary appearance.

Her husband I actually did know, just a little. Uncle Charlie Freer was small, tough and wiry.

He had been a horse breaker and dog trainer, was adept at all manner of country skills, and still cultivated his allotment.

My memory of the parlour is of a smallish room full of furniture, Mrs Freer sitting at a table in the middle, and a large brass dish with Chinese dragons on it.

I never noticed the shop at all, except for one thing – the bell. It was a brass bell on a coiled metal strip and rang whenever anybody opened the shop door.

That kind of shop no longer exists. They were dependent on price maintenance. The rise of supermarkets from the late 1950s put them out of business, and the introduction of VAT in 1973 was the last straw for most of those that were left.

THE second proposition of Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament states that: ‘Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties, and the sentiments, of the age in which it is created. Style is the peculiar form that expression takes under the influence of climate and materials at command.’

What is missing here, of course, is function, though I suppose it might be covered under ‘wants and sentiments’.

This is the nub of the case for the traditional shop front. It isn’t sentimentality, but a matter of respecting the nature of the building.

The ‘materials at command’ were stone, brick and timber, and the ‘wants and sentiments’ those of tradespeople who, except for a few very successful ones who could afford to move out to the suburbs, wanted to live over the shop.

So even though the upper floors may now be given over to retail or office space, it remains true that, as built, they were the family home.

The shop front makes that distinction between house and shop.

More than that, a single glance at a good shop front tells you everything you need to know, such as whether it’s a hairdresser’s, a bookshop or a specialist dealership.

EACH part serves a purpose. The cornice is a little roof. It closes off the top of the shop front against the weather, and is the boundary between the shop and the dwelling-house above.

Cornices are often covered with lead flashing and may be decorative. The cornice of Joe’s Pet Supplies, for instance, has tooth-like ornaments (dentils) on its underside.

Below the cornice is the fascia. It gives the name of the shop and its business. This is the most telling part of the whole façade because you see into the proprietor’s mind. Is it discreet and tasteful, or bold and brash?

Fascias can be too fussy, but the commonest error is to make it too big so that it’s out of proportion with the rest.

The pilasters are the columns on each side. They are not needed in modern, steel-framed buildings, but where the walls are load-bearing, the pilaster turns the bit of side-wall that supports the girder that holds up the rest of the front wall into a stylish feature.

Pilasters can be structural or decorative, and can conform to a Classical order or not.

Morpeth Motaparts, in Newgate Street, has plain pilasters, with a plinth below and a simple but tasteful capital above.

Look out for the ornamental features called console brackets. Some of them take the form of a grotesque mask.

The Flood Scheme Information Centre and Appleby’s Bookshop, both in Newgate Street, have the best ones.

Plate glass makes it unnecessary to divide a window up, but where a shop is in an old building, divisions are more in keeping. The Relate Charity Shop is particularly fine, with mullions (vertical), transoms (horizontal) and small panes above.

The bit under the window is called the stallriser, from the days when shops were open at the front, like the ones in the Grainger Market today. The entrance is obviously important, and may be recessed to form a lobby. This creates extra window space and attracts the customer to come closer.

Look out for lobbies with decorative floor tiles, iron gates, and an opening transom above the door for through ventilation.