One of the greatest transformations in the UK during my ten-year absence has been the sudden dying out of the high street off-licence.
It wasn't hard to see it coming. The might of the major supermarket chains has been growing steadily over the past 20 years. Many of the country's small corner shops - often run by Indian or Pakistani immigrants - have been taken over by chains such as Londis, Nisa, and the Co-op, allowing them to purchase booze in bulk and become more price competitive with the big supermarkets. The supermarkets, in turn, have shifted their emphasis away from the big edge-of-town stores (running out of places to build the bloody things, I should think) towards smaller 'convenience' outlets in central locations, with trendy new sub-branding like Sainsbury's Local and Tesco Metro. Not a lot of room left for the local offie any more.
I gather Unwins was one of the first big off-licence chains to go under, at the end of 2005, followed by the once ubiquitous Threshers in 2009, and then last year by Oddbins (although I gather that has now emerged from administration again, and is soldiering on with 37 core stores - a drastic shrinking from its peak of 278 outlets 20 years ago).
I had to go on a little excursion this afternoon to replace a bottle of Bombay Sapphire for my host Little Anthony (there had only been a couple of slugs left in the bottle, but I really shouldn't have finished it off in his absence: Bad House-Guest Guilt set in!). Well, it proved to be a much longer excursion than I had anticipated. I find that 5 or 6 of the city centre offies I remember from my student days in Oxford have now disappeared, a couple of them quite recently by the looks of it - including the large Oddbins on the High Street at the corner of King Edward Street, my 'local' replenishment centre during my years as an undergraduate at Corpus, just around the corner.
I eventually found one of the handful of surviving Oddbins up on Little Clarendon Street, and was able to get my bottle of Sapphire there (damn, Antonio has expensive tastes!); as far as I can discover, it is one of only two off-licences remaining in the city.
The decline of the offie has been a gradual process, ongoing for a decade or more. The trouble with my having been out of the country for most of that time is that it seems to me as if it has happened overnight. It is a rude shock to discover that an institution which had played such a central role in my young life has 'suddenly' disappeared.
I am particularly grieved by the loss of that Oddbins on Oxford High Street. That was where I first started to learn about wine, and about good malt whiskies and exotic foreign spirits as well. It was a place of comfort, a venue for some window-shopping, fantasising for 10 minutes now and then that I lived on a better budget as I browsed among the rows upon rows of mysterious, sexy, and unaffordable bottles (yes, there's probably a metaphor for my love life in there somewhere; I did hang out far too much with posh girls with whom I never really had any chance...). It was a little bit of a social hub too, somewhere I could almost always count on fortuitously bumping into friends from my own or neighbouring colleges. It was even, on a few occasions, a pick-up joint; or, at least, if you happened to bump into people buying booze for a bottle party, it was perfectly straightforward to start chatting with them and invite yourself along. Ah, student social life - it was so easy (in some ways; so hard in others!).
And now that Oddies, my Oddies, is gone. As if it's not bad enough that nearly all of my favourite pubs from those days have been closed or had wanky gastro-pub makeovers! I came back here for a nice self-indulgent wallow in the featherbed of nostalgia... and I find that they've replaced it with a bloody rock-hard futon.
Footnote: I have turned up an interesting little business article on The death of the British off-licence.