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VM inspiration: Bekonscot model village

How better for British heritage brands to be inspired for new store facades than by taking a look at the perfect British town? That perfect location, totally unchanged by time, is to be found in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.

The model village of Bekonscot, an amalgam of Beaconsfield and Ascot, is a fantasy of the classic British town. First opened to the public in 1929, the model village subsequently expanded to 1½ acres, keeping up with contemporary architectural developments until it was decided to return the town to the 1930s. At this point Bekonscott became an idealized village, of the kind found in Miss Marple novels. It also became an inspiration for children’s authors such as Enid Blyton, who lived nearby and wrote ‘The Enchanted Village’ about Bekonscot, and Mary Norton who wrote ‘The Borrowers’ series.

The world’s oldest model village is somewhat over-shopped given the number of residential properties but, rather nostalgically, it has no empty store-fronts. Many store names are gentle puns: the greengrocer is called U. R. A. Peach; the clock maker’s store, Justin Tyme; the shoe shop, Evan Leigh Soles.

Some names reference well-known brands, or possibly local stores current when the village was first developed by Roland Calingham. The furniture store is called ‘Noel Parker, Dale Chippen,’ and the garage is ‘Hughes of Bekonscot.’

Besides the imaginary stores are some real British retailers: Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, and Aga. Let’s compre their idealized store in the village with recent 21st century reality.

Marks & Spencer, rather oddly for the period, has three closed-back windows. M&S has long had an open-backed window policy, as it was thought window shoppers would like to see in to the store even when it was closed.

The windows in this classic Georgian building are displayed by merchandise category: stockings, hats, and gloves have a window each. Would that small accessories received so much attention today.

The most recent M&S stores, Monk’s Cross in York, and Cheshire Oaks in Merseyside, still have open-backed windows, but the façade at Cheshire Oaks is really dominated by a series of revolving doors. Customers everywhere tend to be time-short, and display becomes less important for out-of-town destinations such as these.

Possibly a more recent addition to Bekonscot’s retailing offer is Aga. The range cooker brand has two full size standalone stores: in Tunbridge Wells and Thame.

The black-painted woodwork and white-painted façade of the Bekonscott version, set in a terrace of stores, is as reassuringly traditional as the real stores and their product range. A miniature swinging sign above the door completes the model, just as it does in real life.

Lastly, and charmingly on cue, Waitrose has just announced the opening of its first Little Waitrose station-store at King’s Cross.

Sadly, the King’s Cross store doesn’t really have store windows with a display in them at all. But the charming Bekonscot store-windows, set in a timber-framed building, are lined with shelves of miniature merchandise, pantry-style. The cans are arrayed in classic pyramids in time-tested, food-retailing style, and the bottles are grouped in threes, in best VM-display manner.

Today’s customers will recognize a few classic brands, including Ritz Crackers and Rice Krispies. But most of the product range seems to be drawn from the US: Idaho potatoes, High Tide oysters, Neptune shrimps, and Matzo meal, which makes me wonder if, rather naughtily, the cartons were from a US-based doll’s house supplier.

Signs in the windows proclaim ‘Confectionery,’ ‘Fruit and Vegetables,’ ‘Waitrose coffee,’ and ‘Scotch Beef and Mutton.’ We don’t see too many signs for mutton on the high street today, but wouldn’t it be appealing to see a similar display in the King’s Cross windows?

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