EMPIRE: HMV AND THE DYING ART OF BROWING

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THIS IS SO TRUE! I CAN SPEND HOURS IN HERE!

Every Friday, I do a slot on a BBC radio show which is broadcast from just off Oxford Street. Every Friday after it’s done, I walk back to the Empire offices in Covent Garden. And every Friday – and don’t tell my boss – I pop into the HMV on Oxford Street (the big HMV, not the one in the basement of Selfridges), partially because it’s on my route back to the office, and partially because it gives me an experience that’s pretty much unique for a film fan in the UK: honest-to-goodness browsing.

I don’t buy every Friday. Sometimes, browsing is just that. But I’ve dipped into my pocket more often than not, particularly over the last few months as the retail giant mounted a particularly enticing Blu-ray sale that never seemed to end. If you’ve been in an HMV recently, you’ll know the one I mean. I’ve added substantially to my Blu-ray collection because of that sale.

But the point is, whether I buy or not, the experience is the key. That feeling of walking into a room filled with possibilities, knowing that, if you gave yourself over to it completely, you could spend hours wandering around the aisles and shelves, picking out films you don’t own, or haven’t heard of, or have a hunch about, or maybe you just like the cover. Maybe you’ll find a hidden gem. Maybe you’ll find that one film you’ve been looking for for ages, the one that allows you to proudly say you’re a Jeff Goldblum completist. Maybe you’ll find a bargain, one you hadn’t necessarily thought about owning, but what the hell, it’s only a fiver.

And now, if the news is true, if the worst comes to bear, that experience, that shared experience for film fans (music fans will still have indie stores; gamers will still have Game, if they can find a local store) up and down the UK, could be gone in a fell swoop, if HMV does indeed go into administration. And while the aforementioned Game indicates that administration isn’t always the end, the recent examples of Comet and Jessops tell us that more often than not, that’s exactly what it is. Within a couple of weeks, HMV could be a memory set to fade into the distance, like Virgin Megastores, Zavvi and Our Price – remember Our Price? – before it.

There will be those who won’t mourn, and indeed my Twitter feed last night, although largely sympathetic to HMV (including a few HMV employees), bore witness to a few of them; people who say that this is the way commerce is moving, that it’s survival of the fittest out there, that physical copies of DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs and games are on the decline – everything’s digital, baby, and everything lives either online or up there in the Cloud. That the High Street is changing irrevocably, and this is just the way it is. You can’t halt the tide.

There were also those who said that HMV brought this upon themselves; that the chain was its own worst enemy. And I’ll admit that that’s not too far off the mark. On those frequent browsing trips, I’ve often stared agog at the prices they charge for terrible, terrible films. £30 for a Blu-ray? Good luck shifting that stock, friendo, especially when you can pop online and pick up the same Blu-ray for probably two-thirds of the price.

But, for me, HMV is part of the furniture. There’s a certain romance about the place – weird, considering it is – or was – a corporate behemoth, from the garish pink logo to the iconic HMV dog, Nipper. And there’s an undeniable romance to being able to hold – actually hold – a copy of the film you just bought, to store it on a shelf at home so that others may come around to your gaff and relentlessly judge your taste in movies.

Not only that, HMV has proved invaluable over the years. When Tony Scott passed away last year, I was gripped by a desire to rewatch Crimson Tide that night. Amazon and Play.com deliver fast, but not that fast. Thankfully, the HMV down the road from Empire HQ had one copy left on Blu-ray. I was watching it just a few hours later. And I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve needed to grab a shot from a movie, and been bailed out by a quick saunter down to our local HMV (or Fopp, the brilliant indie-centric record/film store which was bought by HMV after it closed a couple of years ago; its fate is uncertain once more). You can’t get that from an online retailer, and you can’t recreate the satisfaction of browsing online, either. Not to my satisfaction, at least. Oh, sure, there will be small cinema stores that still offer that experience, but they’re dwindling fast (one closed down in Islington recently), and charge exorbitant prices. But hey, you can’t halt the tide.

Or maybe you can. Maybe something can be done, so that the thousands of HMV employees – or a good percentage of them anyway – may be saved, and that the millions of film fans in this country have somewhere to go to while away their lunch hour, and maybe broaden their horizons a little while doing so. What that something is, I have no idea – I’m no Adam Smith, and neither is Empire’s Adam Smith – but I fervently hope that a remedy can be found for His Master’s Voice. For I’d hate to imagine a world in which we couldn’t hear it any more.

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