Every morning I take the same route for my walk from home to work. This ritual, of no more than half an hour in duration, takes me through three of the main shopping streets in Glasgow: from Argyle Street to Buchanan Street, and thence to the unpronounceable Sauchiehall Street (so-key-hall). This route is known as the style mile, the golden ‘z’, a paradise for shoppers.
The psycho-geography of the place is consumption inducing. These are mostly pedestrianised ways, with street musicians playing jazz, and bagpipe players, clad in full Scottish attire, trying to make ‘We Will Rock You’ (by Queen) sound reasonable. Shop windows are arranged with brightly coloured objects. The streets are paved with balloon artists, Scientologists (with their stress tests) and anti-Scientologists (silent, with their masks and their banners), escapism artists getting out of straitjackets or tied into them for a few coins, human statues and convincing doubles doing Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalk’. Not even the permanent rain bothers me when my senses are monopolized by such stimuli. The route, however, is also my burden, because –I must make a confession–every day I get to work at least 10 minutes late, distracted in my walk.
They say that Glasgow is the best shopping city in the UK outside of London and it is true that, in the months of November and December, precursors of the largest wave of consumption of the year, one can not walk without bumping into people or their big bags. The motto of the city, hammered right from the arrivals escalators at the international airport is ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’. The ‘cool’ tradition of the city is further cultivated thanks to recent musical exports (think Franz Ferdinand). The style mile, though, is the epitome of globalization. It contains everything a tourist could imagine. Nothing found there is done by hand, of course, but that does not mean it is not special.
My route starts at Argyle Street, right where the cars are banished. Visitors should not venture further east (yet) because Stockwell Street, which separates Argyle Street and Trongate, functions as a magnetic field. Trongate is where the poorer Glasgow, that of the pound shops and off-licences begins. This is not to say it is without interest, but it deserves its own route.
Argyll Arcade is a 19th century style shopping place connecting Argyle and Buchanan Streets. To me, this place is like a time vortex: this is where my morning routine goes wrong and I get distracted from my task of getting into work. Like these types of spaces, the arcade is a covered way, halfway between outside and inside, but where all shops are jewellers. My daily bedazzlement with the place is generated, in part, by the respite from the incessant horizontal rain, but also the glare coming from the tungsten and day lights reflecting on the diamonds, the lack of modesty in showing the average ring prices –which is around £4,000– and the strange feeling that those diamond rings look at the passers by.
Further up, there’s Buchanan Street. There, we run into the newly refurbished St Enoch Centre and the Buchanan Galleries –more efficient, European style shopping centres–, the Apple store (two stories!) and the exclusive Princes Square, with its metallic peacock guarding the building. In the courtyard of this space is where the Miss Scotland competition is held annually. The work that architects have put into these five stories is worth visiting, from the winding central staircase, where each of us can be miss or mister as we walk down, and the trompe l’oeils that adorn the entrance from Buchanan Street, to the selection of boutiques (Fifi & Ally, Browns, Ted Baker, Penhaligon’s), cafés and restaurants.
The last part of the tour takes us to Sauchiehall Street. The urban plan of this very long street speaks a universal language: when the pedestrianised way stops, the shops give way to night clubs, with the accompanying limousines and taxis. The stores in this final zigzag are typical of any British High Street: pharmacies / drugstores (Boots, Superdrug), known department stores (Marks and Spencer), specialist tea, chocolate and soap shops, bookstores, shoe retailers and a range of discount stores.
This is a consumer paradise, but also a gift to the senses for those who want to see but not buy. And if your thing is not shops, you will find plenty of amusement in the streets perpendicular to the ‘z’: from The Lighthouse (a centre for design and architecture), and GoMA, (the gallery of modern art and also a public library) to the Glasgow Concert Hall, and a large number of pubs and bars. Amongst these, I can select Sloan’s in Argyll Arcade, the bars in Princess Square, and The Universal, parallel to Sauchiehall Street. The Style Mile is a microcosm, a mini-city within Glasgow, with every comfort one could want.
But the accolade of best shopping city outside of London lies not only on these three streets, close to my heart for the daily battle with timekeeping they represent for me. Outside of the City Center, consumerist cravings can be satisfied in the trendy West End, in the fashionable Merchant City, the Chateau on the East End, or the huge Braehead shopping mall, with Ikea and all. The latter, until recently, could even be reached by boat. Clearly, we need a bigger purse.