With a mixture of surprise and resignation, I've realised that knowing what a cobbler does is a sign of my middle age.

When I started work in Wellington in the early 90s, I would dutifully take each new pair of shoes to the cobbler to get heel protectors and rubber half soles fitted, to help keep me upright on the capital's slippery footpaths.

The same cobbler is still in business today, such is the number of well-heeled Wellingtonians shod in expensive leather shoes.

As for Whanganui? When our resident cobbler needed to retire, he couldn't find a buyer for the business. Without any statistics to back me, I'll confidently assert that demand for shoe repairs has plummeted in recent years.


District councillor Helen Craig and her friends, who now must send their shoes away to Palmerston North for repair, would be a very small minority of Whanganui residents.

Several independent, mid- to high-end shoe shops have closed down in my recent memory. Instead, cheap shoes are the order of the day.

There are plenty of choices for under $10 at The Warehouse, and no one repairs cheap shoes. Depending on your circumstances, you chuck them out and buy another pair or keep wearing them despite the holes.

Councillor Craig's recent call for a cobbler sent me digging back through the regeneration strategy for the town centre, commissioned and adopted by council in April last year.

The notion that we can plug the gaps in our main street by inviting in chain stores and franchises springs from a paradigm that is expiring before our eyes.

Large retail operators are swallowing up specialist services everywhere.

The supermarkets will sell you speciality bread (as well as budget loaves for 99 cents). No need to visit the locksmith (/engraver/shoe repairer) to get a spare key cut; do it while running other errands at the mega hardware store.

Instead of visiting the newsagent, you can buy magazines at the supermarket - and, soon, get a prescription filled as well.


So much convenience, everything you need in one place - and cheaper, too.

That's the story the supermarkets and other large format retailers tell us. But they will pick and choose the high-margin and/or high-volume bits, invariably those that only require a basic level of skill.

So, for instance, I can get a simple house key duplicated, but forget anything more complicated. And forget the social glue that creates and sustains community connectedness, built one conversation at a time with the owners and staff of small, local businesses.

The regeneration strategy singled out brands like Max and Glassons that are missing from Whanganui.

Of course they are - mid-range fashion chains are not going to open up stores when their profit margins are under pressure and they are working out how to move more of their sales online.

It's naïve to think they will open up here. We have an ageing population and lower average income compared to the rest of the country, as the strategy itself details.

Some low-end fashion retailers have already closed their doors.

I'm sorry for more vacant shopfronts along Victoria Avenue, but not for a loss of fast-fashion options. That $15 T-shirt in this moment's "must have" colour or neckline detail? Yes it's cheap - it's cheap because somebody else, somewhere else, is paying its true cost, whether that's slave-like working conditions, environmental pollution or some other ill.

How many T-shirts does a person need? This is discretionary spending that won't hold up in a recession.

Franchises can appear to be a lower-risk alternative to starting your own business. But they are a generic offering, usually highly prescriptive about how a local franchisee can tailor the offering to their community and a chunk of profits flow out of town to the franchisor.

If we had a Starbucks or Gloria Jean's in Whanganui, why would I go there? Where is the individuality of a place and its people in a generic store fit-out and menu? I walk inside and I could be anywhere in the Western world.

Compare that to The Citadel, rooted in place near the beach and embedded in the Castlecliff community ... it's one of a kind. That's a much more interesting café experience.

All the Whanganui assets I boast about to visitors are singular and authentic expressions of this particular place.

Article (how to even explain what that is, without taking someone there) - studio, coffee-bar, art gallery, vintage shop, drop-in centre?

Music venues like Lucky Bar and the Whanganui Musicians Club at the old Savage Hall; the River Traders market; the multiplicity of interesting events that happen at Double Farley; the glass art and various artist-run-galleries; the Sarjeant Gallery; the Quartz Museum; Virginia Lake; the Bason Botanic Gardens; our wild black beaches ...

Let's go all out encouraging economic activity rooted in a new paradigm, one that doesn't elevate profit as a sole god.

Think social enterprise, co-operatives, community-led or iwi-owned initiatives.

It is possible to create jobs, provide valuable services and products, increase people's skills and confidence - all while improving the environment instead of trashing it and increasing a community's sense of wellbeing and pride.

Watch this space next week, when Nicola Patrick will share some stories about people already doing just this.

■Rachel Rose is a Whanganui-based writer and organiser. Links and more information at www.facebook.com/rachelrose.writer