It was the new social barometer Twitter that gave the first indication of the storm that hit the iconic south Wales furniture stores Maskreys. The immediate reaction from Tweeps was sadness. Maskreys, after all, is – until the end of November – more than just a furniture shop. Since 1898 the Maskrey family have been delivering, to a very particular south Wales market, an aspirational lifestyle that can only be hinted at by Cardiff upstarts like John Lewis, and the can-hardly-mention-in-the-same-breath, IKEA.
Others have remarked today that if Maskreys had adapted their buying policies then maybe it could have survived the competition from the comfortably upmarket John Lewis and the aggressively do it yourself IKEA. That seems to me to entirely miss the point! The three stores were always designed to be the bastions of a certain kind of taste (not always so obviously ‘good’): something that bordered on bling, but was rescued from crassness by craftsmanship and, yes, mostly unattainable for the likes of us, pricing. It meant the comfort of having bought something that would last for ever, reinforced by a feeling of painful expense, and the knowledge that everyone would admire your purchase.
I am sure there was another kind of customer as well: the moneyed for whom price guaranteed peergroup (The Jones next door) approval, even if sometimes the objects were themselves of doubtful taste.
Does it matter then that Maskreys is to disappear?
I think so. Firstly, there is the cost to the people involved. I have known Sam Maskrey, and her husband and executive chairman Robert through our common interests in the arts. Of course, they are entitled to retire and their orderly closure of the business, the wanting to do the best for their customers and their staff, is more than anyone can reasonably expect in a slash and burn recession.
The Cardiff store has been on Whitchurch Road since 1913. This is not the most suitable location for such an enterprise but it must be an important draw for many of the other businesses that now exist in the area. (The other most important attraction locally is Cathays cemetery!). There will undoubtedly be a knock-on, recessionary effect on those businesses. The Cardiff building is attractive of its kind but will almost certainly fall into a developer’s hands and an unsympathetic, unsuitable replacement is par for the course in Cardiff’s current planning–free–for–all.
And apart from the Maskreys business, there is equally significant potential loss of Sam and Robert Maskrey and their roles in the cultural life of Wales. The company itself sponsors the Hay Festival of Literature and the Welsh National Opera. Robert Maskrey has chaired the Lower Machen Festival for five years. Sam Maskrey is a director of the Hay Festival of Literature, deputy chair of Arts and Business Cymru and is on the board at Chapter Arts Centre. Sam and I met at Chapter when she joined the board and I managed to persuade her to take very active role in fundraising for the recently completed £3.5 million redevelopment. Without her enthusiasm and arm bending it is unlikely that Cardiff would have the benefit of the new Chapter.
It isn’t impossible, I imagine, for individuals to set up and run and businesses like Maskreys. But as a recent report on the homogenising of our high streets has warned, it is increasingly difficult when companies like Tesco regard land banking and the saturation of communities with their multiple outlets as the way to generate the highest return to shareholders. The idea of a business that delivers a particular range of products in an individualistic way for a carefully focused market depends on the market existing and being able to accurately deliver what they need. Fashion, times and financial ability are all fickle.
There is everything to commend in the manner of Maskreys departure. But many of us will notice the absence of the store and the qualities that Sam and Robert bring to life in Cardiff. For the past 12 years they have sponsored an annual Christmas carol concert held in the Norwegian Church, Cardiff Bay. That alone has raised £150,000 for Shelter Cymru. It’s not just the rich furnishing their eye-wateringly expensive flash pads, it’s the homeless who will miss them too.