Habitat, Shabitat

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You grow out of Habitat by the time you’re 40, a complete stranger once told me with a surprising air of confidence.

Looking around our house, a suburban monument to Habitat furniture of the period 1985-2000, I think he was probably right. We’ve bought a few frames and mugs since then but our last big purchase was the solid slate table that has sat utterly immovable in our dining room for 14 years. “Hope your husband’s strong,” one of the three knackered looking deliverymen who heaved the thing into the house said as he sat slumped on a chocolate brown Habitat sofa (also late 1990s vintage), sugary tea in hand.

In the downstairs hallway a Habitat bedside cabinet has been repurposed as a telephone table. Upstairs a deconstructed 1980s Habitat wardrobe lies under a spectacularly creaky 1990s dark pine Habitat bed — and 15 years of human detritus. The last remaining side plate from a classic 1980s Scraffito Bistro Set (matt black with crazy white lines clawed into it by a Japanese psychopath) languishes in a kitchen cupboard. In the bathroom one of our relatively few recent Habitat purchases, a wooden towel rail, regularly falls off the wall thanks to its bold, uncompromising design.

Our once hardcore Habitat addiction was finally defeated by the closure of the Tunbridge Wells branch. We would now have to travel 40 miles to Brighton or Canterbury to play the game of matching shelf prices with unticketed products, or marvel at the sheer gall of Habitat ‘sale’ pricing.

But our Habitat habit had been on the wane for a little while by then; thinking about it, since around the time we both hit 40. Perhaps we were growing out of it but the process was surely hastened by the idiosyncracies of Habitat customer service. For not only did Habitat introduce clean, contemporary design to the British High Street it also gave us our first taste of the air-of-studied-indifference class of store assistant.

Now, I think I’m pretty scrupulous about affording all my fellow human beings the same level of basic respect. I don’t look down my nose, or up my nose, at anyone. I’ve never equated service with servitude when I’ve worked in shops myself. So to begin with, being fastidiously ignored by immaculately turned out Habitat staff was a source of fascination more than anything.

Generally you’re not in a hurry when you’re shopping in Habitat — nobody dashes in to buy a Pineapple Tea Light Holder or Chicken Brick. But when you’ve been standing by the cash desk with your Chicken Brick for 20 minutes while two Habitat sales assistants hold a meeting in the furniture department and another taps away insouciantly on a laptop your own reserves of insouciance quickly evaporate.

If I’m sounding bitchy about Habitat it’s probably just that perennial impulse to hurt the one you love. And it’s been a long affair, my relationship with Habitat, going back in time a whole lot further than the 1980s. I vaguely recollect visiting one or two of the 1960s stores. Although no more than impressions — glimpsed through the Super 8 filter of the mind; grainy and soundless — these are firmly implanted in childhood memory. Thus they are part of the chemical architecture of grown-up, middle-aged me.

I’m not sure my mum and dad actually bought anything from Habitat in the 1960s. They probably just went to look around the place — looking, not spending, being a characteristic feature of Manson family days out (‘Manson family’ never looks good in print). In any case they probably would have viewed the Habitat inventory of the time more as mildly comedic than youthful or aspirational.

It was in the late 1970s that I discovered Habitat for myself. I was working as a junior reporter in Croydon and Habitat, though it was entombed deep in the Whitgift Shopping Centre (Nicolas Ceausecu’s long-lost shopping mall project?), provided the closest thing to a lunchtime retreat that Croydon could offer. This quarry-tiled oasis of calm was where I first consciously became aware of the pleasures of Storage. Its cafe was where I had my introductory exposure to croutons — and did my first ostentatiously intellectual reading.

Thinking about this ought to make the final demise of Habitat seem sadder than it does, more personal. But it’s just funny. Despite now resembling the Pound Shop, in the dying days of its closing down sale the Brighton branch is still only offering 30% off on the random mugs, toilet-roll holders and lone dining room chairs left scattered around the shop floor.

Well at least Habitat’s sense of humour is intact, even if the business model fell apart years ago.

Habitat may be gone but in Brighton we still have Shabitat. At ‘the people’s Habitat’ you can pick up an armchair for a fiver or a chest of drawers for tenner. A Chicken Brick ought to set you back about 50p.

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