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Let's go easy on WH Smith - us millennials had some magical moments there

Every year, at the end of August, my dad took me and my brothers to WH Smith.

There, he handed each of us a basket and let us to run wild, presumably with the caveat that we should eventually come back, although that was never explicitly stated.

We were like kids in a candy store, if you count protractors and ink cartridges to be thrilling as candy, which I did, because I was that kind of child, and also because WH Smith is, in part, a candy store.

Today, you'd be lucky to get your hands on any of its goodies and get much change from a fiver. High costs are just one of the reasons Smiths has just been voted as the worst shop on the UK high street: others include drab decor, poor stock selection and those bags special-offer Thornton's chocolates on the counter remind me of Alan Partridge trying to flog his only slightly-dented Chocolate Oranges.

But at 226-years old, you'd be past my best, too, and anyone younger than the Millennial cut-off – I think it's zygotes and under – barely needs to go into actual bricks and mortar shops these days.

For me, a child who took refuge in reading books and writing stories, WH Smiths was heaven. It was packed out with fancy fountain pens and mechanical pencils; biros and glitter pens and that chunky, scratchy pen that everyone clicked down the tabs? To get different colour ink?

A pen is not just an implement to a child; it's a tool for expressing what you can't articulate and for telling your version of events.

Smiths also sold pad after pad of paper, lined and plain, all waiting to be filled with my stories. It sold diaries, where I could write my secrets and track my feelings.

When, as a family, we bought our first computer, WH Smiths was where we went for printer ink and blank paper. I didn't stop writing, I just went digital. Imagine getting an education now without those items somewhere in the vicinity.

WH Smiths also sold books by the stack-full, with all my best friends...I mean, favourite authors... in one place. Jacqueline Wilson; Michael Morpurgo; Adele Geras; Noel Streatfield, Sue Townsend. The list is endless, and I devoured them all, over and over.

I was horrified to pop into a Smiths recently and see the Books section relegated to a couple of shelves and dominated by half-price Mary Berry.

Our ritual, pre-term stationery haul was a luxury, but whether you left with a bulging new pencil case or a couple of novelty rubbers, the outcome was the same: we were excited for a new school year. We were excited to learn. Aged nine, new stationery is more than the sum of its parts.

When your grandma gets old and past it, you don't vote her Worst Member of the Family; you cherish the memories of your time together and remember the good times.

De-cry WH Smiths if you must, I know it's not what it once was, but that place did more for literacy, for adults and children, than any bookies, Tesco Metro and Costa put together.

Its downfall says more about what we now consume: if we still venerated books and writing material, WH Smiths may still be enshrined.

So let's go easy on the old gal, eh? We may soon lose her once and for all, and that will be a sad day indeed.


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