The last tobacconist: contraband and cost of living close Ipswich institution
Feb 10, 2023, 12:10 PM
Pipes, cigars and packets of cigarettes are neatly arrayed on oak shelves lining the walls of MW Ashton in Ipswich, where smokers have gone for 77 years to buy their tobacco.
Now the town’s last tobacconist is preparing to shut its doors for good on Saturday, the latest high street casualty of shifts in shopping habits and the wider economy
The shop’s manager, Shirley Debenham, says trading has been hit hard in recent times by falling numbers of smokers, lower footfall in the town centre and cash-strapped customers switching to cheaper contraband cigarettes, sold illegally “under the counter” elsewhere in the town.
Many former customers have given up the habit, amid greater awareness of the many health dangers from tobacco, as well as the increased cost from higher taxation. Debenham herself no longer smokes.
She cites the cost of living crisis as another factor hitting business, prompting consumers to tighten their belts and stay home. “People are not coming into Ipswich, they are not spending anything in our town centre because there’s hardly any shops. And people are a bit more wary of what they spend.”
MW Ashton’s striped exterior awning, wood panelling and net curtains may appear anachronistic in a modern town centre, yet it has traded uninterrupted on Lloyds Avenue in the Suffolk town since 1946. Back then, it was founded by Monty Ashton, whose name and original fittings have endured.
finitely sad,” she says. “We are seeing more people now, but we needed them before.”
Debenham, who is joined behind the counter for a few days each week by her sister Sharon Curtis, also points the finger at the availability of cheaper, smuggled tobacco. “People come in and ask: ‘How much is Golden Virginia?’ And you say, ‘£31,’ and they’ll turn around and say: ‘I can get it for £10.’”
Locals say word gets around about where cheaper cigarettes, brought in from abroad, are sold in the small town. The illicit trade continues despite the sizeable seizures and prosecutions made by Suffolk’s trading standards office.
Four men were convicted last year, two of whom were jailed, for selling illicit tobacco across multiple shops in Ipswich and Colchester, in a scheme thought to have evaded the payment of about £150,000 in excise duty, by bringing cigarettes and tobacco into the UK illegally.
The county council says it does not believe that Suffolk’s coastal location, nor the presence of large ports, such as Felixstowe, result in higher instances of illegal tobacco sales than elsewhere in the country.
There had been concerns that the government’s decision to abandon post-Brexit import checks on goods arriving from the EU could leave Britain more open to smuggled goods. However, councillor Andrew Reid, Suffolk’s cabinet member for public health and public protection, says there is no evidence that much has changed on that front. “There has been no detectable rise in illegal activity as a result of the UK leaving the EU,” he says.
A stream of regular customers passed through MW Ashton on the afternoon the Guardian visited, taking the opportunity to buy while they still had the chance, even as the stock ran low and humidors previously filled with Cuban cigars stood empty.
“Any place that sells single items, like an ironmonger or a tobacconist seems to be a dying trade,” says Kirsty Tallent. The 37-year-old says she regrets the closure of a shop she has spent a couple of decades visiting to buy rolling tobacco.
Seeing the closing down signs, Jacob Buckley called in to buy a pipe. “I’ve wanted one for years,” says the 25-year-old.
MW Ashton may be an Ipswich rarity, but retail closures in the town centre are increasingly common. The shop stands opposite the cavernous space once occupied by the town’s branch of the Debenhams department store, which has lain empty since the chain closed down for good in May 2021.
The pedestrianised high street is pockmarked with vacant premises and some locals say the closures seem to have picked up in recent weeks.
Among the latest to go was a branch of the fashion retailer Joules, one of the outlets not saved when the collapsed chain was rescued in December by clothing and homeware retailer Next. The local H&M has also gone, after the fashion chain abandoned Ipswich shortly before Christmas.
Staff at a town centre sandwich shop say trade is often “hit and miss” and they find it hard to predict whether they will be busy.
The Centre for Cities thinktank rated Ipswich as having “moderately weak” retail economy in its high streets recovery tracker, which rated how towns and cities recovered from Covid lockdowns from the start of the pandemic until May 2022. It found a fifth (21%) of high street outlets were vacant from June 2021, with a similar vacancy rate recorded by the local authority.
Footfall figures from Ipswich borough council speak to a similar truth: their numbers showed fewer shoppers visited the town centre in spring 2022, when there were no Covid restrictions, compared with a year earlier.
The town’s shop vacancy rate is higher than average, concedes Sophie Alexander-Palmer, chief executive of Ipswich Central, the town’s business improvement district. “It is a challenging period,” she says. “It is something we need to work on.”
She adds that a hospitality organisation has shown interest in redeveloping the Debenhams site, which would go some way to introducing more leisure venues to draw people in.
“Ipswich’s overarching plan is to have a connected town centre, with more residents living here and it being more service-led, adjusting the mix of retail to leisure and hospitality.”
Back at MW Ashton, Debenham is looking forward to some time off when the shop closes its doors next Saturday, and she does not intend to continue working in retail.
“I’ll avoid town, I want to work out of town,” she says. “I work every Saturday, I’ve done it for 42 years, and I won’t be doing that again.”
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