'WHO'LL save the old town now?" laments a gentle song sung at our folk club but, even as I join in - I won't say sing - that chorus, I wonder not only who, but also "what?" and even "if".

The song mourns the end of the family trip to town on Saturdays, and the taking over of the butcher, baker and bookshop by charity shops. But the butcher and the baker were, still are, features of our local shops. Our ventures into to town were for the small, specialist establishments and the "big names".

It was a rare shopping list which didn't include the chains: Marks & Spencer, Woolworth, WH Smith, Boots. Not any more. Others do it better, among them Bhs, rejuvenated by the same Philip Green rebuffed by M&S last month

I don't know why, but Bhs, then known as British Home Stores, never featured in our family trips. Later, as it then had a back entrance handy for the office and I was a working wife, I got to know its bacon and cheese counters - and a vanilla slice whose equal I've never found since the demise of that food section.

It was, incidentally, those very vanilla slices which began the now time-honoured tradition in the D&S office of cakes all round in moments of stress or celebration.

Even without a food section, Bhs is still on my shopping list as I've transferred my underwear and tights loyalty to them, from M&S.

M&S' woes have been all-too-publicly aired but chief executive Stuart Rose seems to hint that they might just move back towards their traditional strength: good quality basic classics. About time; they fell down the generation gap trying to cater for the Gap generation, so there's hope there.

Boots' once extensive range has shrunk back almost to Jesse Boot's basic "dispensing chemist", with the add-ons like "hair and beauty" and photography, which go alongside dispensing in a pharmacy. But hair and bath products, skin creams and lotions are done more cheaply, often pounds more cheaply, by the discount drugstores. So many of the things I did go to Boots for, like borax and starch, seem to have gone.

After a profits warning earlier this year, though, the chain is reporting increased sales, so they must be doing things right, even if not for me. More hope there.

WH Smith is what it always was, a bookseller and stationer, as toys and much of the audio have gone, but for three weeks I've looked for the own-brand writing paper and envelopes I've used for years but found only two or three packs of the wrong size of envelope. The last time I tried to buy a best-selling book there is best not mentioned.

However, now a takeover bid has been abandoned, chief executive Kate Swann promises to "boost core ranges". Like writing paper? More hope there.

Woolworth's was always the store of first resort for the vital odds and bits of life: curtain hooks, light bulbs and household sundries of every kind. Now the edge-of-town DIY stores sell us all those in nail-breaking blister packs, so Woolworth repackaged itself and, like Bhs, lost its food on the way.

It does the best pick and mix sweet selection but has lost its "I'll just pop in for ..." quality. So I don't. No hope there, as far as I know.

I prefer town centre shopping for the character which out-of-town sites lack. Given the straws in the wind, maybe the chains will save themselves. I'm watching. I'm ready to be tempted back.