“I see you shop at John Lewis. You’ll be standing for Parliament next,” a friend once ribbed me after noticing the label in my corduroy jacket. At the time, memories of the MP expenses scandal were still fresh. Our selfless servants of the public good were found to be claiming back the cost of items that were supposed to help them do the job, at prices pegged to those charged by the department store. The notorious “John Lewis List” included a £750 stereo system and £200 food mixer.
I remembered this last week when reading about the financial misery now suffered by John Lewis. A couple of years back the group was forced to close eight stores, including those in Sheffield and York.
It seems to be part of a trend that might eventually see department stores disappear altogether. Among those that have already gone, Lewis’s (no relation) were an early victim. Founded in Liverpool in 1856, there were a dozen branches. I can still clearly recall going to one of them as a small child and the excitement of visiting Santa’s grotto.
I’ve been digging deep into my memory to come up with the names of other long gone department stores. Two from Bradford: Busbys and Brown Muffs, are still fondly remembered by Bradfordians. In Leeds, as well as Lewis’s there were Schofields and Willis Ludlows; in Hull there was a Hammonds (with satellite branch in Bridlington) and a posh store called Carmichaels that fancied itself as the Harrods of the North. Add to these Debenhams and House of Fraser, British Home Stores and C&A.
The BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? brilliantly captured the atmosphere of many of these stores with its opening theme of floor announcements by dapper, uniformed lift operators: “Ground floor perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food… Going up.” But by the time the show began its 69-episode run in the early 1970s, lift operators were already a piece of department store history. To find what they were looking for, customers had to make do with signage next to escalators.
These days, Amazon is the world’s biggest department store. The pandemic lockdown closures became the final nail for some chains, which were already fighting the trend towards online shopping. In 2022 a study by the commercial property information firm CoStar Group found that around 83 per cent of retail space occupied by department stores had disappeared in five years.
Most of these vacated premises remained empty, the study found, which is a tragedy for our city centres. When a smaller shop goes out of business the space is often filled, at least in the short term, by a charity shop or pop-up retailer. But big multi-floor buildings are much harder to fill, often leading to unsightly fly posters being plastered over their windows and a visual impression of decay.
A Grade II listed building in Sheffield that once housed the city’s branch of John Lewis has stood empty since 2021, but at least the council now has ownership and there are plans to bring it back into good use. It would be great if other councils were so proactive and found imaginative ways of repurposing those former department stores that are currently standing empty in towns and cities.