In Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1990 novel The Gate of Angels, a mother and her daughter go “up west” to visit Selfridges soon after its opening in 1909. Both are determined to play it cool on this grand day out. Mrs Saunders, for one, is unwilling to let on that she might be impressed by its 100 departments (“freely compared in the store’s advertisements to the bazaars of the farthest orient”). But such nonchalance involves no little effort. What to make of an establishment where a bugle is blown at the hour of its closing “as though every day spent in shopping was an epoch of history”? Back at home, the women talk with quiet amazement of their dreamlike excursion. “How long do you think it’ll last?” Mrs Saunders asks. “Floor after floor of stuff… And all laid out for everyone to stare at, it didn’t seem quite decent.”
How long do you think it will last? What a mournful thought that an answer to this question may now be in sight. Yes, the department store was in trouble long before the pandemic hit – and we all knew it, too. We’d seen the headlines (“Family-run business to close after 200 years”). We had begun buying even our fripperies via our laptops. Somehow, though, we resisted the reality. Debenhams was a mess; its demise could not be taken as a sign of anything. The great liners of retail – the smart ones, the creative ones – would sail on, whether the water was choppy or calm.
People talked of John Lewis in particular as a safe space: the immutable haven into which they’d dash in the event of an emergency, seeking comfort among the white goods. But then there really was an emergency, at which point we realised that this would not, after all, be an option. The doors of John Lewis having closed, its chair, Sharon White, calmly strolled into its haberdashery department, took up the sharpest pair of scissors she could find and set about her alterations. It’s not a case, now, of only nipping in the waist. A lot of fabric is going to have to be taken out. Eight shops will go, on top of the eight whose closure was announced last year. Almost 1,500 jobs are at risk.
One of these stores is in Sheffield, where I grew up and where half my family still lives. It began its life in 1847 as a silk mercer whose proprietors were some brothers called Cole – the site of the original shop is still known as Coles Corner, a spot immortalised in the song by Richard Hawley – and thanks to this long history, people in the city are heartbroken at its imminent disappearance. (They are furious, too: it’s only six months since the council spent £3.4m buying its current building, the better that it might make its lease more affordable to John Lewis, which Coles became in 2002.)
“Bad news,” wrote my brother on WhatsApp after the closure was announced, a cue for us to remember its toy department, where as children we hankered after Lego, and its cafe, where we lived in hope of a vanilla slice (the cake stand rotated decorously, your hovering hand italicising your greed). On Twitter, the old photographs came thick and fast. My favourite, posted by the editor of the Sheffield Star, Nancy Fielder, was of the crowds at the opening of the store’s new building in Barker’s Pool in 1963, the men in ties and flat caps, the women in cat’s eye spectacles and mushroom-shaped hats. Would people in future drive to Leeds to visit John Lewis? someone wondered. No, they bloody well would not, someone else replied.
Tom Hunt, a sensible, city-loving person who is the deputy director of an economic research institute at Sheffield University, said that, however devastating the news, this must be a moment for change. He spoke of a new arts centre. But this isn’t just another case of a business going down, about which we must try not to be too sentimental as we swiftly move on. I hear the sound of a bugle and with it – yes – the end of an epoch.
Culture takes many forms. Binns, Lewis’s, Dickins & Jones: wherever you’re from, there will be one name that’s stitched to your brain like a Cash’s name tape. Such places were, for most of us, at least as important as any gallery. As a child, I visited Coles far more often, and much more enthusiastically, than Weston Park Museum. If the latter had a stuffed bear and two life-size plaster-of-paris wrestlers, well, Cole Brothers had someone demonstrating a knitting machine and the latest video recorders. It was a place of wonder, innovation and (potentially) treats and it was in its halls, too, that you measured out the stages of your life: first school uniform, first suitcase, first kettle, first washing machine.
How to mark the passing of these places? How to celebrate them? We need some kind of depository for our memories. When I interviewed Claire Wilcox, the senior curator of fashion at the V&A, last year she told me she was reading Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise, about a 19th-century Parisian department store, and that she dreamed of recreating such a shop in the form of an exhibition. Wilcox’s fabulous hallucinations – visitors, she told me, could be greeted with a blast of perfume as they arrived – may now be on their way to becoming a reality. I do hope so.
Meanwhile, I humbly offer an idea along similar lines to the good men and women of Sheffield city council. Let the tills ring again. Let there be tissue paper and ribbon and vanilla slices for everyone.