Friday, February 26, 2010

Lewis’ of Liverpool – some reflections on closure and loss 2007-2010

I have lived in Merseyside for all but one year of my life, and in Wallasey for most of that time. In boyhood, I first lived near Wallasey Grove Road station and later, although further away, in Grove Road itself. Until 1977 the underground railway to Liverpool then terminated at Liverpool Central Station. Walking up the wide steps from the station platform, the left side led out into the open air. Turning right took me to a passage and along to stairs and an escalator that led directly into Lewis’ store. I do not know when this passage was dug out, but the wall finishes would suggest around the later 1960s. It made it possible to visit the store from the Wirral without ever emerging onto the streets of Liverpool, which seemed in my childhood to be novel.

Lewis’ store was like part of the furniture in the lives of many people on Merseyside. A shop had been founded there in 1856, and it became a major department store in the later Victorian era. The building in Ranelagh Street had been reduced to a shell by wartime bombing; later, I encountered the architect involved, who asserted that its restoration was the largest war damage project in the region, if not the whole UK. Lewis’ was somehow always there, and it was a shock when its then owners, the transnational Sears, announced in 1991 that it was to close. After Owen Owen rescued it, many departments closed down, reducing the rabbit warren of floors to four. In the process, the store became more like a bazaar, with various concessions taking up what had been a single retail operation. In the churning of assets now familiar in High Street retailing, the ownership of Owen Owen itself changed, reducing its chain of stores to the solitary one trading under the name of Lewis’ of Liverpool.

I had had no idea that Lewis’ was in any difficulties until I drove past and saw “Closing down” posters in its windows. I learned that it was to close in early May 2007, and so visited, with Sara, partly to see what bargains might be left, but also to look round a building that I had always known. We visited the basement first, the escalator leading to this having been long boarded over. The Food Hall, long well-known for various exotic products (many of which were probably end-of-line remnants) was reduced in size; the tea-room next to it looking sad, with old photographs and prints of Lewis’ advertisements on the wall. Even the coffee machine had broken down, and the person in charge glumly said that there were orders not to mend it.

I photographed parts of the interior, especially the exits, with the handrails and wall finishes of what had been an ornate entrance before it was obscured by the installation of fire protection screens. The place was clearly in its last days, with whole areas cleared. Sara bought a perfume bottle that turned out to have no price – it was a tester, but even that was for sale – and upstairs was a whole area in which counters and display cabinets were on sale. I rarely shop for clothes, and was surprised to reach the top two remaining floors, and to realize that I had never ventured up to these for many years. At the far end of the top floor was a restaurant area, where I saw something that now appeared anomalous. An older man was there smoking a cigarette – something banned in Wales since April 2007, and banned in England shortly afterwards.

It was a sad occasion, but I wondered why I felt this way, as I do viewing empty buildings and photographs of vacant hospitals and other buildings unearthed by urban explorers. Partly, I think, because I had always known the place. I had been a student and later a member of staff in the same building in Clarence Street, less than half a mile away, and had often dropped in to Lewis’, sometimes to buy birthday cards or odd food items, more often to avoid the rain, on the way to Liverpool Central Station and home through the underground railway. I am aware of the contradiction in such feelings. I find younger people much more consumerist and retail-conscious than my own generation, so that buying clothes with odd names like Diesel from stores with odder names like River Island (What River? What Island?) seems to be a major part of their lives. It is easy to invalidate such feelings, to point out that clothes are mostly made by children elsewhere in appalling conditions, that “fashion” is a cynical means of creating planned obsolescence, and that shops are just big boxes to store and sell goods. Indeed, this is something that I tell students, to deconstruct their feelings about the pleasures of shopping and instead substitute a view of retail properties as investments. Accounts by staff, in retail as well as leisure and other customer-encountering occupations, make it clear how little they buy the dream when it is sold on the basis of poor pay and conditions.

And yet, despite the ease with which the curtain of illusion can be lifted, there is something of substance in feelings for a place so well known. For any place which so many have known, its function as retail, as a source of profit (or, as press reports revealed, major financial losses in recent years) is not the only supplier of meaning. When I told my mother that the store was to close, she was shocked, as she had never know a time when it was not there, and she was then 82 years old. She related fondly one of her father’s memories about Lewis’. In his childhood he was fascinated to find that the basement had been flooded and a Santa’s grotto constructed on an island reached by boats. Since her father was born around 1884, this memory must have derived from the 1890s, illustrating the deep roots of the place in memories of those long gone. As does the Jacob Epstein statue of a huge naked man, known as Liverpool Resurgent, which has amused many people and shocked some of the prudish since it was completed 50 years ago. So much is talked about “heritage” in terms of architectural structures that need to be conserved, but in the case of Lewis’ and other places it is, perhaps, the heritage of memory and meaning that needs to be considered.

I write now on the day that Borders bookstores opens for the final time; another big box, at Cheshire Oaks near Ellesmere Port, which has been a familiar place for Sara and I since we met. A cynic would point out that this was a US operation taken over by private equity interests with the sole aim of increasing profitability, an aim that has failed. But I know others that feel that a landmark, part of their lives, has been removed.

As for Lewis’, it reopened on the brink of closure, when a previous owner acquired it. I walked round it today, but experienced different feelings from those of 2007. It has reverted to its earlier form of a big box ripe for further conversion – a hotel is mooted for the upper floors. Perhaps it is only when spaces and places can no longer be accessed, it seems, can other values, of care and grief at impending loss, be experienced and expressed. The rest, for now, belongs to memory.

Postscript February 2010
It has been announced that Lewis’ will close finally in June 2010, with the redevelopment of the area behind. Parts of the fa├žade will be retained. I plan to write about my further thoughts on this.

Postscript April 2010
The Conservation Centre in Liverpool has an exhibition about the "lost" fifth floor, abandoned since the first closure. The website is interesting, and I hope to visit this and perhaps take a tour of the fifth floor before the whole place finally closes. More to write about here.

J 22-12-2009 slight editing 8-4-10