Jackson’s, a legendary department store in the centre of Reading, finally closed down last Christmas Eve, after 140 years of selling school uniforms and sensible underwear and imitation Dresden knick-knacks, and of being as iconic a landmark in Reading as, say, Selfridge’s in Oxford Street or Lewis’s in Leeds. Plans have just been unveiled to preserve the façade, whilst installing flats* and, yes, shops, behind it.
I think I shopped there three times. Once for an unlined cream linen jacket (which I wore for many years) and a panama hat (I must have been going through some kind of Somerset Maugham phase), and twice for presents for elderly aunts. Jackson’s was the go-to place for presents for elderly aunts. So I can’t say I’ll miss it as a shop – but I think I will as a symbol.
A symbol of what? Well, walk into T. P. Hughes, Pettits, or Ocky White’s, to take three examples I am (or was) familiar with, and you’ll be uniquely in Tenby, Wallingford or Haverfordwest: those shops are (or were**) intrinsic to the town where they were born and grew up. Walk into John Lewis, Debenhams or House of Fraser, and you could be anywhere. This is not to denigrate the big chains, just to say that something special is being lost. Crankiness, quirkiness, localism, call it what you will. I kind of wish I’d shopped in Jackson’s more.
In Bournemouth, where I was born and grew up, there were four big department stores, all very different. Bobby’s turned into Debenhams, while Plummers also briefly became Debenhams (until Debenhams decided they couldn’t sustain two stores in the same town and closed it down). The surviving Debenhams has recently been rebadged as ‘Bobby’s, though I doubt if the clock has been turned back to the fifties. Brights is House of Fraser. Only Beales survives. The last time I was in there, ten years ago, it hadn’t changed much. I bought a wallet, which I’m still using.
I was once told that you could identify a good town by the presence of a pet shop, an old-fashioned ironmongers’ and a second-hand bookshop. Any candidates?
* Some of which will, apparently, be ‘affordable’, as opposed to the other sort – but that’s another debate.
** Ocky’s closed down in 2013. I can’t say I regret the shop, only went there once, but I do rather regret the name.