Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Retail Entropy

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.  


  1. I've definitely been into Jacksons, years ago (I don't think they had what I wanted so I didn't buy anything).

    We still have Camp Hopsons in Newbury. They don't have much individuality in the stock now but they've kept a certain old-fashioned, stuffy air! Oh and we have a wonderful second hand bookshop - impenetrable and labyrinthine. No pet shops and the ironmongers has moved out of the town centre and shrunk - though you can still get three screws and a single nut there.

  2. The old department stores, rather like the Church, seem to be clinging on by support of a dwindling and ageing population. We are fortunate to have several nice small market towns in Norfolk which fit your criteria - Fakenham (with dept stores Alldis & Betty's), Holt and SWAFFHAm come to mind. Diss is delightful but no second hand books - although until a couple of years ago it had a proper record shop and a second hand hifi emporium.
    I suppose we're all guilty of dreaming nostalgic ly about Edwardian shopping whilst we wait in for our Argos or Amazon delivery.

  3. Camp Hopsons in Newbury is a name I recall from my Berkshire childhood, but 37 years after moving away, I don't remember anything about the place.
    The last time I went to Norwich their local department store, Jarrold's, was still in business but Ipswich's own department store (Grimwade's) bit the dust in the late 1990s. I don't think I ever bought anything from Grimwade's because they never had what I wanted.
    Personally, I think John Lewis takes some beating in terms of a pleasant shopping experience and good service. I am happy to pay extra for that, but I know plenty of people who aren't.

  4. I shop in Bungay as much as I can - we do have a second-hand bookshop and a proper ironmonger, though the latter is now part of a small local chain. There is also a petshop, though it sells food and accessories for pets (also useful things like seeds and seed potatoes), not live animals. Nursey's, the sheepskin shop, closed at Easter and hit the national papers at the time, it being the longest-lived family-owned shop in the country. It clocked up nearly 200 years, passed down from father to son. We also have the wonderful Wightman's, which sells everything from knitting needles to beds. I bought a mattress and passageway carpet there in the last year, as well as a lot of odds and ends.

    We used to go to Grimwades in Ipswich for Eloise and Alex's prep school uniform.

    I've just read Rog's comment and realised I'm the dwindling and ageing population he's talking about.

  5. I guess I rang a quiet bell here. The notion of preserving old things is oxymoronic, because nostalgic memories don't outlive us. This shouldn't stop us trying, though. (Rage, rage against the etc. etc., even though it's futile.)

  6. We've got a good ironmongers/hardware shop (Partridges - been in business since the 1820s), a decent secondhand bookshop/art shop (Idler's), and a pet shop, although it doesn't sell pets, just animal foods, birdseed, etc. Still, that's probably about two out of three; oh, and we've also seen off Tesco's after a fifteen year fight.
    Regards, Mike and Ann.