Bow ties on sale in Lewis's, Liverpool

So, Lewis’s has finally given up the ghost. A combination of the desire to turn every bit of Liverpool into another leisure/retail hub and the clear lack of viability for the creaking old department store have meant the writing has been on the wall for some time.

While this is simply the way of the world, it’s still a cause for sadness. Not just because of nostalgia or sentiment – things Liverpool doesn’t like to skimp on – but also because Lewis’s was once something of a force for good in the city. The Friend of the People.

That’s something that’s apparent from the memories of those who have worked there over the years, evident in the Conservation Centre’s wonderful exhibition of the fabled Fifth Floor – dormant for decades and untouched, like a time capsule back to the fifties with its vinyl and formica and modernism.

In the accompanying book it’s possible to explore the pictures more fully, to drink in a different time. Look, there’s Rita Rooney, a perfumery sales assistant for 41 years. And Tina Jackson, a floor manager since 1961 – nearly 50 years ago. And Les Rietdyk standing in the kitchens where they used to cook 500 chickens on a Saturday, wearing the shoes he received when he was made redundant in 1986 after 35 years.

They look like ghosts from the past. They all speak of their pride at working in Lewis’s, what a great employer it was, and what a lovely store it was. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that about Primark in 50 years’ time.

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Leopard statuette in Lewis's, Liverpool

I’ve been on a tour of Lewis’s a few times over the last couple of years when it looked like time was up. There’s a great melancholy to these grandiose, fading emporia, rather like seeing a powerful character who has enjoyed greatness, now humbled by illness.

I never buy anything. Lewis’s seemed, even 15 years ago, to have lost sight of the fact that the purpose of a shop was to sell things, rather than be an interesting place in which to mooch.

Everything seems overpriced, and the stock horribly outdated. Which is not to say that the stock is poor; it’s just difficult to envisage who would make use of a place like Lewis’s – with the Primarks and Tescos and Home Bargains among us.

And the bricks and mortar of the old place have lost their sheen. Exposed cables and vents and peeling paint tell their own story. There have been attempts to modernise, but they come across like a botched facelift on an old Hollywood diva.

Even the cafe is now sadly faded. I bought eggs on toast, and they were like hard little bullets of vulcanised rubber. The attempts to modernise it, with a small area featuring a leather sofa and widescreen TV, were embarrassing.

Third Floor cafe in Lewis's

Next door the toy department had a knackered old bust of Burton-era Batman and Lego. Again, the store seemed stuck in the past. Comforting, yet redundant.

Still, the place retains an air of the grand, the indefatigable. It still seems impossible that Lewis’s will no longer be there, diminished though it has been over the years.

It’s important to have little links to the past, before it all gets swallowed up the Novotels and Starbucks and Cafe Rouges. But nothing lasts forevers, and it looks like the curtain has fallen on Lewis’s for the last time.

In the end, the functional floors of Lewis’s became a kind of time capsule of their own. While the fifth floor had a ship-in-a-bottle quality going back half a century, the lower floors retained an air of stagnation themselves, as if time had not moved on inside the doors of Liverpool’s flagship department store. Lewis’s was, in more ways than one, out of time.

I’ll close on a quote from a staff member in the excellent Lewis’s Fifth Floor: A Department Story, because it says it better than I could:

Lewis's

This is really important… the history of people who work hard, work every day and do things that people don’t really notice but they’re a part of the fibre of the whole city, it’s really, really important…

  • http://BrynGerard.com Bryn Gerard

    Sure everyone has memories of Lewis’s, probably too many.

    I recall being lost there one time out shopping with Gran. She was so engrossed in some bargain in the basement and didn’t notice me wandering off.

    Each floor seemed to have an atmosphere all of its own, a series of different shopping worlds.

    A bygone age of retail magic without a doubt.

  • http://www.sevenstreets.com David

    It was always the food hall for me. All those loose biscuits you could pick’n’mix. Chocolate covered Malted Milk. Ah, happy days.

  • Colin Dyas (Made in Liverpool)

    It seems strange that a city with a burgeoning retail sector can’t reinvent a long established and historic business. As it says somewhere else on this site, it’s a question of making the past your future.
    Businesses fail because of poor management, and/or poor financial decisions. It’s Darwinian really. You adapt to survive or become extinct. Lewis’s never adapted, but the building could.
    So perhaps the answer lies in Mereparks new scheme. They are a smart firm and their ideas for the adjacent Central Village were some of the best put to the city in the heady, distant, monied, regeneration days of 2003. But the site remains a hole in the ground, albeit this was not the fault of Merepark or Liverpool City Council.
    Part of Lewis’s problem is its near Lime Street location. The area around it is a mess. So whilst Grosvenor have made Liverpool One a place, Lime street has become a displace.
    I’ve an idea for Lewis’s I’m trying to elevate it

  • Daniel

    Wonderful feature. I’ll miss this place – do we really need another ‘office/leisure complex’? Mind you, I think the outside of the building could scrub up really well.

  • John Berwick

    A case of prolonged chronic mismanagement. That’s the true shame – it was so unnecessary.
    Lewis’s could have been the saviour of that end of the city, instead it was just a really unpleasant place to be. Cheap in the worst sense of the word and unable to get a grip on reality.