Debenhams in town’s been there since before I was born. It’s in a beautiful Art Deco building at the corner of High Street and Market Street, close to Piccadilly Gardens. It’s one of the major landmarks of Manchester city centre. When I was growing up, we had Debenhams on one side of Market Street and Lewis’s on the other, right opposite. When Lewis’s sadly closed, Primark took over the building, but it’s hard to see anyone taking over that big Debenhams store, in these uncertain times. BHS, Littlewoods, C&A and so many other of the big shops in town have already gone. Now it looks almost certain that Debenhams’ll be going too.
It looks like most of the Arcadia Group shops could go as well. Topshop and Miss Selfridge were two of the in places for teenage girls to buy clothes in the ’80s and early ’90s … not so much for weird fat girls like me, but for cool girls. Dorothy Perkins had some lovely stuff in the ’90s, and I’ve bought stuff from Evans over the years as well. We’ll draw a veil over the time I got stuck in a dress in the Wallis changing rooms because I was too vain to admit that I was too fat for the size I’d decided to try on. I did get out of it eventually!
Burton’s a famous old northern name … even if it is a famous Leeds name. It was a great example of how someone could start off with nothing and achieve so much. The Burtons were the sort of people Barbara Taylor Bradford meant when she talked about people like the fictional Emma Harte and David Kallinski in A Woman of Substance giving rise to the greatness of a northern city. They even made the suits for the England 1966 World Cup winning team.
There used to be some great stuff in Debenhams, especially in the days of the Dash concessions. And in Dorothy Perkins, as I’ve said. But they just went bang off. The clothes were ridiculously expensive for what they were: people who spend a lot of money on clothes go to designer places, not High Street shops, and the rest of us just can’t be spending that much money on everyday clothes. A lot of it wasn’t even nice. It used to be.
There used to be something quite romantic about department stores. There’ve been TV series about them. OK, Are You Being Served wasn’t exactly romantic, but The Paradise and Mr Selfridge were. There’ve been books about them too – A Woman of Substance is the one that immediately springs to mind, but there’ve been others. In the days when a lot of people left school without taking any public exams, they provided good opportunities for young girls.
If they all go, 25,000 jobs’ll go. 25,000 people out of work. Plus the knock-on effect on suppliers, landlords, the councils, etc etc.
And they attract people into town. It’s not just the city centre: it’s everywhere else round and about. The big Debenhams in Bury is the flagship store of The Rock shopping area, which is still fairly new. The big Debenhams in the Trafford Centre’s one of the “bookend” shops: it’s at one end of the centre, with John Lewis at the other. And, of course, there are all the branches of Dorothy Perkins, Evans, et al. Town and city centres are struggling enough at the moment. “Non-essential shops” have had to close for 17 weeks of this year. A lot of office staff are working from home. People aren’t going out shopping because of concerns about being out in crowds, about using public transport, about long queues, and about not being able to try clothes on. It’s certainly not just the pandemic that’s done for Debenhams and the Arcadia Group, but it’s a big factor, the straw that broke the camel’s back at the very least. And so we go into a circle of decline, especially with cafes and restaurants only allowed to open for take-aways as long as we remain in Tier 3 – despite Greater Manchester, like many other Tier 3 areas, having lower infection rates than many parts of London which are in Tier 2.
If you go into town to do some shopping, and you travel by Metrolink, you get off the tram right outside Debenhams. It’s going to be very strange doing that and Debenhams not being there. It’s always been there.