Why loss of John Lewis matters so much to Sheffield: Jayne Dowle

More than 15,000 people have signed a petition to keep the John Lewis department store open in Sheffield. If you’re not from South Yorkshire, you might be wondering how one shop can incite such fierce passion and devotion.

The John Lewis Store, Sheffield. Picture by Simon Hulme

Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh has been derided for over-dramatising a situation which is, in effect, afflicting every town centre and high street in the UK. The York branch is going too. However, she was right to call the closure, announced by John Lewis Partnerships chairman, Sharon White, a “hammer blow” for Sheffield.

The disappearance of John Lewis will not only leave a gaping hole in the city centre, but create a damaging knock-on effect for businesses across Sheffield. Many people will openly admit that it was John Lewis which brought them into town, for school shoes, lunch or just a wander around. And from there, they might pop into another shop or two, meet a friend for tea or an early evening drink and so the mighty twin wheels of retail and hospitality would turn.

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At such a crucial juncture, as social distancing measures are gradually set to be lifted and some sense of normality beckons, John Lewis departing is the last thing the city centre needs. Surely Sheffield deserves more respect? Effort and investment could have been made to repurpose its halls and better suit them to modern shopping habits, expanding click and collect and offering other services.

John Lewis in Sheffield, at the landmark 1960s Cole Brothers building

A rather posh friend of mine has always said that nothing bad could ever happen in John Lewis, and I know what she means; when all the world was going pound-shop crazy, it spoke of quality and reassurance, never knowingly undersold. And in Sheffield, John Lewis easily took on the mantle of the august Cole Brothers, a family-run firm which sold out to the Selfridges group in the 1920s, but kept its name until 2002, when it was rebranded under the John Lewis chain.

When I was a child, every Christmas, my upwardly-mobile aunty-next-door, fretting about what to buy for her husband’s relations, would make the trek on the bus from the top of our street to hunt down a fancy china ornament or a clever kitchen gadget. That Cole Brothers’ bag, which she would always include in the wrappings, wordlessly spoke volumes of her careful taste. Without coming over all Hyacinth Bouquet, dare I say it, the presence of John Lewis - like a Waitrose - in any town or city suggests a certain degree of affluence and more seriously, a thriving local economy.

A hammer blow indeed and a kick in the teeth for Sheffield, which has always struggled against its mighty cousin, Leeds, to prove itself as a bona fide influential regional city. There’s enough of a North/South divide across the UK, without adding fuel to the fire of another one within Yorkshire itself as some sub-regions emerge more confidently from the pandemic than others.

This is more than just another shop closure, it’s a huge jolt to civic confidence. The building opened in 1963, as part of the tremendous drive to rebuild Sheffield after the war. And, until last week, it was at the heart of the planned redevelopment of the city centre; the latest phase of the £470m Heart of the City programme would have included a refurbished John Lewis at its core. In 2020 the company surrendered its old lease for the site to the council for £3m. In return, the firm was granted a new 20-year lease at a lower rent, the savings being planned to go towards refurbishment, meaning there is a commercial arrangement in place between the parties. And tellingly, the council has said that any change of use for the building would need its consent, so the outcome of this arrangement will prove interesting. As the petitioners say: “Help Sheffield grow and sign this petition to stop John Lewis Sheffield closing and, in turn, stop the city of Sheffield falling into stagnation”.

Opening day crowds at Cole Brothers in 1963.

It’s not so much what John Lewis sells, because we all know that online these days you can buy everything from a dishcloth to a (toy) elephant, but more what it represents. It’s fair to say that the store has a huge place in our hearts. Coming from Barnsley, Sheffield was always our go-to city and when we were young, it spoke of a sophistication we could only dream of. It was the place where I first saw an escalator, for instance, at the age of three.

Even in the early 1970s, the city centre still bore the scars of the terrible bombing raids of the war. However, in amongst the weed-infested empty lots and imposing Victorian buildings recalling the heyday of commerce and industry, Cole Brothers stood like a modernist beacon in Barkers Pool. It promised the future, and now, its 21st century incarnation is to be confined to the past.

When they talk of erecting monuments and memorials to this ravaging pandemic year, let our empty, echoing department stores stand in silent tribute to a way of life that been lost.

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