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All change – Part One

...And so farewell then, George Henry Lees. Liz Lacey trawled the old store in its final hours as staff packed up for Paradise

Published on May 29th 2008.

All change – Part One

THERE is great excitement about the birth of Liverpool One, the new retail paradise in Paradise Street. Indeed, could any proud shopaholic remain unthrilled as the vast department stores and glossy shops spring up around us?

Some of us have not yet recovered from the closing of Blacklers whose famous wooden rocking horse, red-nostril led terrifier of countless baby Scousers, now lurks in the J.D Weatherspoon's that replaced it.

However, with each birth, there is also a corresponding death - circle of life kind of thing, you know.

So on Monday may 26, we saw the demise of another much –loved Liverpool store.

Some of us have not yet recovered from the closing of Blacklers whose famous wooden rocking horse, red-nostril led terrifier of countless baby Scousers, now lurks in the J.D Weatherspoon's that replaced it, where it gives unsuspecting drunks a nasty turn. And now the closing of Liverpool’s John Lewis store.

To me and to my contemporaries it was, and always will be, George Henry Lee's. My mother’s generation knew it as the “Bon Marche”, and it was always a cut above. More graceful than Grace Brothers, it had knowledgeable, precisely spoken staff, housed in a stately wedding-cake of a building.

For me, it was the place where my mother insisted on special occasion shopping. Despite the fact that our tiny income pointed us firmly in the direction of T.J Hughes, Mum’s tastes were definitely GHL.

My grandmother had been chief clerk in the Bon Marche office during the First World War. There she had fallen in love with the son of the then owner. Sadly this was an unrequited romance, but I often think wistfully of my might-have-been life as a GHL heiress.

The store in Basnett Street traded for 60 years. It represented not just a chunk of Liverpool’s shopping history, but also a set of values and standards that the staff or “partners”, as they are called, and the customers I spoke on the last day, held in high esteem.

Maria on the Customer service desk told me “This is a highly emotional day for us. Some partners have been here for over 20 years. There are whole families working here, I know four sisters who all work here. People have met their husbands and wives here, too”.

I did wonder if refunds were available if the spouse proved unsatisfactory?

When I asked Maria what she felt had made the John Lewis/GHL experience different from the rest, she said:

“We take pride in our standards of service, and we really mean it. Our attitude is to give customers service that extends beyond just selling them something, and we build relationships with them. I know customers who came here for their wedding dresses, then to buy a pram, then school uniforms.

“And the Partners feel looked after. We have a holiday home in Wales, where staff can go for a rest, and, of course, we all share in the success of the store through the profit-sharing scheme”(John Lewis is the largest co-owned organisation in Europe).”

Maria had been seriously ill, and described warmly how well she had been treated; she had been supported, welcomed back to work by her colleagues and helped by the GHL “family”.

All the Partners I talked to had tales of favourite customers. Some of them were here today, to say “Thanks and goodbye”, wandering round with cameras to take the last shots of the hallowed haberdashery department, lingering wistfully in the emptied toy department, site of many a heel-drumming tantrum over the years.

Letters and phone calls had been pouring in all week from saddened but appreciative customers.

At 4pm, amid many tears, there were also cheers as glasses were raised to the future.

Margaret Jacques, MD of John Lewis in Liverpool, read a poem to the staff clustered in the huge stairwell. She expressed what appeared to be a general view, which was that everyone was excited and full of enthusiasm for the new store, the biggest outside London, but that there was a great sadness for what was now another piece of Liverpool’s history.

An army of staff have this week been involved in moving stock and other items to the new store before the Thursday opening, but they will also have some time to be together as a team. This is a vital thing for the Partners, who seem to embody all that is best in real customer service. The willingness to change and work together for future success, mixed with the respect and love for what was good about the past, seemed, to me, to embody the true spirit of Liverpool at the moment.

Perhaps our city council could have done with a spell in the haberdashery department at GHL, and then we might not ever be knowingly undersold?

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11 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

albert dockMay 28th 2008.

paradise has always been a fanatasy for the gullible and nothing i've yet read changes my mind!

grahamMay 28th 2008.

Is it right that G H Lees was once named Bon Marche. I thought the latter was by Woolworths and C & A Modes

seaview guesthome dsoMay 28th 2008.

oui, it was bon marche

seaview guesthome dsoMay 28th 2008.

eau dear! ma leetle waitrose has let me down again!

Lord StreetMay 28th 2008.

Are we getting a Waitrose too, or is the rest of this so-called "Liverpool 1" (apart from John Lewis and Debenhams) just going to be yet more rubbishy shops selling fashion plimsolls and shapeless clownwear for the 'yoof'?

GordoMay 28th 2008.

Well, there ain't no Waitrose in there which is a shame. I went this lunchtime 'cos i was given a John Lewis/Waitrose voucher during the press launch, a tenner is a tenner after all.

Stanley StreetMay 28th 2008.

A lovely shop, the best in Liverpool, or rather it was until the name-change from George Henry Lee to John Lewis and they just stopped selling loads of stuff you used to depend upon.Will the new premises be as sterile and dull as the John Lewis at "Cheadle Royal"? I hope not!

Salad DazeMay 28th 2008.

It's not what it was. The partner on the door greeted me with the new standard Liverpool catarrhal welcome: "Yorright?" My respone that, no, I was very ill and also worried at the prospects for peace in the Middle East, resulted only in redirection to The Eagle.

T. H. E. VilliersMay 28th 2008.

I'm appalled to hear that the famous Blacklers' rocking horse is in that awful fake pub with all those unpleasant people that go there.

Old Hall-StreetMay 28th 2008.

I'm sure I've read that the building that C&A used to be in (now NEXT) was only built in the 1960s or 70s because there was a street between Woolworths and Cooper's Building (now W.H. Smiths)

Rusty SpikeMay 28th 2008.

The astonishing exhibition of swooning by politicos, commercial bigwigs, and even the Chief Constable, that has welcomed the 'multi-openings' of the so called Liverpool One shopping precinct will surely see the rest of the nation fall about in fits of laughter. Where else has a shopping centre development led to hysteria? All this fuss and drooling over a bunch of retail outlets is astonishing. There is an element of the 'King's New Clothes' about this ghastly confection of concrete blocks with shiny facades which the deluded are convinced will bring in hordes of shoppers from Barecelona to Berlin, all gagging to buy trainers, t-shirts and overpriced frocks. As if. In the meantime, as Liz Lacey reveals above, we are in the process of losing the very heart of this glorious city - a centre that was formed and forged by osmosis and not artificially induced by designers who appear to have dreamed the ideas up on a napkin. For the 21st century Liverpool has chosen blandness to replace style, elegance and breathtaking buildings. Let's load the chuck wagon, Mabel....

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