As we all know Browns of Chester was founded in 1780 (during the reign of George III) by Susannah Brown and has traded from the premises on Eastgate street since 1791. With the collapse of Debenhams, who acquired the store in 1976, 230 years of Cestrian history are coming to an unwelcome end. I visited on the penultimate day of trading for the store once known as “The Harrods of the North”.
“It said all shoes ten pounds?” argues a customer at the till as I stand in the queue with some final bargains. “No, I worked it out in my head, it should be cheaper than that” says another. The staff smile on behind their masks, probably counting to ten in their heads at shoppers who probably haven’t set foot in the store for years. Saying that life hasn’t been great for most of us in the last year is probably an understatement, but now as we emerge from the pandemic and move towards a supposedly brighter future, 12,000 retail workers across the UK are losing their jobs. The staff take it all in their stride despite the heart-breaking emptiness of the building, with the upper floor now totally empty and fenced off, apart for access to the toilets. For the sake of history I look at the strange sad sights. On visits in recent years I had noticed how the store rarely felt busy except at Christmas, the cafe which was my main reason for visiting, sadly didn’t reopen after the first lockdown. I miss the breakfasts up there. Plus the toilets of course, closure now meaning that the embattled Grosvenor shopping centre no longer has any facilities for shoppers.
“Free to a good home” say signs attached to boxes full of hangers, arranged like tombstones in the remaining retail space. Walking around in these last days many have noted the beauty of the building and its architecture, impressive domed ceilings and chandeliers. The stunning blue room could be a shop unit in itself and the possible waste of these spaces are sad for Chester. Since closure was announced many have written their wish list of what they would like to see occupy this anchor building. Independent arcade seems to be the favoured option from the online city planners, others favouring an art gallery or event spaces. The good news is that the Council working with Chester BID and the Chester Growth Partnership are aiming for a quick solution on filling this enormous space. Talks have taken place to “look at opportunities” focusing on “space for mixed uses”. Councillor Richard Beacham telling press that ” Browns of Chester is one of the most well-known buildings in our city and one which is a great source of pride to residents. Like me, many people will have fond memories of this store and that’s why our local partnership is being proactive in its approach to finding a new role for this important building to play in bringing people into our city. “
Saying that the council have offered support to workers. Cllr Beacham added that ” we are working with the building’s owners, sourcing professional advice and refreshing the One City Plan with support of residents, so that we can reimagine Chester in the face of the seismic changes to consumer behaviour which are impacting high streets across the UK.”
Seismic change is correct as we ponder the high streets already suffering from online competition and now decimated by the pandemic. I wonder what world we have created for ourselves, with the world now feeling the consequences of the choice and freedom of the internet , that most of use and enjoy. Do people still want department stores, in general? Do people still even want shops?? For any business, emotional support and saying “I loved that shop” on facebook won’t pay rent or wages. The evolving nature of high streets is a huge challenge for business and political leaders, yet one that could also offer opportunities if new ideas and fresh thinking are embraced. Fingers crossed that the swift response from the Chester hierarchy is cause for optimism . Otherwise we face the prospect of a large decaying building left empty for years, an all too familiar story in this city, Dee House, Gateway theatre etc etc.
Upstairs on the toilet/cafe level the timeline which once described the rich history of the building has been emptied, with a sign saying that “All items of historical interest have been donated to the Grosvenor Museum”. Memories will live on despite the loss of the space, for staff and customers alike. Hopefully when the building gets a new use they will be sparked in the same way present day Storyhouse users see a link to the Odeon past? Or Cafe Nero users thinking back to nights in Brannigans, maybe….
The main focus of the last burst of shopping activity is the foyer entrance from the shopping centre. Here the last of menswear and Christmas gifts are gathered, chocolate sprouts and gingerbread sets alongside bath fizzers and notebooks and a device that says quotes from “Friends” amongst the last items standing. Most of the store is empty space. A member of staff is questioned as to whether The Duke still owns the building ( He doesn’t). A (Disney) Aladdin lamp bubble bath sits on the shelf, dreams and wishes that couldn’t beat the cold hard reality. I take some free branded Debenhams bags to add to my virtual Chester museum and take a slow walk to the exit, the sadness of time flowing over me.
“Yeah I’ll take the receipt, I might bring em back on Thursday” says another smirking customer at the till . Browns of Chester fades into “a Chester memory” joining Owen Owen, Thorntons and Toy in Hobby in retail heaven tomorrow (May 12th)