TJ Hughes: Department Store As Theatre

Date: 10/07/2011

What an unsettling couple of years it must have been for the city’s various bargain and purple-rinse shoppers. First Lewis’s – a Titan of retail that must have felt like a White Star liner going down to those who have lived, worked and shopped in Liverpool for decades; Woolworths, of course founded in Liverpool, going to the great high street in the sky.

And now it looks like TJ Hughes is not long for the world. Three iconic retail landmarks – peculiarly Liverpool landmarks at that – wiped off the face of the map, if no buyer for TJ Hughes comes forth.

And not just shops that represent Liverpool, but a specific brand of philanthropic working-class employer too. Look over to Port Sunlight for more evidence of this Merseyside munificence.

Now the administrators are in and now there are bargains galore. Good stuff at that, alongside some inevitable tat. A T-shirt that says I Heart Lager in the classic I Heart NY stylee.

What struck me about Lewis’s was not just how drab and neglected it all looked, but how crap the stock was too – chintzy furniture and old dear clothing and brown suits with cummerbunds. Bafflingly the wares in Lewis’s were expensive too. I went around twice to get an idea of the place and emerged with literally nothing, even during the late firesale that saw even fixtures and fittings flogged.

In TJ’s there are displays of cheap toiletries and hoards of sweets; the kind of displays that characterise the Home Bargains and Lidls of this world.

In much the same way WH Smiths has been forced to abandon its neat, slightly stuffy and ordered stores in favour of the kind of display marketing that would make a 99p shop blush. It makes for an uneasy mix and is often a signal of distress in shops these days. I remember browsing in Smiths for ages, looking at books and records. Nowadays any visit to the shop is a smash and grab raid, lest I emerge with a £1 bar of Galaxy, bag of travel sweets or am simply overcome by inserts, spilling from magazine likes entrails from a medieval hogroast.

TJ’s has a definite element of that, as if even the people in the store treat the stock as junk, though the feeding frenzy that a closing down sale brings probably hasn’t helped the order of the store. But there is junk. Animatronic Elvis heads that presumably sing Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. A whole section of knackered, spoilt goods abandoned to the intender mercies of bargain-hungry shoppers. Bins full of sweets and moisturiser and rows of leopard-print bras.

Yes, there is junk here but there’s a duality to this store, because there’s real quality too – this is the sort of shop you could spend an afternoon in, simply looking at stuff because it’s interesting and tempting and even aspirational, in a 1970s kind of way.

These were the days of the department store as theatre as an experience, rather than the ‘shop till you drop’ of today. This was true of the posh shops for the rich to TJ Hughes for the poor, and boy were they poor in Liverpool

I’d picked up two coats within ten minutes of going in. And a load of crockery, sunglasses, shoes, a colander and other bits and bobs. In the clothing department I think of Saturdays and school holidays being dragged around Marks & Spencer; the women at the floral-print blouses, deploying their handbags to stake out their positions like territorial cats.

Downstairs among the homeware I see brands that I haven’t thought of for 25 years. Morphy Richards. Breville. Tefal. At school brainy kids were called Tefal Heads. Seeing these brands is like going back in time.

In terms of the decor too. Time was every town had a couple of decent department stores. They were always brown, a little boring but comforting. TJs has wood-effect flooring but the ceiling tells a different story. There’s exposed cabling and strip-lighting that characterised department stores in the 80s, while missing ceiling tiles reveal badly boarded-up windows – they all add up to the tell-tale distress signs of a shop past its best; unwilling or unable to smarten things up.

Lewis’s went this way. Walk around the Adelphi and, despite its incredible grandeur, you can see the same signs like the crow’s feet on a once-handsome face – and the clumsy attempts at makeovers. The cafe looks thoroughly shagged out. I don’t go in, despite the promise of free bread and butter with fish and chips – £5. It’s the sort of deal that will speak to working class people of a certain age but mean nothing to the sort of people who might frequent a Met Quarter or Liverpool One with its paninis and lattes.

This is the problem with the prospect of losing TJ’s. It caters for people in Liverpool that few other places do. There are people for whom a trip to shops like this will be a treat; not the nightmarish chore of a trip to B&Q or Tesco many of us will be familiar with. The kind of place you can buy school uniforms, a nice dress, aftershave, Birkenstocks, a toaster, a bed, a hoover, a plant, curtains, a rolling pin, a suitcase and a suite – before going for a cup of tea and slice of cake. This shop has character; it’s a place to go in its own right.

A surprising development recently had Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy revealing that the original TJ Hughes was his grandfather and, in an interview with his mother, discussing what TJ’s meant to Liverpool’s working classes.

“Older Liverpool residents can still remember getting hugely excited as children, travelling in from Formby or on the ferry from Birkenhead, with a little money to spend at TJ’s,” said Vulliamy’s Mum.

“These were the days of the department store as theatre as an experience, rather than the ‘shop till you drop’ of today. This was true of the posh shops for the rich to TJ Hughes for the poor, and boy were they poor in Liverpool.”

There’s still an element of that at TJ’s. No-one in their right mind would go to a supermarket for a fun day out, but TJ’s still has an air of being a place for treats, bargains, nice things to take home. I bet there’s a grotto at Christmas too, but probably not this year.

The loss of the shop can only hasten the decline of London Road too; an area shedding pubs and shops like a tree losing its leaves; an area looking more exposed and bare every time I walk it. The lack of parking must be a major issue for retail outlets around here, especially with out-of-town supermarkets and retail parks, where car-parking comes first and shops follow.

Its passing will be something to mourn, not just because it’s a nice place with nice things but because it’s a small reminder of the way things used to be – free bread and butter and Tefal and Santa. A place of memories.

As the centre of gravity has been dragged across town towards the Docks, London Road has withered – it feels like an old, weary part of town. Modern additions are not pretty and the area feels in vital need of some attention – further out towards Edge Lane the area has been flattened, levelled. The side streets between London Road and New Islington are desperately strange places; they feel dangerous and lonely. Those pubs that remain on London Road do not appear to be faring well.

TJ’s was a comforting, familiar sanctuary in the middle of London Road. Without it this part of the city centre can only suffer. Its passing will be something to mourn, not just because it’s a nice place with nice things but because it’s a small reminder of the way things used to be – free bread and butter and Tefal and Santa. A place of memories.

At the checkout I’m passing my colander to a girl on the tills. I feel sorry for them too; losing jobs they might have expected were a job for life – there are 4,000 more around the country. Next to us is a woman attempting to return two Dove moisturiser tubes. I can’t exactly work out why.

It’s fairly clear that she’s in the wrong but the staff don’t patronise or insult her; they just sort it out and give her the money back and wish her on her way. Maybe it’s a spot of end-of-term indulgence or maybe it’s a remnant from the old spirit of TJ Hughes, a man who was a “caring employer who seemed to know everyone’s name” whose “small profit, quick return” policy ensured people loved shopping there.

When I went I loved shopping there too, though I do not generally enjoy spending time in shops. But the market does not respect nostalgia, fondness, geography or loyalty. If TJ’s is to survive it will have to be deemed viable in these tough times. And there are always other shops ready to fill the gap. Shops like Home Bargains, a discount store with a modern supermarket vibe; all just-in-time and lean running and stack-em-high.

TJ’s was founded 99 years ago in Liverpool. Home Bargains around 30 years ago in Liverpool. Will people reminisce about the latter in 70 years? Unlikely. Those days of grottos and employers who pay for your medical treatment, department store as theatre are largely gone. It seems likely you have about 30 days to experience a taste of it at Liverpool’s TJ Hughes on London Road; something the new museum over at the new gleaming heart of new Liverpool can never give you.

• Main image: John Bradley
Secondary image of TJ Hughes