Observing Liverpool: Downtown

This morning I heard a newly recorded version of ‘Downtown’ on the radio. Still by Petula Clark, but stately and melancholy, like she’s been listening to the Blue Nile, to ‘Downtown Lights’ in fact, itself, in its turn, influenced by her. The new version won’t be out ’til later this month, but when it is I hope you’ll go and listen to it. It’s very beautiful and it set me up for the day. One day in Liverpool.

I go downtown.

A chippy, probably nothing to do with Petula Clark.

A chippy, probably nothing to do with Petula Clark.

Downtown02 Downtown03 Downtown04Passing Hope Street, both cathedral are hazy in the rain. And going down Hardman Street, the Liver Buildings are a vague grey outline in the distance.

Downtown07 Downtown08

Round in Chinatown it’s New Year’s Eve, the Year of the Snake.

Downtown05Downtown09 Downtown10 Downtown11Virtually all of the left hand side of Renshaw Street, here, used to be Rapid Hardware. Until 2009, when they moved out of their many tiny shops into one big one in the City Centre. We’ll be getting to that, but meanwhile half of the ‘Rapid’ shops remain empty, some being used as adverts for visitor attractions nearby.

Ahead of us is Lewis’s. Formerly one of Liverpool’s biggest department stores, but closed down in 2010. The building is being turned into the inevitable ‘new concept’ in retail, managed workspaces and apartments…

With agonising slowness.

With agonising slowness.

Suddenly, there is a fold in time.

And round the corner it's August 2008.

And round the corner it’s May 2008.

This is the George Henry Lee building, and John Lewis are about to move out to their shiny new premises in Liverpool One. Soon after, Rapid Hardware move into here.Downtown14 Downtown15But all does not go well. And this week one of Liverpool’s most cranky and beloved independents has gone into receivership. The staff turned up at work yesterday to find themselves locked out of their own place.

It hadn't been looking too good when half of the ground floor had been rented off to Poundland.

It hadn’t been looking too good when half of the ground floor had been rented off to Poundland.

Once again time folds.

And we walk into the shop in August 2008.

And we walk into the shop in May 2008.

Reading the story of here before Rapid Hardware.

Reading the story of here before Rapid Hardware.

It is a light, airy, beautiful place.

It is a light, airy, beautiful place.

Sarah's favourite shop on Earth.

Sarah’s favourite shop on Earth.

In her beloved Haberdashery Department, all packed up. The shop will close tomorrow.

In her beloved Haberdashery Department, all packed up. The shop will close tomorrow.

Back outside it’s 2013 again.

And the Year of the Snake celebrations continue.

And the Year of the Snake celebrations continue.

Along the road, and increasingly rare in the middle of town, some independents survive.

Along the road, and increasingly rare in the middle of town, some independents survive.

The Met Quarter here has just changed hands for £20 million. A quarter of what it cost last time it was sold.

The Metquarter here has just changed hands for £21 million. A quarter of what it cost last time it was sold.

Church Street is busy.

Church Street is busy.

Liverpool One looms.

Liverpool One looms.

Including John Lewis in their new place. 'Just not the same' thinks Sarah.

Including John Lewis in their new place. ‘Just not the same’ thinks Sarah.

In Liverpool One, the jazz sneaks out between the corporates.

In Liverpool One, the jazz sneaks out between the corporates.

And round in Church Street again, Littlewoods is now a sweat shop.

And round in Church Street again, Littlewoods is now Primark. I will never go in here.

Across the road is the Bon Marché building. Until late 2008, the front half of John Lewis.

Across the road is the Bon Marché building we read about in the George Henry Lee story. Until late 2008, the front half of John Lewis.

Or, as we persisted in calling it - George Henry Lee.

Or, as we persisted in calling it – George Henry Lee.

In between Chuch Street and Bold Street, more downtown emptiness.

In between Chuch Street and Bold Street, more downtown emptiness.

Bold Street, my downtown favourite.

Bold Street, my downtown favourite.

I worked in here, in the 1980s, for Liverpool Housing Trust.

I worked in here, in the 1980s, for Liverpool Housing Trust.

And Bold Street is home to some of Liverpool’s most celebrated independents.

Matta's International Food Store, moved here from Granby Street in the early 1980s.

Matta’s International Food Store, moved here from Granby Street in the early 1980s.

Natalie Heywood's Leaf. Tea Shop and much more. Full today as usual.

Natalie Heywood’s Leaf. Tea Shop and much more. Full today as usual.

News From Nowhere bookshop. And next to it? 'Next to Nowhere' vegan café!

News From Nowhere independent bookshop. And next to it? ‘Next to Nowhere’ vegan café!

Maybe lunch here? No, full as well.

Maybe lunch here? No, full as well.

In FACT? No, don't like the café in here as much now. Crisps with everything.

In FACT? No, don’t like the café in here as much now. Crisps with everything.

So it's round to Renshaw Street. Past 69A.

So it’s round to Renshaw Street. Past 69A.

To a place I hadn't noticed before today.

To a place I hadn’t noticed before today.

Calling itself an ‘arts café’ – 81 Renshaw is where I have my lunch. Lovely it is too, a simple ciabatta and a cup of tea. And any place that plays Laura Nyro while I’m in there will get me to go back again. Recommended.

I walk home, meeting a friend on the way. She gets off her bike for a half hour conversation. Then rides downtown to pick up a book News From Nowhere have for her.

A damp but lovely day in downtown Liverpool. I worry about the empty spaces and the increasing presence of the ‘anytown’ corporates. But I rejoice in the independents. They are my Liverpool, the reason I go downtown.

See also Sarah’s companion piece to this ‘Remembering George Henry Lee.’

9 thoughts on “Observing Liverpool: Downtown

  1. Sarah Horton

    Thank you Ronnie for the lovely photos of George Henry Lee. Why would you rename a shop with such a splendid name to bland and corporate ‘John Lewis’? And as you know I always thought George Henry Lee were letting their standards slip when they moved ‘habi’ (that’s haberdashery to you) from the ground floor – yes prime ground floor spec – to the basement. Some things are important and deserve a top spec. And that includes haberdashery.

    Reply
  2. stan cotter

    You’re at it again Ronnie. When I was 16 I worked in Renshaw Street in a tool shop called Robert Kelly’s. I started in the shop on the corner of Newington. It was later knocked down and they rebuilt a concrete monstrosity further down Newington where they sharpened knives, lawnmowers and did mower repairs etc.

    I worked in the store room wrapping parcels for the evening post all day and every day. But I got the sack. They said I had no interest in the job. Come on !!! Wrapping parcels day in day out at 16years old. Yes mate I was bored stiff. But it was an old fashioned shop with old fashioned staff who all worked for the customer as though they were the only ones. An attitude long gone now, regretfully.

    Reply
  3. cheethamlibMandy

    Where have all the ‘haberdasheries gone, longtime passing.’ A piece could be written on these little treasure shops. So sad to see all those boarded up shops that once provided all sorts of useful retail services. But your favourite street offers some hope for the brave independents. Wonderful photographs show the changing face of retail buildings, and why couldn’t John Lewis have stayed in that lovely airy George Henry Lee building – one wonders? I hate the new retail concepts so beloved of large department stores, but impossible for the unfortunate shopper to find very much.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      When John Lewis were deciding to leave the George Henry Lee building I remember a manager complaining that the shop contained ‘110 changes of level, and that makes it very difficult to move the stock around.’ But that was also its charm – and a bit of creativity and investment could have easily dealt with accessibility. Instead they gave up and moved to the bland shed they now occupy, very little different from the next nearest John Lewis shop over near Manchester.

      Interest in George Henry Lee’s seems high though. So I might ask their biggest fan, Sarah, if she’d like to do a ‘special‘ on them?

      Reply
  4. lindsay53

    Lovely, Ronnie. Very grey day though, in Liverpool, in reference to both the weather and the sad state of independent retail decline. I remember Rapid Hardware. You could get anything there. What is heartening is that the small, independents seem to be thriving. Pockets of hope and quality amongst the debris of giants fallen. I agree with your comments above on creative ways of dealing with accessibility. It might have lent itself to a series of intimate, seemingly ‘independent’ spaces that are so much more interesting to be in.

    Reply
    1. Ronnie Hughes Post author

      It was an astonishingly gloomy February day, it felt like the sun had hardly bothered rising. But that just made photographing the day and the places more of a challenge!

      Reply

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