Walking Down to George Henry Lee: Independents Biennial 2018

I’m sat here on the big curving staircase in George Henry Lee writing this. On the second floor, near Glassware and looking down towards Cards and Wrapping Paper on the ground floor.

Well those last bits are only in my mind, but I’m really sat on the staircase in George Henry Lee writing. One of the seventy venues that are home to the Independents Biennial 2018 from now until the end of October. I’m very happy to be here.

I walked down here earlier via Squash on Windsor Street. The welcome rain of the last couple of days having given way again to the hot blue summer we’re somehow having.

After lunch and a read I walked past the Cathedral and down the streets behind Bold Street to town. By the Cathedral I’d walked past streams of tourists and pilgrims. Me as a different kind of pilgrim on my way to a different kind of Cathedral.

I’d always known about George Henry Lee, of course I had, like everyone in Liverpool. But it had only become a sacred place for me while setting up home with Sarah Horton from the early 1990s. The answer to most shopping questions from Sarah was always “George Henry’s.” As she’s written elsewhere on this blog, she spent much of her childhood in here. And so grew up a devout believer in the place, its pricing, its policies and its people.

She’d speak of changes in its layout like major events in liturgical history. “When habi (haberdashery) moved to the basement” being one of the major schisms.

In time I came to appreciate her beliefs. You couldn’t love Sarah without loving George Henry Lee. So I was also sad, though nowhere near as sad as her, when they shut up shop in 2008 and moved over to Liverpool One. Leaving their name behind them as far as we were concerned. They might have already begun calling this place John Lewis, but we never did.

In the years since then, though Rapid Hardware have had a go in here,  the part facing Church Street is TK Maxx, and there’s a Poundland in ‘Gents Outfitting’ on the ground floor, this building has remained ‘George Henry Lee’ to us.

And it’s George Henry Lee to me now. Sat here on this staircase with the local art of Independents Biennial 2018 all around me. I won’t review the art, others are much better at that than me. I’ll just show you some pictures, encourage you to come and have a look, and rejoice that it’s all here in the last months of this beautiful place. From next year the building will become a hotel, I’m told. But for now it’s our’s. To walk round, remember, dream and appreciate what’s here.

Feeling somehow right that the story of the place ends with new art from new people who probably mostly don’t remember George Henry Lee, the shop, in the kind of detail so many of us older ones still do. And probably didn’t walk around at the opening on Thursday evening, as I did, saying which department we were now in.

“Gifts, then up to towels and bedding. Down to lighting and hardware. Though to white goods, kitchenware, cleaning products, underwear, seasonal goods and haberdashery.”

I could name the whole shop, as Sarah no doubt will when she’s back from sea kayaking and comes for a visit.

Sarah Horton in Kitchenware on Closing Day, 2008. It’s Sarah’s shop, the rest of us are just borrowing it.

Independents Biennial 2018 is open here from 11am to around 5:30pm on Mondays and from Wednesdays to Sundays until 28th October.

There’s also an Empty Spaces cinema in the basement as you might have noticed. Bound to be good.

And I’ll put links to special events here as I get them.

Like this in New Brighton, also part of the Independents Biennial. Going there today, Sunday.

In a few weeks time there’ll also be me here, in the department I still call ‘Gifts’ – inside the door by St John’s Tower. I’ll be helping out with several weeks of something some friends are organising. Tell you more soon.

Independents Biennial 2018 is organised by Art in Liverpool.

Well done Patrick Kirk-Smith of Art in Liverpool. And everyone else who’s running this.

More details of the 4 months, 6 boroughs, 70 venues and 300 local artists here.

Meanwhile I’ll sit here on these big stairs a while longer. Near to Glassware, just up from Cards and Stationery, perfectly happy.

9 Replies to “Walking Down to George Henry Lee: Independents Biennial 2018”

  1. Enjoyed that. I too lament the loss of the great GHL. Would wander around there for an age. Bought my second daughter’s very expensive pram from there. Loved that shop. Spent ages in the haberdashery choosing patterns and material. Another great Liverpool landmark that should have had the support of the Liverpool council to remain as was.

    1. Well it was John Lewis themselves who abandoned it. But you’re right, as a city we could be making better and more creative use of our empty spaces. About which, more soon.

  2. Wonderful.
    Childhood memories of walking around the furniture department as my mum chose items she’d saved really hard to buy. She said it was worth it because they were the best quality and they would last. Mum was right, we still have most of it.
    Then me, at 21 and newly married, getting a part time job at George Henry Lee’s. It was an accolade almost akin to getting a scholarship to a top university!
    I worked on ‘The Flying Squad ‘. Yes that’s what it was called. Report for duty and go wherever you were needed most. Covering the busy hours between 10-3 and all day Saturday.
    Getting to know every department and always feeling welcome because they needed your help. Happy, busy, interesting days.
    Favourite departments? Luggage, which became garden furniture in spring/summer and magically turned to all things Christmas come September. I loved that corner right by the alleyway linking the two buildings. All life passed through there it seemed. Never a dull moment.
    The trips to the hidden parts behind the scenes were always a treat, especially where we went to get our uniform. Down a little corridor, through a secret door. Very Lewis Carroll I felt. My last journey there was to order my maternity uniform. My now 26 year old first child developed, I got bigger, very weary and sadly left, 6 months pregnant.
    My eldest two children remember their trips there. It was always a highlight for my daughter, she knew it was special. My mum, now 85, still mourns it’s passing.
    We all loved the place so much.

    1. Thank you Helen, it’s that kind of place, full of stories and secret corridors. Thank you for taking us on your journey with the George Henry Flying Squad. Hope you’ll get the chance for a last look round. I felt very privileged on this stairs yesterday.

  3. An LHT stalwart – maybe you knew him – was getting married back in about 2005/6 (I left in March 2006) and at the presentation another stalwart, who was always asked to speak at these occasions as he had the gift of the gab, regaled us with the tale of how he was asked by some wool to use the collection money to buy vouchers from ‘John Lewis’. Him being old-school Scouse, he took this to mean Lewis’s, because what was now John Lewis was George Henry Lee’s to him! Lewis’s is gone now as well. I was going to say that is is a proper worthy of your archiving skills, but I had the sense to check and it even has its own tag. I’m sure I could set my wife off by mentioning either of them.

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