Edna Southworth and Lis Gray were clutching half-price bedclothes and duvets as they left the Beales department store in Bournemouth. But their mood was melancholy rather than triumphant.
“I’ve been shopping here for 50 years,” said Gray. “It’s always been the store to come to. It will be such a shame if it vanished from this street and a disaster for the town centre. Our generation grew up with stores like this. They’re a big part of our lives.”
Southworth agreed. “I know people do shop online now but I never would. I like to see and touch what I’m buying before I pay for it. If all the department stores go, I’ll just have to make do with the stuff I’ve got.”
The news that the grand old store (est 1881; motto: “It has to be Beales”) had gone into administration was greeted with disbelief in the Dorset resort.
Suzanne Hesketh said she had been buying household goods from Beales for just about as long she could remember.
“I bought a set of saucepans from here 25 years ago. They’re still going strong. We bought a three-piece suite here. It was too soft but their after-sale service was fantastic. This store is part of our history.
“I think business rates are too high and lots of shops are closing. The council is on to a good thing, the owners of the buildings are on to a good thing. They are charging huge rates and rents. We’ve got to do something or we will lose our high streets. It’s a shame.”
Beales was opened by John Elmes Beale under the name Fancy Fair and Oriental House, selling products and novelties that reflected the growing enthusiasm for Chinese and Japanese design. The original store was bombed in the second world war but rebuilt on the same site on Old Christchurch Road.
In the 1990s it floated on the stock exchange before returning to private ownership. It expanded and Beales now operates 23 department stores from the Lake District to Norfolk selling furniture, fashion, toys and cosmetics and employing more than 1,000 people.
Bournemouth remains the flagship store. It is much more than a shop. It is also a place for friends to meet. Its canopy is a shelter for homeless people and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many people wonder where they will find a comfortable toilet if Beales closes.
Charlotte Mason and her three-year grandson, Huxley, came out of the shop having found a toy motorcycle for the boy. “It’s a big landmark for the town. It would be sorely missed,” said Mason. “And we’ll be left with another bloody empty shop.”
Josh Wright, who covers council matters for the Bournemouth Echo, was treating himself to new kitchen knives and a chopping board. “It’s the first place you notice when you walk down this street.” But he admits to being part of the problem: he does most of his shopping online.
Beales’ problems have caused a political row on the south coast. The store asked Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council to exempt it from paying business rates, an eye-watering £440,000 a year.
The council, which is run by a coalition including Lib Dems, Labour and independents, declined. The council leader, Vikki Slade, a Lib Dem, said: “Unfortunately, we are not able to grant such exemptions as business rates are a national tax which we are required to collect on behalf of government.
“Any financial support to the store would have had to come out of council budgets and this would therefore have a direct impact on council service delivery.”
One of the Bournemouth MPs, the international trade minister Conor Burns, said the council’s approach was “reckless and short-sighted”, arguing that councils did have the power to give business rate discounts under section 69 of the Localism Act 2011.
It is not all bleak on the high street in Bournemouth.
Nat Rendell, who owns an independent “skate, streetwear and sneaker” store, moved out of a spot close to Beales to focus on the online side of his business. But he is moving back to Old Christchurch Road soon with a store that will include a cafe and will stage events.
Alan Rowett, at The Vault vinyl records and CDs shop, makes a living by offering something different to HMV.
He remembers being dragged around the store in the 1960s and 1970s. “A lot of the department stores haven’t moved with the times. My teenage kids wouldn’t dream of going in there. The generation that grew up going there is getting old and dying off, sadly. To survive shops have to strive to develop, offer something different.”