Remembering Woolies

BY TONY MAY

The recent news that long-established Electrical Retailers, ‘Comet’ are to go into administration has had quite an effect on me. Always one to spend a fair amount of my time thinking of the past anyway, to see again the same tragic circumstances occurring, which, five years ago (yes, it has been that long already!) led to the closure of the beloved ‘Woolworths’ chain has made me very sad indeed.

I have a large collection of local press cuttings and reading through those connected with the ‘Woolworths’ tragedy the other morning transported me back in time and inspired me to write about my own remembrance of the store. Attempting to later edit the article below, however, soon proved to be quite impossible!

What immediately became apparent to me was just how ‘of the time’ I must have felt when writing. It was as if I really had been back to Jan 2009 and was writing about how I felt soon after the event. After ‘fiddling about’ with the article for some time trying to make it sound more current I eventually decided to leave things as I had originally written them and write this little preface instead…

What now follows I think proves beyond a doubt not just how much losing ‘Woolies’ meant to me but also how ‘displaced’ I and many other people feel in today’s world of ‘virtual living’.

                 Remembering Woolies

In the December 8th 2008 edition of The Hastings Observer a small column of text entitled ‘Store To Close?’ appeared on page 2. No bigger than an eighth of a page, the column made little impact upon the eye and may even have failed to catch ones attention at all had the name ‘Woolworths’ not stood out from the second line of the text.

Suddenly, such an innocuous looking item of apparently ‘casual news’ took on far more importance not only for Hastings but also for the nation and for the place in history retail shopping was to forever occupy.

Could it really be possible that ‘Woolies’ had gone bankrupt? How could everyone’s favourite department store have come to this? Having been placed into administration in November the end now seemed nigh for a shop that had been a part of Hastings life for over 80 years and for a brand name that had been with us for almost a century.

With 74 local jobs at stake, administrators, Deloitte, were still seeking bids from parties interested in saving the business but with Christmas sales announced in the chain’s 815 stores country-wide and the prospect after the festive season of the usual slump in sales things looked grim.

The Hastings Observer of Dec 19th confirmed the worst. ‘Woolies era ends in two weeks’ was the headline above a report detailing how the iconic store was to close for the last time on January 5th, 2009. With 207 stores around the country closing even earlierthan this on December 27th, the people of Hastings did at least have the chance to get over Christmas and New Year before having to cope with processing their own particular memories of the store.

Nevertheless ‘Woolies’ was on the tip of every tongue over 30 in Hastings that Christmas and everywhere you went a person or persons discussing its loss could be overheard. Everyone seemingly either knew someone who had worked there, had worked there themselves or had a special memory of a time, a particular item purchased there or a department they held dear and needed to recount.

For my part, I felt strangely guilty. Why had I stopped buying so much in ‘Woolies’? Why was it that I had not even visited as frequently as I once had? Sure, I know they’d stopped selling vinyl records and CD singles a while ago but after that there must have been plenty of other reasons to shop there ?

At this point I recall thinking of Amazon.com and the string of purchases I had made online in the last few years. I hadn’t done so maliciously! No! I had done so simply because it was easier and more convenient. I mean no more ‘out of stock’ labels, no more lugging heavy carrier bags home on a crowded bus – ‘Woolies’ would always be there regardless of what I did – of course it would…

My sense of personal guilt compelled me to pick up my camera and visit the shop once again. When I eventually arrived for ages I did nothing but stand opposite the building and stare. Somehow, like a giant whale slowing dying beached upon the shore, the shop seemed strangely both serene and helpless in equal measure. I got out my camera and took a few photos. People about me seemed confused by my act and I felt suspicious eyes burning into me but I did not care. Years of faithful service, years of Christmas displays and New Years sales bargains filled my head and I remembered how dearly I used to wish I would one day see copies of one of my own albums tucked into the No1 spot of the metal browser adorning the wall to the left of the ‘Entertainment’ counter. I recalled racks of ‘Hallmark’ L.P. records, budget release Cd’s and those 70’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ albums which, (unfathomably now) sold in droves at the time and then I thought of how my eyes used to fill with wonder as a kid upstairs looking around the toy department. How could things have turned out like this? Why in the hell do things have to change? I had no answers but knew from this day forth that I would need to hold on ever tighter to the very memories that had just challenged my emotions. Oddly, I cannot remember now whether or not I actually went into the store one last time. If I did I do not remember doing so and certainly did not buy anything. What I did do was take a long and hard look around me before, almost by instinct, raising my camera again to my eye and recording some film footage for posterity…

Writing this now in November 2012 I find myself thinking about just how much about our town has changed since Woolworths demise. Under a year later, another well loved Hastings shop, Sussex Stationers, closed. In 2010, Hastings Pier was lost to fire and more recently than that The Crypt and even The Christian Bookshop along Robertson Street have gone.

Change is always painful for some and a breath of fresh air to others and so to balance things I should add that the town has since then gained Hastings University and The Jerwood Centre amongst other things.

I guess a person like me though is wired up to notice losses more than gains and now all I can see is how the character and personality of Hastings, this country and indeed the world is changing from the world in which I was born. While the ice skating rink at Christmas time in Priory Meadow was good fun for many, the only time I have previously encountered one erected in a town centre at Christmas was when I visited Bruge in Belgium. Likewise have you noticed how nearly all of the ‘transport café’s’ have faded into the clutches of time? A cup of tea or coffee used to be just that a few years ago and neither would set you back more than about 80p. Now, the town centre is home to a disproportionate amount of ‘Coffee Shops’ rather like you might find on the continent. Bar stalwarts, (and God help me if they ever close as well) Debenhams, the shopping side of Hastings in the heart of town seems to have almost disappeared and instead it is not unusual now to find a ‘continental market’ occupying the centre.

All of this (along with the disappearance of pubs everywhere) to this self confessed ‘old reprobate’ feels like the eradication of all it means to be British. Culture everywhere (not just in this country) seems as if it is disappearing and its as if all of the peoples of Europe are being sucked into a great melting pot. Who or what will emerge from such a pot I have no idea but the one thing I am certain about is that none of them will have any idea of whence they came and that to me is a shame…

So, here we are then, five years on from the death of Woolworths. I wonder where we will be in another five years time?

         Rye Woolworth Converted To New Library

The new Library and Community Help Point on Rye’s High Street, replacing the former Woolworths, opened its doors to the public for the first time on Monday 24 January 2011—and what a triumph it has proved to be! Visitor figures by early 2012 showed an increase of 135% and rising on those of the last year on Lion Street with 83% more members so it is no wonder that many more books are now issued than ever before.

The many happy written comments by visitors to the light and spacious building explain what the statistics show. There are abundant general appraisals: ‘Fantastic’. ‘Terrific!’ ‘Brilliant!’ ‘So impressive!’ ‘Excellent!’ ‘Wonderful.’ ‘WOOHOO!’ ‘What a super library!’ ‘Just the boost Rye needs.’ ‘So happy for Rye!’ ‘Well worth the wait.’ ‘I’ll come every week!’ ‘I’ve never seen a library so busy!’ ‘The children love it.’ ‘So welcoming.’ ‘Exactly what we need!’ ‘The best library in East Sussex’ and ‘Three cheers for ESCC and RDC! So refreshing to see a council investing in such a valuable public service.’

Invariably these accolades to ‘Rye’s spacious and well-stocked library’ with its ‘staff so welcoming and helpful’ are followed by specifics explaining those superlatives and they turn out to be the very things the Rye community had asked for. There is particular praise for the space, decor and lighting, the organisation and balanced stock, the self-checking system, improved computer facilities, the much expanded local history section, children’s area, comfortable seating, increased hours and access to other council services under the same roof- and the mother who wrote ‘I’m grateful for the loos too!’ spoke for others too.

The tripled amount of public floor space in the new library means it can now host sessions for children and a range of community events. For example, over 70 children from local schools came for a session with best-selling children’s author Francesca Simon (author of the Horrid Henry books), while storyteller Sylvia Howarth entertained children from local playgroups and nurseries in March this year.

As part of the Rye Festival 2011 Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate 1999 – 2009,  gave a sell-out talk in the library to over 90 people. (Shelving on wheels makes for versatile space.) Andrew was the patron of the Friends of Rye Library, the local group headed by the late Keith Taylor, which collaborated with East Sussex County Council to give Rye the library the local commu nit y wanted.

More ‘big events’ are planned, but meanwhile there are regular activities such as rhyme time sessions for babies and toddlers on alternate Mondays at 11am. and weekly computer sessions run by volunteers on Monday and Tuesday mornings to help people develop their ICT skills. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau runs surgeries every Tuesday while the Rye Community Help Point of Rother District Council is available for those seeking advice and help of various kinds during the week. `There are volunteer opportunities available too: being a Home Library Service volunteer, taking library materials to people unable to get to the library; or a Children’s Services volunteer, helping with the Summer Reading Challenge; or a Computer Buddy, helping people to learn the basics of using computers in libraries. If you would like to be a volunteer, tell the library staff.

As part of the library project, ESCC worked in partnership with Rother District Council to provide the Community Help Point so that all County Council and District Council services can be accessed in one place. Now that the main objective of the Friends of Rye Library — to ensure that Rye got not just a new library but one matching the needs of the town and surrounding villages– has been so satisfactorily achieved, the hope is that existing community organisations will work wit h ESCC o n projects and activities which serve the community. The Library Service has in place a business plan which aims to encourage people to keep using their new library. If you would any further details about the library service please contact Rye Library on 0345 6080196 or via email at [email protected] eastsussex.gov. uk

         Hythe – One Of The Last Woolies To Close

Christmas was always a great trading tome for the 807 stores Woolworth’s had scattered around the country. It was therefore ironic that they were to close over the Christmas period of 2008.

One of the very last of the famous outlets to close was at Hythe on 5 January 2009. The store had served the public for 75 years.

The firm’s 807 stores were closed in tranches throughout the final weeks of December after selling off stock, fixtures and fittings at discount prices. The final 200 were expected to close before Christmas 2008 but administrator Deloitte gave the chain a brief reprieve to shift the remaining stock and allow final arrangements to be made and so it was that Hythe survived into 2009.

Hythe Woolworth’s just after closing for the final time in 2009.

Rye’s Own January 2013

All articles, photographs and drawings on this web site are World Copyright Protected. No reproduction for publication without prior arrangement. © World Copyright 2017 Cinque Ports Magazines Rye Ltd., Guinea Hall Lodge Sellindge TN25 6EG