Mark Andrews: The loss of Beatties is more than just another shop closure

After years of speculation, the signs have finally gone up – James Beattie's venerable drapery store now faces its final curtain.

Mark Andrews: The loss of Beatties is more than just another shop closure

We all knew it was coming. In truth, the once majestic department store has been on its uppers for a few years, and was never really the same since the ill-fated House of Fraser takeover some 15 years ago.

Bit by bit, its character was eroded, as branding changed and departments closed. But it was still Beatties.

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Beatties has been in Wolverhampton since 1877, when James Beattie opened the Victoria Draper Supply Store.

Typifying the Victorian entrepreneurial spirit, within 18 years Beattie's company was employing 40 staff and turning over £30,000 a year.

A massive fire in 1896 could have destroyed the business, but ever resourceful, Beattie saw it as another opportunity and moved across the road to the hugely impressive site it occupies today.

Of course, Beatties is not the first old-established business to bite the dust.

The story of the past 30 or so years has been one of constant upheaval, with countless names we thought would be with us forever disappearing almost in the blink of an eye.

But Beatties is special. Or at least it was. More than a shop, it was a visitor attraction in its own right, Wolverhampton's answer to Harrods.

The Beatties site in Wolverhampton

Every Christmas the vast toy department would be heaving, with excited children clamouring to see the latest Meccano set, spectacular railway layout or Scalextric track.

The luxurious restaurant, which would give many top London hotels a run for their money, was the venue of choice for Wolves stars wanting something special for lunch.

The stationery department, packed with gold-plated fountain pens and luxury notepaper, was also a cut above the norm, and most people have fond memories of Beattie Bear, the store's famous mascot.

There was the rocking horse, which would keep the children occupied while Mum and Dad bought that important outfit, the grand piano in the music department.

The lift attendants in their immaculate uniforms, the sweet smell of the vast perfumery, all added to the sense of theatre.

Beatties, which in its prime had branches across the Midlands and the North, was first and foremost a family business with family values, at least until the takeover in 2005 when this special character was slowly sucked out of it.

One by one, the specialist departments closed, the upmarket brands were gradually replaced by House of Fraser own-brand lines. Instead of being a visitor destination, Beatties became just another shop.

The former Beatties store in the Churchill Precint, Dudley, in September 1971

The Beatties name disappeared from all but the Wolverhampton and Dudley stores, with Dudley closing in 2010.

And now, 10 years later, Beatties in Wolverhampton will finally bite the dust.

But there is hope. Beatties was originally due to have closed last year, before retail magnate Mike Ashley stepped in as the unlikely saviour. After buying House of Fraser out of administration, Mr Ashley gave the store a reprieve.

The present store will close, it is just too large and expensive to run for today's needs, but it will be replaced with a new department store across the road, more or less where the Beatties story began.

The new store, which will be known as Frasers, will bring together all of Mr Ashley's retail portfolio under one roof, and will not only provide many people with employment, but will ensure Wolverhampton continues to enjoy the type of shopping experience that is rapidly disappearing from most towns and cities.

Frasers is something we should welcome, and hopefully the people of Wolverhampton will get behind it. But it won't be Beatties.

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