Devastated John Lewis workers hold vigils outside Sheffield store after ‘family break-up’

Devastated John Lewis partners are holding vigils outside the Sheffield store as they try to come to terms with the break up of their ‘family’.

Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 2:49 pm

Partners have been visiting the shop on Barker’s Pool to share memories and their sense of loss with colleagues and former customers.

Some have left poignant messages revealing their despair.

Alison Barker wrote: ‘To all customers. I will miss serving you in the linen department. Just can’t believe it.’

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Customer Kate Willcox, of Nether Edge, reads the messages.

Another says: ‘Heartbroken, going to miss working with the most amazing partners. Please reconsider.’

And: ‘Worked here 33 years. It felt like a family.’

Some have pinned up pictures of staff featuring smiling groups at socials, charity events and on the shop floor.

They are among hundreds of notes, letters, articles and drawings which have appeared on store windows in an unprecedented outpouring of emotion after the firm announced it would not reopen.

Pictures of staff events.

One partner, who asked not to be named, said she’d been devastated by the news last month and had started visiting every couple of days.

Chatting to customers and hearing their love for the shop had helped ease the pain.

She added: “For partners to come and read messages has been really sweet. Just being able to chat to customers and hear what it means to them has helped.

“People have memories of shopping and they’ve wanted to share them.

A sad message.

“A lady said she’d been visiting since she was five and she’s now 79.

“When I heard the news I was devastated, I was so emotional, it was a shock. I came down and there was one card. It’s been nice to see it grow.

“For me, it’s never been just a job. It never felt like a chore, it was a joy to come to work. I came for a job here because I loved how it felt as a customer.”

Cole Brothers dates back 174 years in Sheffield

Partners and customers have been drawn to the shuttered store.

It moved from ‘Cole’s Corner’ at the bottom of Fargate into the six-storey building on Barker’s Pool in 1963 and became John Lewis in 2002.

The firm was famed for its upmarket products and standout customer service.

Now, some 299 workers, and more than 40 consultants for brands including Liz Earle, Estee Lauder and Clinique, face losing their jobs.

The partner added: “You felt like your voice was always heard and your ideas were valued. The sense of it being a partnership meant it was not all about profit. They really supported staff to work in the community.”

Bosses told Sheffield MPs the store was profitable before it closed at the start of the outbreak. But last month they predicted it could not be ‘profitably sustained’ in future, blaming lockdowns and internet shopping.

It is set to close for good after a staff consultation ends in June.

Just some of the hundreds of messages.

The decision is an especially bitter blow for Sheffield City Council after it spent 20 years and millions of pounds persuading the company to stay. It even bought the building, slashed the rent and offered to pay for a revamp. But John Lewis fell to a £517m loss this year and Sheffield was included when closures were announced.

Messages from customers convey the heartbreak, with many calling for it to stay open.

One said: 'Part of our lives, heart of the city, don't leave us'.

Another: ‘John Lewis is the only reason I come into the city centre. The staff are beyond helpful, always have your best interests at heart and are super friendly’.

A letter from Sheffield MP Paul Blomfield fondly recalls visits with his mother in the 1960s.

Former customer Kate Willcox, of Nether Edge, said: “It’s quite the heart of Sheffield. I’m amazed at how many people have left messages.

“I do all my Christmas shopping here and if I come into town, I’d get a custard tart. They were great.

“It’s disappointing it’s got to go and sad for all the people who have worked here, they are brilliant. There’s nowhere like it for customer service in Sheffield.”

Eerily, all the internal lights are on and products remain on shelves as if it were still open.

As well as shopping memories, the building has been the backdrop to countless important events due to its position on Barker’s Pool, including graduations and Remembrance Sundays. Jessica Ennis greeted crowds from a bus there after winning heptathlon gold in the 2012 Olympics.

Some 24,000 people have signed a petition against the closure proposal.

Sheffield dad Simon Jones recently incorporated a new company called Cole Brothers after the rights to the name lapsed.

He said he was keen to see the store reopen saying it even had its own smell and it was an antidote to internet shopping that “speaks to all our senses.”

Cole Brothers was an institution that was important for Sheffield’s ‘identity and dignity’ and harked back to a more prosperous time, he added.

And he wanted to see a new Cole Brothers in the building boasting a Waitrose food hall and a Ponsford furniture franchise.

Several other ideas have been put forward. It is understood council chiefs are keen to ensure it is not standing in darkness at Christmas.

A John Lewis spokesman recently told The Star they did not think the performance of the Sheffield store could be substantially improved.

He added: “However, the reason it is a proposal is that we will discuss the proposal in consultation with our Sheffield partners.

“They have the opportunity to challenge and scrutinise the reasoning and financial case in order to test this and to help everyone understand the rationale for the closure’.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Please take out a digital subscription or buy a paper.

Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

More messages.
The eye catching display.
The lights remain on and shelves stocked as if it were open.