An Ode To Oxford Street's BHS

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 29 months ago
An Ode To Oxford Street's BHS

In August 2016, the long-running department stores BHS closed their doors for the final time. We visited the flagship store on Oxford Street, just before it locked up.

A hearty sale is nothing out of the ordinary on Oxford Street, but this one's different. The garish placards bragging 70% off might as well read 'RIP'. BHS is not long for this city.

Inside, if it weren't for those epitaphs all over the shop, it might almost be business as usual. The expiry date on this store (it'll be among the final BHSs to topple) might be less than three weeks, but the lights are on, the shelves are well stocked, and — like most shops on Oxford Street — the heating's cranked up to 11.

"Do we do net curtains?" asks one employee to another. The second shakes her head, and this is relayed by the first in a head shake to the customer.

We can't get permission to speak to the staff in here, but the sense is that if they're upset, they're hiding it well, putting in a good shift right up till the end.

Liquidation is only ever grim news for employees, but do any of the customers rummaging through the spoils genuinely care about BHS anymore?

Brenda (left) and Joanne: here to find discounted lights.

Dave, trying on jackets in the menswear section, admits this is first time he's come to a BHS in many years.

"I'm literally just waiting for somebody for half an hour, so it was just half an hour to kill," he says.

Will he miss it? "Yeah, I think so. It'll be like a Woolworths — an institution type thing, gone to the wall. So yeah, I think we will miss it."

Dave's hit on something; BHS — or British Home Stores as it was — arrived in Brixton in 1928, as a cheaper rival to Woolworths. (London's first Woolworths was also in Brixton.)  

Like Woolworths, BHS was always one of those brands Brits took national pride in — even if they were brands both created by Americans.

And while the flagship Oxford Street store has little of Selfridges' razzmatazz or HMV's electric pink oomph, it does represent what was, in 1986, the fifth biggest clothing retailer in the UK, with 160 stores.

As we take the escalator up to homeware, BHS's imminent demise becomes more pointed. Here, large areas of the shop floor lay abandoned, cages of partially-formed mannequins seem to squeal out, begging to be put out of their misery.

Areas of the shop floor lay abandoned, cages of partially-formed mannequins seem to squeal out, begging to be put out of their misery.

Joanne and Brenda are visiting from Gravesend, and perusing a shelf strewn with a few remaining chandeliers.

"Two of my girls have bought lights in the sale," says Brenda, "I think I've come to this one about a week too late.  

"I used to use BHS a lot for my son's clothes, when no one else did boy's clothes. I'm going back about 30 years."

Though it was the sale that drew them here today, Joanna says she always loved to shop at BHS over the Christmas period. Maybe she'll get some early Christmas shopping done today.

While Brenda was the mum who brought her children to BHS, Sony was one of the kids brought here by her mum.

"It's a shame," Sony says, "I'm quite shocked what's happened to BHS really. Actually, if you grew up in the 90s, your mum would have probably brought you here."

If you grew up in the 90s, your mum would have probably brought you here.

Lured in by today's sales, Sony's discovered BHS had a greater range than she thought.  

"I just realised that Dorothy Perkins is a part of the group, so I feel sorry for the other groups. I always thought that BHS was BHS but it actually has other stores inside it. It's a shame for the whole group, not just BHS.*

"Clearly it's going to drag everyone down."

While the mood of the staff is best described as stoic, many of the customers are acting like you might at the deathbed of a distant, elderly relative you fell out of touch with decades ago. They're reflective, but they'll get over it soon enough. And to take the edge off the shock, there's plenty of clobber to rifle through and take home.

You could ask: what's the usual atmosphere in a BHS on a Monday, anyway? The answer to that is that we're not entirely sure. We haven't been since our mum brought us in the 90s.

Seriously. Everything must go.

*As noted in the comments below, Dorothy Perkins is in fact owned by Arcadia Group, itself owned by Philip Green's wife.

Last Updated 23 September 2016