Knickers in a twist over shop's owners

Martin Newell tells why he'll be keeping a close eye on what the new owners of Colchester's Williams & Griffin department store do - particularly in ladies' lingerie.

Martin Newell

The big news last week was that ownership of Colchester's very own Williams & Griffin department store had been sold.

It merited front pages and banner headlines.

In an age when people all over East Anglia may wake one morning and register only mild surprise upon finding their rail network has suddenly been completely rebranded, this is interesting.

Willie Gees - or 'Willie Griffs' as some of us still call it - is a Shop, with a capital S.

It's the type of place where, when you were a grubby sprite out shopping with your mum, she might stop, spit on her hankie and wipe your face with it before she deemed you fit to enter the place.

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W & G is still ritzy like that.

Ownership of Willie Griffs, for those of you who were holidaying on Mars during Easter and haven't yet heard, will be taken over by Fenwicks of Newcastle.

Fenwicks, we are assured, like W&G, is another family concern whose other twelve stores are all run independently.

There is therefore no cause for immediate alarm.

The word is that things will stay pretty much the same.

The local media focus on the ownership transfer did however, make me stop to ask why it is of such interest to us all.

When you enter Williams & Griffin, the first thing that assails your senses is the perfume counter.

Yes, they do sell all the latest aftershaves- the stuff that young blades wearing smart-casual like to drench themselves in, prior to an evening's combat.

But should you want anything as classic as Eau Sauvage - an aftershave favoured by the more debonair type of columnist, or even an ageing parvenu such as myself - then Willie Gees do stock it and their assistants won't look puzzled, or immediately laugh you out of the shop just because you asked.

The department I'm most familiar with however - for all the right reasons - is Ladies' Lingerie.

If you are a mere useless male and wish to buy say, a diaphanous gown or any similar piece of ethereal flimsiness for a woman of cherishable age, here is where to come if you want to avert potential disaster.

I can't speak too highly of the female staff here, who will swim up alongside you like friendly dolphins to a wooden ship in unfamiliar straits.

“Do you happen to know her size?” they will ask.

If you do, the mere provision of a two digit number will unlock many of the possibilities available.

Even the pathos of your holding up cupped hands or tracing the shape of a cello in mid-air will be treated sympathetically by these helpful women.

Ten minutes later you may be back on the grateful street having completed the mission, only marginally poorer and with the tastefully-wrapped frippery in your possession.

Go into a lesser shop however, with its inattentive or non-existent assistants and half an hour later you'll still be in a panicking muck-froth on their fire-stairs, trying to find the way out.

There's something else about W & G.

It's one of the last of its kind: a proper old Colchester shop.

Like Radcliffe's which is next door, or Ernest Newson down the street, or Jack's in Wyre St, or Gunton's in Crouch Street.

But they're a dying breed.

In the past few years a combination of business rates, punitive ground rents and the greedy adventurism of many of the chain stores, has resulted in a numbing homogeneity on our high streets.

Indeed, so similar are many of these streets, that they might as well come in kit form: charity shop, building society, letting-shop, chainstore, charity shop, burger-shop, chainstore, charity shop etcetera.

The shops of a town - their individuality, longevity and traditions - are the true worth of that town.

In the town where I was born, was a store called Anscombe's.

They had one of those small-change systems, where bags of coins were hooked up onto a series of cables above the main till and sent whizzing around the various departments at speed, to the open-mouthed wonderment of all the visitors who came to see it.

Similarly, the ten years-gone and much-missed Jacklin's Restaurant was an asset unique to Colchester.

With its traditionally-dressed waitresses, linen tablecloths and its 1920s oak panelling there was nothing else quite like it.

Strange though, that in our Age of Pampering, such genuinely tasteful luxury is hardly to be had anymore.

Sure, you can wander into any amount of fancy emporia offering dreadful ethno-chic, aromatherapy oils or else stuff that pretends to replicate 'the old-days' in some way.

But in Colchester there's no longer even a fishmonger or a family-run ironmongers to be found.

We are getting something embarrassingly wrong here.

And what people really like is personal service - a feeling that someone in the shop actually is looking after you.

We - especially we benighted men - don't want to stand baffled and unassisted for ages and then, having made a purchase, be corralled like retail cattle through some cordoned queueing system.

As the late Larry Grayson once said, the public likes to feel that they're in good hands.

In a family-owned department store such as Williams & Griffin, we really are.

I've even read that they now have a Body and Soul department.

Though I can't begin to guess what it is that they do in there.

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