Open arms or up in arms, residents of Oxford face a rapidly changing retail landscape. The revamped Westgate centre, due to open in 2017, will include a three-storey John Lewis, 70 new shops, a cinema and an underground car park.
Work has already begun on the 800,000 sq ft Westgate development, seen here as an artist's impression from Queen Street
By Olivia Gordon
When people find out Oxford is about to get its very own John Lewis store, they tend to be thrilled, but also a bit bemused. Oxford has a long history of not quite being a ‘proper’ city centre, with high streets lined by big-name shops.
We Oxford residents have long been resigned to having to go to London if we want to visit the likes of John Lewis or Ikea. We don’t even have a truly massive 24-hour mega-sized supermarket.
Many would say this is all well and good. The site of the Westgate, looking down Castle Street in the 1900s
Just as Oxford City Council has managed to preserve the pedestrianised city centre from the giant concrete underpasses and roundabouts which have come to dominate other cities, it has also resisted turning Oxford’s high streets into a commercial metropolis. Instead, endless quaint and sometimes downright bizarre shops have flourished. Who needs a newfangled shiny John Lewis when we’ve got Boswell & Co., trading since 1738?
But like it or not, change is coming. The redevelopment of the 1970s Westgate Centre will bring a 100,000 square foot John Lewis to Oxford in October 2017, part of an 800,000 square foot new ‘shopping and leisure development’, boasting a ‘boutique’ Curzon cinema, and more than 100 retail stores and 25 restaurants and cafes including a food court and rooftop terrace dining. The rival Clarendon Centre, which once looked so modern, must be a bit scared. John Lewis will be the largest shop in the complex, which is due to be completed in the autumn next year
Ikea isn’t going to be far away for much longer, either. A new Reading superstore is opening this summer. A new Sainsbury’s is opening in the centre of town, too – on the corner of St. Aldate’s. Last year, we got our first big Waitrose, on the Botley Road.
The turning point for Oxford seemed to come in 2002, when Marks & Spencer’s set up a game-changing shop in Summertown, followed by Primark hitting the Westgate centre in 2006. It’s as if developers are finally realising that Oxford - always been a bit out of the way, a bit neglected, when it comes to big-name shops – was a gap in the market. The plan for the revamped Westgate, which stretches from Thames Street up to Queen Street
Of course, we’ve had plenty of chain stores in our time. But there was often something not quite right about them and they were doomed from the outset. Remember the huge Co-op supermarket that used to sit halfway up Cornmarket – the one with the funny basement? It was always virtually empty. (Tesco on St. Giles, with your equally funny basement, take note – you, too, are probably doomed).An artist's view of one of the new shopping arcades
You can bring the big world to Oxford, but it doesn’t seem to fit. The snazzy brands sit awkwardly among the dreaming spires; the University and its history frighten them off somehow. Not for us vast malls like Westfield, the Bullring or Bluewater. Apart from a few stalwarts like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams (going strong in central Oxford since 1975 and 1953 respectively), we have pottered around without huge malls, and settled for second-tier stores like Littlewood’s and, currently, a string of mobile phone shops. (The fascinating site Oxfordhistory.org.uk has inventories of which shops existed on Cornmarket and George Street in 1973, 2008 and today. It notes that while Cornmarket was dominated by shoe shops in the 1970s, now it is overrun by mobile phone shops. The only Cornmarket stores that have stayed in place from 1976 to the present are Boots, W.H. Smith, Boswell & Co., Austin Reed Ltd., and three banks.)
When the Westgate originally opened in 1972, it was as anticipated as the new Westgate is today. It even had a Selfridges. But look how the Westgate ended up – a gloomy hall filled with discount and random shops. Selfridges became less and less cutting edge as it was taken over by Lewis’s and then Allders, which closed in 2005 – the site was finally taken over by Primark in 2006. The Westgate had a reasonably sized Sainsbury’s - but it was so hidden away that Oxford residents forgot it was there and aren’t sure if it still exists even today. When the Westgate was built, there was an exciting 1970s-style ‘moving pathway’ in the car park. That didn’t even last a few years. It remained out of use, cordoned off, for decades, while the Westgate car park became an eyesore.
And now, suddenly, with the new Westgate, it seems like finally we are getting our very own Oxford-sized version of Westfield. When John Lewis says: ‘Oxford has long been a sought-after location for us and we’re thrilled to be able to expand our reach to customers across the region for the first time,’ Oxford people think ‘Really?’ Oxford the city (not the University) has had this cut-off, slightly forgotten feeling for so long; has a retail monolith really noticed us? Are we really going to be on some sort of shopping map?
Oxonians are excited. Because much as we love our strange little shops – Ducker & Son, the shoe shop in the Turl, selling the same smell of leathery senior common rooms since 1898; The Covered Market, with its butchered animal carcasses; Little Clarendon Street, a haven for artsy boutiques – there have long been empty shop fronts dotted around town and a feeling, sometimes, of the city running to seed while the University flowers. Shopping at Bonners fruit stall in the ever-popular Covered Market
With rising property prices and affectation piled upon gentrification, shopping streets like North Parade have become caricatures of their former selves. In the 1980s, North Parade had a post office, a hardware shop, Victoria Wine, a launderette and an Italian restaurant. It was a useful little shopping parade. Today, these shops have long gone –and the street is home to a twee deli that sells selected artisanal frou-frous, but never anything you actually need. So, a great big mall with a John Lewis is welcome on Oxford’s monopoly board.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t topple Boswells. Then again, Boswells has survived so long already, one suspects it will still be here in another few centuries, gazing on the ruins of the 2017 Westgate Centre.
The work shop of the Oxford department store Elliston & Cavell in the 1930s
Oxford places that came and went
Elliston & Cavell
The Reject Shop
The Oxford Story
The Co-op in Cornmarket
Blackwell’s children’s bookshop
Blackwell's book shop on Broad Street
Ducker & Son – men’s shoes - since 1898
Walters of Oxford – university apparel – more than 150 years old
Tiger Lily – tattoos, piercing & alternative fashion – since 1991
The OUP bookshop – Oxford University Press books - since 1872
Bonners Fruit & Veg – since 1926
Boswell & Co. – department store - since 1738
Maison Blanc – patisserie - since 1981
Browns – restaurant - since the 1970s
Blackwell’s – bookshop - since 1879
Ben’s Cookies – biscuits - since 1983
Next to Nothing - clothes
The Nosebag – café
Thirsty Meeples – board game café – since 2013
George & Davis’ – ice cream – since 1992
Images: Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Westgate Oxford