Farewell to Howells of Cardiff

James Howells in its prime. Photo: Wales Online

Yet another Cardiff landmark has passed into history with the closure of the city’s Howells department store after 150 years.

The news brought back memories of tranquil moments in one of the store’s cafes when Owen was a toddler. In October 2010 I described lunch there as an oasis of calm.

The Bethany chapel within Howells

Howells must be the only department store in the country with a chapel. When the store took over the site, rather than demolishing the old Bethany baptist chapel the owners incorporated it in the shop.

In truth, we were a David Morgan family. Howells seemed rather posh to us, and so we would head to Morgan’s nearby store for a coffee, Santa’s grotto – or in the case of my parents, to order new carpets. For years they kept a carrier bag commemorating Morgan’s centenary in 1979. Back then no one would have suspected that the store would be gone within 30 years. As a small child I was impressed by the Oak Room restaurant although we never had anything to eat or drink there. (In the 1970s it was disfigured by garish panels, as if the store management were embarrassed by the retro look.)

Both stores sprawled endearingly. Howells once included a bridge over Wharton Street linking its two buildings. (Waterstones now occupies the old Howells annexe.) Morgan’s was bisected by the Morgan Arcade, which still contains quirky independent shops and cafes.

Howells and David Morgan are two of a long list of vanished Cardiff department stores: Debenhams, Evan Roberts, Allders (Mackross), Seccombes and Marments to name just the ones I remember.

But the store I miss the most is Lears. This wonderful bookshop was a treasure trove, and I doubt my love of reading would have been so deep today were it not for hours spent in Lears as a child. At first I was hooked on the usual Enid Blyton bestsellers but I also fell under the spell of Jackdaws: a fascinating series of folders that illustrated historical topics with facsimiles of related documents. For example, the Battle of Britain one included an identity card and a copy of a 1940 Daily Mirror. I added my grandfather’s wartime identity card to that one.

Would we mourn the demise of Amazon in the same way? I doubt it!

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