Jacksons of Reading

Jacksons of Reading was founded in 1875 by Edward Jackson and began life as a gentlemen’s outfitters shop.

It expanded to include a lingerie section, a haberdashery, shoe sales, and a yarn department. When it closed for business on Christmas Eve, 2013, it was being run by Edward Jackson’s great-grandson, Brian Carter. It was a family-run department store with unbroken links to an earlier epoch in retail history; an iconic and much-loved local landmark.

You could buy huge sacks of bargaineous yarns from Sirdar and Wendys and Twilleys of Stamford in Jacksons.

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In fact my first proper grown-up sweater was knit with Sirdar sublime, purchased at a Jacksons of Reading sale.

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Jacksons was also a great supplier of proper big lady pants and Triumph bras; Appletons Crewel Wool; tea-towels; Harris Tweed sporting jackets for men; school uniforms; nylons; buttons; and those amazing swimming hats that have flowers on them.

All that stock is gone now.

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The yarn – plus some staff from the Wool department – are resuming a new life as Rosie’s Wool Ltd. in Cheapside; and the school uniforms have gone to Stevensons. Most of the other stock was sold in a bonanza “EVERYTHING MUST GO” sale towards Christmas.

Jacksons had creaky floors, extensive wooden-paneling, and to me was especially magical because it contained the last operational pneumatic change system in the UK.

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This change system was installed in the 1940s and is still in good working order. I quickly learnt that if I purchased a hanky for about a quid and paid with a fiver, I could watch my donuts disappearing up a chute in a little metal capsule. They’d return moments later with my change and receipt, wrapped in a rubber band. I recorded the sounds of the chute in action for the Sound Diaries UK Soundmap / sonic time capsule project, and you can hear it here and below if you would like to share my nerdy obsession.

The sounds detailed in that recording are now extinct; you can’t walk into a department store and see your money disappear up a pneumatic tube now. Jacksons had the last such system in operation in the UK and now that Jacksons is closed, those sounds will cease to be part of the British retail soundscape.

Like so many aspects of the shop, when they were in operation, the pneumatic tubes exuded a sense of being living history.

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The sense of the preciousness of this history, and people’s personal connections with the shop were evident in the footfall through the store on the 3rd and 4th of January 2013. When Jacksons re-opened briefly on these dates for a viewing, and then auctioning off, of all the old fixtures, fittings, dead stock, and ephemera residing in the building, over 600 people poured through the doors. It was a reverent crowd, tinged with excitement at being allowed to explore this old building, and the possibility of being able to buy a small keepsake of its history.

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I went to see all the rooms that have been closed off from the public for years. I fell a bit in love with an old art-deco cabinet, because of the sign which someone had made for it.

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I had no idea the building was so vast and labyrinthine… or that things from so long ago in the shop’s history were still resting inside it…

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…who knew that at the very top of the building, there was once a sewing room, and that beside that sewing room, there were two gas-fired iron warmers and spare irons?

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…that the building contained an old lift…

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…that there were layers of wallpaper from different times tucked behind cash desks and shelving…

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…and that Jacksons once ran an orchestra of old wooden cash registers with bells of slightly different pitches inside?

The time that people spent working at Jacksons was etched into the things and spaces I found there…

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…pins organised neatly into a tin through years of suit-fittings…

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…a price-list for tailoring modifications adjusted to reflect inflation or the exigencies of a new business plan…

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…an improvised system for ordering the stationery associated with sales…

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…a carefully inscribed set of engineering notes on the wall beside the engine powering the pneumatic tube system, in the basement of the building.

It was an enormous privilege to be able to see and touch these things which have been part of people’s daily work at Jacksons for decades, and I am very sad for the 60 employees who have lost their jobs with this store closure.

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Everyone I spoke to said that working at Jacksons was a particular and special sort of experience…

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…but the costs of maintaining the building were escalating, and the demand for 60% polyester suits, thick bed socks, ladies’ gloves and hunting jackets is not what it once was in Reading, and the store couldn’t keep going simply because people love it.

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On the 4th January 2014, the auction at Jacksons was rammed. The auctioneer said he had very rarely seen so many people turning up to an auction.

The crazy money people were bidding for old ladders and tills and boxes and coathangers became a kind of collective celebration, and there was a real sense of people wanting a keepsake or memento.

‘A modern shop fitting clothes hanging rail, do I have £20? No modern home is complete without it, I tell you… everything must go today, do I have £18? Yes? £25? £32? £32 in the room… £40 everywhere…’

Everybody clapped when “Cruella” – a child-sized mannequin – sold for £700.

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For me the greatest happiness in this whole sad story is that the person who bought the pneumatic change chute system is the same man who has maintained it for twenty years; I can’t help wondering if that isn’t his handwriting on the old bricks of the building, too.

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Thank you, Jacksons, I will deeply miss the sensible knickers sold in your lingerie department; your creaky floors; and the wonderful music produced by buying a hankie with a fiver…

There is an amazing slideshow featuring photos of Jacksons across the last 138 years here, and a new episode of the KNITSONIK podcast will feature some of the sounds of the auction.

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