Glasgow Shops: The Development of a Retail Empire

Introduction: The roots of Glasgow’s retail heritage lie in the many market stalls and traders’ carts which lined the High Street in the city’s medieval heyday. Later, these temporary stalls developed into fixed stands or early ‘shops’ which specialised in only one product, such as cobblers, blacksmiths or butchers.

It was only during the Victorian period that ‘shopping’ as a concept emerged – changing something which had been a daily chore into a pleasurable pastime. Technological advancements meant that all kinds of products could now be manufactured quickly and cheaply, allowing people to buy items they couldn’t previously afford – such as elaborate clothing, furniture and imported foods.

To cater to this rapidly growing consumer market, a new type of shop began to develop – the department store. Wylie & Lochhead, Paisleys, Pettigrew & Stephens and Anderson’s Royal Polytechnic were just some of the many department stores in the city centre, providing a variety of products under one roof. At present, only two famous department stores from the past – Frasers and Watt Brothers – survive in their original form, while others have dramatically changed over the past two centuries.

Nowadays, new buildings are deliberately designed to stand out from the rest of the street and make an impact, which makes it all the more difficult for independent businesses on the ground floors of tenement flats to continue to compete, and survive. Yet these buildings once served as the very foundation stones of the Glasgow we recognise today, and are crucial for the continuing success of the city as the largest shopping destination outside of London. With the rise of outer-city retail parks and enormous supermarket brands, it is clear that we need to preserve and protect our shops now more than ever, lest our high streets become little more than an abandoned reminder of a forgotten age.


Historic Department Stores: The concept of ‘shopping’ as we now know it did not exist before the nineteenth century. Goods were sold at markets and fairs, by street traders or by shops specialising in one type of product only, such as cobblers, blacksmiths or butchers.

During the Victorian period, however, a new type of shop began to emerge – the department store. Shopping was transformed from a daily chore to a pleasurable past time, with different departments and products all under one roof.

Advancements in technology meant that all kinds of products could now be mass manufactured quickly and cheaply, and a new ‘ready to buy’ culture emerged. This appealed in particular to the rising middle classes, who were enjoying the spoils of their newfound wealth as a result of the Industrial Revolution. It was common for wives of successful businessmen to demonstrate their status through their fashionable dress, and so women became department stores’ biggest customers.

Wylie & Lochhead, Paisleys, Pettigrew & Stephens, Copland & Lye and Anderson’s Royal Polytechnic were just some of the many department stores that lined Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street, Argyle Street and Jamaica Street. Today, only two famous department stores from the past – Frasers and Watt Brothers – survive in their original form to give a sense of what shoppers in the nineteenth century might have experienced.


The Load-bearing Façade: Many Glasgow shops feature non-structural façades, which enable the external appearance of the shop to be easily modified. As commerce is driven by demand and competition, it is crucial that shops are able to adapt both their business and their image in order to keep up with a changing consumer landscape.

In some cases, the building’s façade dictates the appearance of the ground-floor unit, making it less flexible to change, but adding a sense of quality, unity and permanence to the urban composition. Sadly, these traditional street fronts are often spoiled by surrounding street ‘clutter’, such as modern railings and signage, which breaks up the street’s otherwise harmonious aesthetic.


The Authentic Public House: As a fundamental part of British life, it is essential that the familiar image of the public house does not vanish from our high streets. Although it is important for traditional pubs to maintain a sense of historical authenticity, there is also a need for some aspects to be modernised, in order to continue to attract new customers. Large windows are a relatively new feature used to make pubs seem more inviting to passers-by, whilst the reflective properties of the glass provide a comfortable level of privacy.

Nowadays, commercial pressures regularly necessitate the use of branded advertisements outside, but pubs wishing to preserve their historical heritage present their products in a way that is much more sympathetic to the local surroundings, such as The Lismore, pictured right second. Here, the timber panelling is reminiscent of an oak whisky barrel in profile, and a glimpse of the stained glass panels invites the prospective customer to experience them from the inside.


Modern Interventions: Not all modern shop fronts reject the traditional Victorian design in favour of low cost materials and quick results. Both Molton Brown (right second) and Waterstone’s on Argyle Street (right third) have maintained the wooden framework and classic proportions of the original layout, but clean lines and block colours reinterpret the design for the modern age.

Other shop fronts maintain a sense of historical continuity in line with modern sensibilities through other means – for example, the bold design and futuristic plate glass of the All Saints store on Buchanan Street (right bottom) is tempered by the vast rows of nineteenth century Singer sewing machines. In its heyday, the Singer factory in Glasgow was the largest in the world, producing over 37 million sewing machines from 1884 – 1943.

The recently restored shop fronts such as those pictured above and on the right top, are excellent examples of successful, varied, independent businesses. Sadly, not all independent shops are thriving, as demonstrated by an abundance of ‘To Let’ and ‘For Sale’ signs which dominate some areas in Glasgow, such as the former Murray’s butcher’s, pictured right third.

The close proximity of large supermarkets mean that many smaller shops can no longer afford to compete for customers. The all-too common sight of an abandoned shopping trolley in front of a disused premises on the Gallowgate, pictured right bottom, is a sad reminder of this fact.


Sympathetic Shop Fronts: Many of Glasgow’s shops are located on the ground floor of tenement flats, which were originally built as a mixture of commercial space and housing. Modern shops that are considerate of their historical surroundings try to adapt their signage to fit in with the rest of the street, such as Cafe Toscana on Argyle Street or Cottonrake Home Bakery on Hyndland Street (right second and right third).

To protect their businesses, modern shop owners often use anonymous roller shutters, which can spoil a street’s aesthetic. With the help of grants from schemes such as the Townscape Heritage Initiatives, some businesses have reinstated the historic window bars which combine security with attractiveness. Others make use of internal safety shutters which are far less obtrusive than their external counterparts.