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Howells Department Store, St Mary's Street, Cardiff

Howells Department Store, St Mary's Street, Cardiff

The 967,500 square feet of Cardiff’s newest shopping centre must be quaking in their boots.If there was ever a time not to be building an American style mall, now is it. However, slowly but surely, St David’s 2 is rising from the ground in the Hayes. Its investors must be wondering if this is the biggest mistake they’ve ever had the misfortune to make.
After all, how do you fill 90 new units when Cardiff is struggling to fill those already in existence?
For lessons on how to survive, St David’s 2 doesn’t have to look far. Just across from the mess of scaffolding, one of Cardiff’s oldest shops stands proudly commanding the same block of land it has owned for a hundred years.
It has survived two world wars, a great depression and the decline of the department store.
Howells is the original St David’s 2: not only did it change the way Cardiff residents shopped, it changed the way Cardiff looked.

James Howell, the department stores founder, would achieve the kind of domination of Cardiff’s shopping scene – as well as Cardiff’s actual landscape – St David’s 2 will attempt to when it opens in 2009.
Unlike St David’s 2, however, which is being put up in one decisive movement, Howell’s grew almost organically and over many years, acquiring more space as and when it was needed.
The department store – which now covers an area of 150,000 square feet – started out as a small drapers shop in the Hayes. Within two years, the ambitious Mr Howell had made enough money to move to more auspicious premises at 13 St Mary’s Street, and he didn’t stop there.

Howell started to buy up all the properties in the row: all tall, narrow buildings with shops at the bottom and accommodation at the top. Later, he would place a façade over the fronts of all these buildings – one of which had been a bank – to help give a sense of unity to the store.
Mr Howell’s early success seems to have been down to his novel way of doing business: he didn’t like to give credit. Gareth Glover, manager of Howell’s food hall and in-store historian, explains: “His idea was to not allowing his gentrified customers to buy on tic, but to actually make them pay hard cash for it. All his competitors were offering tic and therefore had all their money tied up in their bank accounts of their clients but didn’t have any money to turn over stock.”

Howells silk department

Howells silk department

This meant Howells, unlike his competitors, would always have the latest stock in store, making it the most fashionable store in Cardiff.
However, Howell soon found his St Mary’s Street expansion plans blocked: on the corner, the Armoury was not yet for sale, and in between, the Bethany Chapel was still a working church.
Not one to be put off, Howell looked behind for more space: in particular, to the brewery which ran along what we now know as Trinity Street.
“By buying that brewery he was able to open up the whole back area and make a rectangular-shaped building for himself,” says Gareth, “It also gave him a point at which he could make deliveries.”

Howell also started the painstaking process of buying the tenements which ran alongside the building as and when they became available, removing from the city centre accommodation which St David’s 2 would try to replace a hundred years later.

In the midst of all this change, the church continued to work while the department store grew up around it, accessed by a gap between the shop and the armoury, which had now also been bought by Howell. When the chapel was eventually sold and deconsecrated, the building simply absorbed it: it now houses women’s shoes and underwear.

Howells Department Store: What was there before?

After Howells death in 1909, the store passed to his children. By 1972, however, the great Victorian department stores were a dying breed. But Howells was rescued by Fraser and Sons Ltd., and as such has been trading as a branch of House of Fraser for almost 40 years.
This year, though, Howells biggest threat for decades opens: John Lewis. A major revamp is on the cards, but they remain confident. Speaking to the South Wales Echo in July, promotion and public relations manager Siobhan Stephens said: “We were always known as Wales’ premium department store, like the Harrods of Wales…We will be aiming for that title again.”

Gareth is similarly unworried: “If anything, we see it as healthy competition.”

And, if previous form is anything to go by, that’s all it will be.

Gareth Glover talking about Howells