100 years and still going strong

Mary Sooks and M&S Portsmouth store manager Steve Lake
Mary Sooks and M&S Portsmouth store manager Steve Lake
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Mary Sooks is proud to say she knows every corner of the Commercial Road branch of Marks & Spencer.

The Portsmouth store has been her workplace for almost 39 years and she remembers how much it’s changed during that time.

Mary’s seen it all – from the flood that closed the shop for a day in 2001, to the transformation of a stock room into a sales floor the year after she joined, and the addition of a cafe around eight years ago.

As a young girl of eight she remembers her mum taking her shopping there. But it was as a nervous 16-year-old that Mary took up her first job on the men’s shirt counter.

That was September 5 1972 and over the years she’s gone on to work in many departments.

Today she’s just hours away from seeing her latest work project come off – co-ordinating the store’s 100th birthday celebrations.

‘I’m part of the store,’ says Mary. ‘I know all the nooks and crannies. It comes alive at night. If there’s been a storage unit broken down and I’ve had to come in, it’s like a different place when it’s all quiet.

‘It’s nice getting ready to celebrate something so special.’

Walk down any city high street and you’ll almost certainly find a Marks & Spencer. The company is a British institution for shoppers and the Portsmouth store is one of the oldest around.

While staff will be marking the centenary tomorrow, it’s thought there might have been store in the city since 1904. And a date stone in the original building could suggest there was definitely one by 1910.

However, with no record of those dates it’s been impossible to confirm. And as the company’s archives do prove there was a store open at 169/171 Commercial Road by December 1 1911, they’ve decided to make this the anniversary year.

Current store manager Steve Lake only took over six weeks ago, but appreciates the importance of Portsmouth in M&S’s history.

‘I’m really pleased that I’m here for this,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the oldest stores in the company and it’s gone through lots of changes.

‘It’s gone from a store that was extremely small to a two-floor store which used to be one of the flagships for M&S, before they really did the expansions in places like Hedge End. To be here 100 years later is pretty impressive.’

Back in 1911 the store had a selling area of 2,200 square feet and was a good example of the Marks & Spencer Ltd Penny Bazaars of the early 20th century. These were smaller than the stores of today and sold a range of items including sewing equipment, biscuits and sheet music.

M&S Penny Bazaars retained the policy, used by Michael Marks on his original market stall in Leeds, of selling almost everything for one penny, apart from a few luxury items.

M&S first began selling clothes and food in the late 1920s, allowing it to expand and develop.

Clearly, larger premises were required to meet the needs of the people of Portsmouth and so, on November 3 1927, a major extension opened, taking in both properties either side of the store.

The building was further extended to the left in 1931. And the property to the right, A E Clapham, was acquired and developed in 1936.

This extension opened on June 24 1937, increasing the sales area to 16,000 square feet – a ground floor space of 9,300 square feet and a first floor of 6,700 square feet.

Along with the rest of Portsmouth during the Second World War, the store was bombed in 1941. But it continued to do well after the war, with property bought and demolished at the rear in 1959 to make way for a new extension.

On May 11 1961 the new rear extension opened and the first floor was temporarily closed. It re-opened on June 22 1967, taking the total store area to 27,000 square feet. In July 1967 an escalator was also installed.

Mary, 55, still has her employee’s log book from 1972 and joined at a time when the store was still being expanded.

On April 3 1973 a first floor extension increased the total store area to 33,900 square feet and that was the last major development.

While the floor space has stayed the same, the layout and style of service have both changed radically.

‘We kept the stock that we’d need under the counter, most of the store was counters then,’ remembers Mary, from Copnor.

‘Your counter had to be spotless. We had to clean it before we left for the night and didn’t dare leave anything that wasn’t in a straight pile. It wasn’t like now, when people help themselves. They’d come to you and ask, it was very personal.’

Mary adds: ‘We knew we were working for Marks & Spencer and we had to do our jobs well. They are still strict now but we didn’t do anything out of place.

‘I used to get caught a lot for chatting and we’d have to stand at the front of the store and keep on with things. I must have been there three or four times a week.’

Mary went on to work in the home furnishings department for 14 years and then moved behind the scenes, working in the CCTV room and staff services, which involved organising the Christmas party and other events, and now works as the health and safety co-ordinator.

Along with Chris Vincent, who has worked at the store for 40 years, she’s seen many changes.

So what’s the secret of M&S’s history in Portsmouth? Mary thinks she knows: ‘You pay for what you get. It’s not rubbish. I think in the last 10 years they’ve done really well with the fashions. If something isn’t right they do something about it.’

CELEBRATIONS

Mary Sooks, Steve Lake and their colleagues will celebrate the store’s centenary tomorrow from 9am with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The day’s in-store celebrations will then burst into life at 11am when a jazz band will strike up and play for customers throughout the day.

The food hall will be offering tempting food and wine tastings and each of the departments will feature a historic theme, with staff dressing up in vintage clothing from across the decades.

Shoppers will also be able to take a trip down memory lane with the Marks in Time exhibition, which will feature historic items from the store’s 100 year’s history.

And former employees will come out of retirement for the day to pack shoppers’ bags.

WIN £200 TO SPEND AT M&S

To celebrate Marks & Spencer’s centenary in Commercial Road, Portsmouth, we’ve got two great M&S makeovers to give away.

Each winner will get £200 to spend in store on a fresh new wardrobe from M&S’s favourite ranges, including Per Una, Limited Collection and Autograph, plus a session with a personal shopper.

To win, just answer this question:

In what country was Michael Marks born?

A) Germany B) Russia c) France

Simply send a text message starting with tncomp shop, the answer to the question plus your name, house number (or house name) and postcode to 63333. The total message must not exceed 155 characters.

All text messages cost 50p plus standard network charge. The closing date for entries is midnight on March 31, 2011.

Messages received after the closing date will not be counted but may still be charged. Normal News competition rules apply.

Example of message: tncomp shop answer john smith 1 po2 9sx

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