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Arnotts Dundee: Death knell sounded for city’s department store 20 years ago

Arnotts Dundee
Arnotts departed the city in 2003 after the death knell sounded the previous June.

The Arnotts department store was a pillar of the Dundee community.

The six-floored building was part of the city’s shopping fabric and began its trading life as a one-windowed shop ran by David Miller Brown.

Son of a coal merchant, Brown expanded the business and soon, D.M. Brown was a Dundee institution and one of Scotland’s greatest department stores.

In 1926 the company was acquired by the Scottish Drapery Corporation, which was in turn acquired by in 1952 by House of Fraser.

The name above its door became Arnotts in 1972 and was a fixture on the High Street for 30 years before its closure was announced in June 2002.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the death knell being sounded, we have opened the doors again to take a look back at the rich past of the building.

Arnotts Dundee: How it all started out

David Miller Brown began his commercial career in a draper’s establishment in Dundee but he was ambitious and always aspired to more.

When a small, one-windowed shop in the High Street became available in 1888, he set to work building his dream.

D.M. Brown in 1934.

D.M. Brown appeared in the middle of the 19th century at a time when the age of shopping was changing.

It was less about simply getting the things you need and instead became a social activity.

The department store was a catalyst in this change.

Previously, shops had been specialist in nature and separate, but with the opening of DM’s, as it was affectionately known, that changed forever in Dundee.

DM’s had countless different departments – from household items to gloves, it even had an in-store café!

D.M. Brown on the left of Murraygate. May 1964.

By the time it celebrated its golden jubilee in 1938, D.M. Brown boasted a famous “indoor street” arcade.

It also had a pillared tearoom, featuring Byzantine glass, carved Italian marble, and the greatest sheet of curved glass ever manufactured.

Keeping it in the family

Old department stores like DM’s were almost like family businesses.

Many generations of the same family worked in the same store.

Margaret Blackwood from Newport remarked how her grandfather, David Lee, worked in the drapery department with David Brown before starting his own business.

Her aunt joined the firm shortly after it opened when she was 20 as an assistant, and eventually became the buyer for the children’s department, retiring at the age of 60.

Inside D. M. Browns. 1966.

Her mother and father also worked at the store and, in fact, her father was still ‘holding the reins’ when he died aged 70.

He was a correspondence clerk and he personally wrote letters to all customers in connection with the mail-order side of the business.

Margaret says: “He always managed to instil a measure of personal friendliness to the many clients he had to deal with.”

This did not go unnoticed.

An exchange of kindness

After her father’s death, Margaret received several letters from her father’s customers.

She said: “We received several letters from customers whose only link with my father had been his signature at the end of the mail order letters.

“They had seen his death notice in The Courier and wanted us to know how much they appreciated his helpfulness and friendliness.”

It is unlikely that something similar would happen in these days of internet shopping, when people are more computer friendly than people friendly!

It was this humanity that kept the business going until 1952, when House of Fraser took over.

Then in 1972, it became Arnotts.

Workmen changing the name plaque of the old D.M. Brown’s shop in July 1972. Arnotts had arrived.

It was the scents from the perfume counters that were Arnotts most defining feature.

Alongside its memorable Christmas department, the store also had a shoe department, a china department, and it even sold a few wedding dresses!

Selling cassette recorders and making it possible to finally have your favourite songs to hand at any given time, it kept people moving with the times.

The nylon bedding it sold, however, could probably do with being left a distant memory.

Last minute bargain hunters in Arnotts, Dundee.
Last minute bargain hunters in Arnotts, Dundee.

With everything you could ever need under one roof, the store provided hours of fun to its customers.

But the fun was not to last.

Consumerism became so big, and product choice so diverse, that such a range of goods could no longer be stocked under one roof.

The department store was made redundant by the very phenomenon that ushered in its existence.

Arnotts was to be replaced by several different franchises.

Arnotts' iconic sign would soon be changed once again; Dundee city centre.
Arnotts’ iconic sign would soon be changed once again.

The end of an era

The Arnotts store closure was announced in June 2002 by its parent company, House of Fraser, much to the heartbreak of the city.

Dundee store manager Craig Stevenson said he was saddened to see the store close.

He said: “I grew up with the store.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up managing it, and then be there when it closed.

“There is going to be a real gap in the market in Dundee.

“This was the last traditional department store left and the city will lose a certain type of customer as a result.”

The empty pillar room in Arnotts, Dundee.

The store pledged to give its 180-strong workforce “every support in the coming months” as they faced redundancy by January 2003.

On the day of its closure in 2003, the entirety of Arnotts workforce gathered on the shop floor at 5pm to raise a glass and say goodbye to a store which had been part of its workers’ lives for decades.

After 42 years’ service, the store’s longest serving employee Isabel Keith was given the honour of locking the doors for the final time.

Fond memories

Isabel’s years saw her serving Hugh Fraser himself, working through the installation of escalators, battling floods and the miners’ strike, and carrying on through power cuts, when staff had to hand-wrench the tills to generate power.

She said: “It’s changed a lot. It was much busier when I started and everything was behind the counters.

“There were a lot more staff then, too, with the store even employing its own tradesmen.

“This is a very sad day for me. I really thought I’d be retired before this happened.”

Manager Craig Stevenson with the store’s last ever customer. 2003.

Dawn of a new age

Over the next two years, the prominent high street building was converted into several separate shopping units by Glasgow-based company Dawn Developments.

The façade of the Grade-A listed building was retained, along with some key internal features, with the aid of the city council and Historic Scotland.

The rest of the structure was completely transformed to suit modern retailing, with the creation of 8,000 square metres of floorspace.

The site of Arnotts from above.

Of its seven units, five were filled by clothes stores Republic, Zara, Slaters Menswear, the Original Shoe Company, and the book store Ottakar’s.

In 2005, the Arnotts building was sold to a group of private Irish investors in a £22 million deal.

The stores in the building were largely unaffected due to their existing long-term lease.

The Arnotts store is now a Covid vaccination clinic in Dundee city centre.
The Arnotts store is now a Covid vaccination clinic in Dundee city centre.

Today, the old department store is still a A-grade listed building and protected by Historic Scotland.

Sitting on the corner of Commercial Street, it has most recently been used as a Covid-19 vaccination clinic.

While the building is protected by Historic Scotland, Arnotts’ legacy is tightly guarded by the people of Dundee who will always remember it fondly.

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