Austins: Memory and Place

A new repository website launches for individuals to upload their memories of Derry~Londonderry's iconic department store

I think of: A picture – an oil painting, I think – of my favourite scene from my favourite film, which hangs on the wall between the mezzanine café and the perfumed ground floor. I first saw it on my inaugural visit to Derry~Londonderry, about five years ago, before I moved here. I see it every time I make my way gingerly down the staircase. Who knows how long it’s hung there.

I also think of the suits I see in the men’s department when I’m going up the escalator. I can’t afford them, and I can’t fit into them either. Maybe if I used that staircase instead of the escalator I would at least have a chance of managing the latter.

Then there is the image of my brother, emerging onto the floor of the café as the escalator brings him up. We meet there for lunch every Tuesday, around 12.10pm, when he’s finished his weekly two-hour work placement at the café down the street. I swap some of my coleslaw for a few of his chips. He is generally so tired he can’t speak until he has eaten half of his meal.

He swaps his work cap for a regular baseball cap, which I always bring with me. Around us are familiar strangers, most tucking into the daily special offer of pie, mash and veg, with sponge pudding and custard for afters, but some of the more dainty opting for just a pot of tea and a scone. From the top floor café you can see the rooftops, streets, and river of the ugly and beautiful city.

It’s strange how so many cities have special places – often shops – which the public decide upon collectively without consultation. They just emerge as significant. Cole’s Corner in Sheffield, for example, or the Lewis’s statue in Liverpool.

They’re centrally placed, of course, handy for buses and shops and cinemas and so on, where plenty of similar venues are equally well-placed. Still, certain locations make the journey from the merely physical into the emotional – into the memories, histories and individual and collective consciousnesses of the people who frequent them.

Austins is the world’s oldest independent department store. It has occupied the same space in Derry~Londonderry’s Diamond, between Ferryquay Street and Bishop Street, since 1830. And it occupies a space in the minds and memories and habits of thousands of individuals in the city – and the generations before them.

It is a meeting place, an eating place, a treating place. It is the place where old couples share a silent weekly table, or where friends meet for a taste of home when they return from wherever life has taken them. It is where people go for something special or something ordinary. It is the only place people think of, the first place people think of, and the last place people think of, when they can’t settle on anywhere else.

Austins: Memory and Place is an art project centred on the department store. It looks at the relationship and exchanges between place and person, and how that broadens organically into an unbreakable, intangible bond – the space that a building occupies is offered to the public, but then becomes colonised by it.

'What we do here makes here,' says Paul Devlin, the subject director of drama at the Magee School of Creative Arts and Technology, who has been working on the project for the past two years.

'There is a dynamic relationship between people and space, and this project is an open-ended exploration of space, people, relationships and memory. This building is owned by the people of the city. It’s psychologically theirs.'

Austins: Memory and Place has incorporated a number of different events. Author and playwright Dave Duggan ran a writer’s kitchen. In December 2013, the Big Shop Show saw a series of performances staged throughout Austins, fusing individual memories, personal anecdotes and shared feelings about the store.

You Askin was a community dance event, with music by Gay McIntyre and John Trotter, in which staff, customers and members of the project team became dance partners, exchanging, passing on and creating new memories of the store between them, combining social occasion with social study.

The latest element of the project asks people to donate their stories and anecdotes – by uploading text, images, videos or audio – to a dedicated Austins: Memory and Place website. 'It’s an open archive,' says Devlin. 'We want to create a memory store, deep-mapping the space. It’s a lived-in site and has been for generations. The store is part of the Derry story. People here are proud of Austins.'

The central function of the website is to lodge memories. 'It isn’t a history project,' Devlin adds. 'We’re interested in the space and its associations. The café, for instance, is a communal realm, the city’s sitting-room. This is a place made by memories.'

From the top floor of Austins, new spaces can be seen, and Devlin points to such spaces as announcements of the city’s aspirations. 'But Austins resists in many ways,' he concludes. 'Not a huge amount has changed. It has remained a shelter and a haven. And it’s part of an intangible heritage. This space allows memories, and memories keep it alive.'

Visit the Austins: Memory and Place website for more information.