LEGENDARY STORE: The interior of McLeans Store, circa 1935.
LEGENDARY STORE: The interior of McLeans Store, circa 1935.

What happened to Lismore's legendary department stores?

IF YOU wander around the Lismore central shopping area, known as The Block, these days you are soon aware of the many shops now vacant.

People will tell you this is the result of the recent flood but it is more than that.

Lismore was once the regional centre of the Richmond District, and its CBD reflected this.

It had many government departments, the major hospital, all the medical specialists, the financial centre, the educational and cultural centres, and so on.

What happened?

Much of the things which happened to Lismore also happened to other centres, and the changes came over many years.

One could make a long list of influences: the Second World War followed by rapid population growth partly from migration, a housing boom, better working conditions, prosperity, more demand for recreation, better communication facilities, and so on.

Sleepy towns like Tweed Heads, Brunswick Heads, and Ballina started to boom as they were invaded by retirees.

These centres grew quickly and began to challenge centres such as Lismore and Murwillumbah.

It was the same story all along the coast.

In Lismore the old family-owned stores declined and small variety stores started to appear to replace them.

But, it was these older stores, owned by ordinary citizens who had struggled to make a success of business, which gave a town its unique character.

Such a store was McLeans in Lismore.

Established by Sam McLean in 1900 it was to become one of the largest department stores in the state, serving the whole Northern Rivers district.

Some of its departments, e.g. the shoe department, were legendary.

Practically every child in the district wore shoes obtained from McLeans.

Samuel McLean came to the Richmond River when he was three years old.

He was the third child of John and Mary McLean who had come with a family group from the Manning River District in 1873.

The family settled at what was to become known as Mcleans Ridges and Sam grew up in an atmosphere of hard work and frugality.

It is not known why he did not remain on the family property when he left school.

Instead he was apprenticed to F.G. Crofton, a general storekeeper at Lismore, possibly in 1885.

After five years he moved to the firm of A. & W. Pedley who had branch stores.

He became manager of their Broadwater branch and after a few years moved to A.G. Robertsons where he was placed in charge of drapery.

Soon afterwards, seeing the potential of drapery he opened a small shop in Woodlark Street. He later included the sale of tea, a very profitable sideline.

When the opportunity came to move to a more prominent site in Molesworth Street he established the business in what was to become one of the best known stores in the district.

It sold practically everything. After starting in 1900 with one assistant, by 1950 there was a staff of 66.

Sam was a forward thinker and established a delivery service throughout the area.

He began with four horse-drawn vans, then owned a fleet of trucks.

Sam McLean died in 1932 and his funeral was the largest ever seen in Lismore.

He was a well-loved citizen.

Every business in Lismore closed for one hour so that staff could attend the funeral.

In 1973 McLeans merged with Glynns, another locally owned store, and some time later there was another merger with Brown & Jolly.

Sadly, today none of these three major stores are visible in Lismore.

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