I hope the Debenhams workers in the Republic obtain every support they need, and a justice of settlement, too - 2,000 people have lost their jobs with the liquidation of the 11 Debenhams stores in Dublin, Cork, Galway and elsewhere around the country. If the EU has a €100bn fund to support businesses during the coronavirus, why shouldn't retail staff also be helped?
It's a sad fact, however, that department stores have been having problems, or failing, in many parts of the globe. The prestigious Neiman Marcus in Dallas, Texas, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month. The famous Macy's in New York is struggling, as is the ultra-practical John Lewis in London. We have long mourned the loss of Clerys in Dublin, and the classy Robinson & Cleaver in Belfast is gone more than 30 years.
In its heyday, the Belfast store, sited on the corner of Donegall Square, was a hub of attraction for cross-border shoppers, and in more hostile eras of partition politics, it softened relations with its reputation for courteous customer manners as well as stunning tableware and linens.
The department store played a surprisingly central role in the emancipation of women. Le Bon Marche in Paris - still there in the Rue de Sevres - is considered to be the pioneering department store, opened in the 1850s. Within 20 years, the legendary Au Printemps in the Boulevard Haussmann was launched, with the deliberate aim of attracting affluent women shoppers, then often confined and restrained by rules of middle-class decorum.
A respectable woman didn't go out alone. A respectable young girl had to have a chaperone. Middle-class women entertained their friends at home.
The department store changed that. It ensured that female customers would feel safe, and wouldn't be molested or harassed within its precinct. It encouraged browsing in the variety of its floors. It introduced the department-store cafeteria and restaurant, where women could meet each other, without the supervision of either a chaperone or a male.
You could say that the department store prompted the practice of the 'ladies who lunch'. It certainly expanded the boundaries of freedom of movement for women, and by the 1890s that greater sense of liberty (enhanced by the bicycle) was feeding into suffragette politics and the push for higher education.
But the department store also promised luxury and glamour, as Gordon Selfridge knew when he founded his Oxford Street store in 1900s London. The luxury department stores in every capital city in Europe "were built on a magnificent scale, with interiors like film sets", according to the historian Norman Stone, where "commercial transactions would be carried out to the strains of palm-court orchestras".
As always, there was another side to the story: the socialist-realist writer Emile Zola described in his novel Au Bonheur des Dames the demanding conditions, long hours and straitened lodgings that staff working in the big department stores often endured. Although these improved as the 20th century wore on, life in the retail trade wasn't always rosy.
Yet the department store did increasingly provide opportunities for women, not only to shop in a gorgeous emporium, but to advance up the career ladder as employees. Women became managers, professional buyers, window dressers, even bosses and directors. An outstanding example was a farmer's daughter from Co Limerick, Mary Leahy, who attended school in Dublin - at the Dominican, Eccles Street - and stayed on in the city to work at Guineys store on Talbot Street.
She was such a dynamic presence that the boss, Denis Guiney, married her. Mary Guiney was a co-equal director of Clerys in the 1940s, when it became the largest, and most successful, department store in Ireland - despite wartime shortages, it managed to source all kinds of everything. (Mary Guiney only died in 2004, aged 103.) It helps to marry the boss, surely, but she was acknowledged, in her own right, as an outstanding businesswoman.
The department-store business was hit by changing shopping habits well before the pandemic. By the 2000s, there were myriad shopping malls and, 10 years later, online shopping began making an impact. "Gucci sunglasses and Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses could now be found on dozens, if not hundreds, of websites," wrote the Financial Times. The subsequent problems at Debenhams really became part of a trend.
Erik Nordstrom, one of the big American department-store magnates, says department stores will rally after the coronavirus, but there will be fewer of them. The retail trade is something of a human need - the browsing aspect, and the human contact, too, of a good department store is irreplaceable online. Let's hope the Debenhams employees become part of that eventual recovery.
I have a poignant enduring memory connected with the department store. When my sister was in a New York hospice, in her last week of life, she was still alert enough to notice a special offer in a Lord & Taylor sale. "Get over to Fifth Avenue right away," she told me, as I sat by her bedside. "Lord & Taylor's pure cotton nightdresses are the most beautiful bargain you'll ever possess!" Though the L&T is no longer as it was, either, as summer approaches, I take those nighties out, and think of my sister's last desire that I should possess such beautiful nightwear.