ONE of Bolton’s most-loved independent shops has announced it is closing its doors after almost 70 years of trading.

Whittakers has shod generations of Boltonians since Jack Whittaker opened his first shoe shop on St George’s Road in 1952.

The business may have moved but it is still run by the same family with Jack’s daughters Diane and Judith taking over when their father retired.

Now, sadly, the impact of coronavirus has proven to be the final act of the long-running store with Jack’s successors calling time on the Deansgate shop which became famous for its customer service and personal fitting skills.

“It is very sad to close after all these years, especially after the way dad built the business up,” said Judith Firth, 65. “We just can’t sustain the business any longer because there is just not enough footfall in Bolton.”

The family decided to announce they were closing the shop via an advert in The Bolton News and Judith says they have been overwhelmed by the reaction.

She said: “That morning we had a number of phone calls from customers who’d seen the advert and wanted to say how sorry they were we were closing. If we’re honest it has probably been on the cards for a while. I am retired now but my sister Diane has really tried to keep it going.

“But when you are not making any money there is just no point in the end because it becomes so stressful. All you wonder about is how you are going to pay the next bill.

“We’re probably one of the last independent business in Bolton town centre so it really is the end of an era.”

Shoemaking by the Whittaker family goes back as far as 1923 when Percy Whittaker began making shoes in his shed at the back of his home on Vallets Lane.

Percy’s son, Jack, started up the retail side of the business having joined his father to learn a trade aged just 14.

Jack was called up for the Second World War but was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Singapore and was forced to work on the infamous Burma railway.

He founded Whittakers Shoemakers in St Georges Road in 1952 and moved to the present premises in Deansgate in 1970, working there until he retired through ill-health. Jack sadly died in 2002 aged 81.

Judith said: “We used to live in flat above the shop in St George’s Road before dad got the shop in town. I’ve worked there ever since, more or less, from being a Saturday girl to being 60-years-old and my sister has never worked anywhere else.

“It has been horrible watching from the sidelines and being able to do nothing about my sister being upset.

“There was just nothing they could do about it ­— they tried everything.”

Judith admits coronavirus was the last straw for the struggling shop but adds there were plenty of other reasons why such a once successful business can fall on hard times.

“We tried to get something going with Amazon while the shop was closed in lockdown,” she said. “But we had little success and now hardly anyone is coming in at all especially after Bolton was subjected to further lockdown restrictions.

“We had a lot of mature customers and they just don’t want to come out.

“We had a decent turnover during the ‘back to school’ period but you cannot survive on just four weeks.

“We used to sell a lot more children’s shoes that were not for school but over the last ten years that business has been taken away by the likes of Next and the supermarkets. Marks and Spencer opening at Middlebrook was another nail in our coffin.

“To put things into perspective, ten years ago we had 22 staff in on a Saturday and we would have a ticket machine going. Now we have just four staff left.”

Judith predicts Whittakers will close by the end of November when the existing stock is sold.

“We will have to sell the premises and thankfully one or two of the girls are fixed up for jobs but it is very difficult out there,” she said. “I keep thinking about what my dad would do but I don’t think even he could have done anything.

“Even the chain store brands are closing in Bolton and there are lots of empty units in the Market Place. I’d like to think there is still a future for independent shops and that everything comes in circles but at the moment it feels like people are just hanging on and just about managing to pay their overheads and not making any money. You cannot do that forever.”

After 68 years of trading, Judith believes the shop has played a large role in its customers’ lives.

“We’ve seen people come in with their babies and now they come in with their grandchildren,” she added.

“It’s like seeing a story unfold in front of you.”