A SHUDDER ran through middle class Britain when John Lewis announced it was to close eight branches. In past years, the travails of Woolworths and British Homes Stores were greeted with sadness but little surprise, since they had been looking tired and dated long before their doors were forced to shut. Even Debenhams' recent demise had been predicted by those with their finger to the fickle and increasingly Siberian retail winds.

John Lewis, however, has been a focal point of many city centres, a cornerstone around which others gathered. Always busy, it was the destination for well-heeled householders who, after purchasing Le Creuset ovenware in the latest shade might nip over to the clothes department for a pair of Armani jeans or take the escalator to the floor dominated by flat screen TVs, laptops and digital radios. There they might trade in their iPad for the updated version, before recovering from such wantonness with a coffee and slab of cake.

This is the shop that keeps giving, with almost everything under one roof that most mortals require to keep them and their home ticking over. Jeremy Clarkson spoke for many of a certain vintage when he admitted that this is where he buys his clothes. Me too. Once the prospect of entering stores filled with school age fashionistas turns a shopping foray in the likes of H&M or Zara into a humiliation, when intimations of mortality and reflections on the evanescence of youth rob spending of all its joy, John Lewis becomes a haven. No hounding by over-helpful assistants; spacious changing rooms; and more brands and labels than all but narcissists could ever need.

Some weeks ago I mourned the passing of Jenners department store in Edinburgh, a legend whose eccentricities were part of its charm. John Lewis’s appeal, by contrast, lies in its sleek efficiency. Its reassuring anonymity and calculatedly anodyne décor and easily navigated lay-out are intended not to frighten carthorses, such as Clarkson, or those long-suffering partners waiting while their beloved browses among barbecues with controls as complicated as a Boeing 737, which they both know he’ll never fully master.

I’m shocked at having assumed John Lewis would effortlessly weather the pandemic storm. With that certainty now dead in the water, the fear is that the recently announced cuts are only the start; that what was once viewed as almost unsinkable is, like any other retailer in these unpredictable times, potentially at risk of veering into Titanic territory.

Within days of the announcement of which stores were to be axed, a petition to prevent the closure of Aberdeen’s branch had gathered tens of thousands of signatures. That tells you everything about the place John Lewis holds in the high street.

It is not just an emporium, but a status symbol. Not, admittedly, in the same rank as Harrods or Fortnum & Mason or Harvey Nicols, but their deluxe persona is at the other end of the spectrum from John Lewis’s determinedly down to earth, sensible demeanour.

It is precisely that image of upmarket yet everyday quality that attracts such loyalty. I wasn’t alone in bridling when it was reported that Carrie Symonds and Boris Johnson wish to do away with Number 10’s “John Lewis nightmare” interior and make a dramatic stylistic overhaul.

Theoretically it would be possible to have too much John Lewis in your home, but it’s a problem I’d be happy to deal with. Half the nation has surely bought something there, if only bath towels. Yet the loss of one of its stores is about more than the goods on sale. It is about what it represents: affluence, affordable luxury, aspiration and dependability.

When it pulls out of a city centre, be it Aberdeen or Sheffield, a bright light in the retail industry is snuffed. In Aberdeen’s case, the loss of jobs is a major factor in fighting to retain it, but so is the whirlpool effect its disappearance will have on others. For a thoroughfare already struggling with closures, losing this flagship name will suck others under with it. When it goes, so does some of the area’s lustre.

John Lewis is not the only name to add distinction to a street. The Waitrose effect is long acknowledged. The opening of the first branch in Scotland was front page news. Like M&S, Waitrose, which is owned by John Lewis, defines an area as clearly as a Poundland or Poundstretcher. But there are other individual shops that also play a part in creating a virtuous spiral of prosperity and desirability.

Near where I live in the Borders is the so-called “mini-Fortnum” of the north. Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells began as a bookshop with café and expanded into a high-class delicatessen and interiors boutique.

Such is its popularity – it has won several awards, including Britain’s Best Small Shop – it is now cited in estate agents’ blurbs selling properties that lie within easy reach. Without a doubt it has added to the value of nearby houses. Over the years it has become a hub for a village which was already appealing but has now, thanks to this entrepreneurial venture, attained Homes & Gardens cachet.

It’s interesting how often it is a bookshop, deli or bakery that sprinkles gold dust on an otherwise workaday high street. The same goes for countless Scottish towns, as in Linlithgow, Gullane, Aberfeldy, Lauder, Ullapool.

One reason why North Berwick was recently voted the best small town to live in Scotland was because of its range of independent shops, offering everything from sun-dried tomatoes, Swedish bread and fresh lobster to mountain bikes.

Obviously small independent businesses are in entirely another league from behemoths like John Lewis, but their presence has the same impact: by demonstrating a commitment to quality and individuality, they create a hotspot whose warmth radiates throughout the neighbourhood, and often far beyond.

Smaller shops, unlike John Lewis, can be fleeter of foot as the commercial climate changes. When next I venture to Edinburgh’s revamped branch, I will no longer take it for granted. And while there’s no reason to panic, as yet, I’ll take a stroll through the garden furniture department, just to be sure the deck chairs are still on their feet.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.