Arson, attempted murder and the destruction of a 150 year old department store

Yesterday evening, I was at the monthly translators’ meet-up at a restaurant in Bremen city centre.

At around a quarter to ten, I was driving home along an elevated road through the city centre and noticed a dark cloud drifting over the roofs of the office buildings lining the road. At first, I thought it was just weird weather again – we’d been having thunderstorms and heavy showers earlier in the day. But then I realised that the dark cloud was not a cloud at all, but smoke. A column of black smoke.

“Do you see that?”, I asked the friend who’d picked me up, “That’s smoke. There must be a fire over there.”

We took another look and listened for fire engine sirens, but there was nothing, just the column of smoke.

Once home, I switched on the radio news and heard that Harms am Wall, an upscale department store, was on fire and that the blaze threatened neighbouring houses as well. The fire was reported at around a quarter to ten, i.e. around the time we drove past the site at a distance of approx. 200 meter. Google Maps shows the location. The yellow line is the elevated road, the red dot the store.

I was quite horrified by the news, because Harms am Wall has been something of a Bremen institution for 150 years now, an upscale department store specialising in fashion, lingerie and household goods. Everybody who’s been living in Bremen for any significant amount of time has probably been inside Harms at some point, even if they weren’t regular customers. I still have a pullover I bought there many years ago. My Mom had her wedding register there back in 1965. There are some historical photos of the store here.

Harms was one of the last remaining traditional stores in Bremen, one of the last of a breed of independent retailers that have been serving the people of Bremen for decades, if not centuries. When I was a kid, there were still a lot of these traditional stores around, mostly clothing retailers, but also shoe and underwear shops, furniture stores, shops selling china and household goods, toy stores, book stores, stationery shops, perfumeries, cafés. They gradually vanished from the late 1980s onwards, often unnoticed and unremarked, their vacated premises taken over by chain stores, the same chain stores you can find in every other shopping precinct in the centre of every other German city. And those that remained were often much diminished from what they had once been.

Thinking back, I’m shocked how many stores that were fixtures of Bremen city centre, when I was a kid, have vanished in the meantime. And since photos from the 1970s and 1980s are so very hard to come by (it’s all either pre-WWII or modern – here is a rare photo of Obernstraße, Bremen’s main shopping street, from the 1980s, showing a lot of long gone shops*), many of them have left no trace behind at all. Often, I can’t even tell you when or how they vanished, because unless it was a store where either I or my parents regularly shopped, I didn’t notice. Because these stores were traditional and long established, a lot of them catered to older customers and they were often pricier than the chains that replaced them. Often, they were too pricy for me.

Until last night, Harms am Wall was one of the few holdouts from that era, one of the few independent stores left in a world of chains. That alone would make its loss a tragedy. But it gets worse.

I’d heard that the Harms store, housed in a building dating from 1911, was being refurbished in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebrations.

What few people knew was that the Harms owners were involved in a protracted legal battle with their landlord, the owner of the 1911 building, over rents and long overdue repairs and renovations. Basically, the owner wanted Harms out, because they felt the store wasn’t paying enough rent for retail premises in an upscale neighbourhood, completely ignoring the fact that Harms was a large part of the reason why the street Am Wall is considered an upscale shopping area at all, since most of the other upscale shops there such as a whole bunch of exclusive porcelain shops have long since gone. And the last remaining porcelain shop was damaged last night by the fire next door.

The case went to court and Harms won. Renovation work was started and Harms got their rent reduced in the meantime. And then the fire happened. This video from the local news program buten un binnen has more.

But again it gets worse. Because not just was the fire likely caused by arson, it was also very probably a murder attempt. Because it turned out that the Harms manager was mugged, robbed and then locked in a room in the store. By the time, he was able to free himself, the store was already on fire. However, he managed to rescue the CCTV recordings before the fire could claim them.

This wasn’t the first fire at Harms BTW. In 2013, a small fire broke out in a display window. No one was harmed, but a lot of merchandise was damaged.


*Depressingly, most photos of Bremen from the 1970s and 1980s seem to have been taken by trainspotters and focus on trams.

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