As I continue my talks to various groups around the Lothians I continue to hear fascinating stories from previous staff members and customers of the old department stores. The illustration above is of Maule’s en gala for the coronation of George V and Queen Mary (I think!) This was the original company which build the shop at the West End of Princes Street. It became Binns in 1943 then was taken over by House of Fraser in 1953 and renamed Fraser’s in 1976. Sadly, its rebuilt version was closed this week. Last night I heard from an ex staff member that staff had their pay compulsorily docked to contribute to a wedding gift for Hugh Fraser.
Over to Jenners. Also with a large question mark over its future. I gathered from one proud parent that her son, then a student, was a delivery driver for Jenners. Allegedly this young man was instructed to drive via only the ‘nicest’ areas of town even if this meant long unnecessary detours. Possibly an early form of mobile advertising?
The famous Sir Will Y Darling the politician and owner of Darling’s in Princes St informed the mother of one lady present last night that one must always change the buttons of a new coat. Despite not quite understanding why this was somehow important, the lady always did this! He must have known something that we don’t!
Almost my favourite story, heard from an audience member, relates to RW Forsyths. I gather that the commissionaire always knew the customers, always looked after their umbrellas on arrival and, without fail, always returned exactly the right umbrella to the right lady. Customer service indeed. Those were the days.
Well that’s what I have been doing. I’ve been talking at a whole host of events and visits to all sorts of groups and at lots of different locations from libraries to bookshop to housing complexes. Anywhere that people want to hear about the ‘Disappeared Department Stores of Edinburgh’ and my inadvertent wandering into this area of social history I’ll be rabbiting on. Its been a two way street too: I’ve heard fascinating reminiscences of people’s experiences on both sides of the counter in these wonderful old stores. I’d never have guessed that my novels would lead to this interesting new facet to life.
A few more events coming up. Hello Leith Rotary tonight and Morningside Library next week. Already lots of bookings for the autumn and next spring too. Just have to get this next knee replacement out of the way. Oh well. I’ll have lots to think about during my enforced convalescence.
(The rabbit featured is a carnelian netsuke that I’m very fond of.)
Well who’d have thought it? Not me anyway. I just wrote the stories as stories. However, at a recent author event where the reminiscences came thick and fast from the audience, it was pointed out that ‘Our Best Attention,’ my novel set in a department store in the 1970s, was social history.
The book described a setting, a staff group and customers that are now, sadly, long gone. The loss of the whole ethos of service to customers and care for and about staff seems to have disappeared almost without trace in our modern world of minimum wage, zero hours contracts and, of course the internet.
Specific aspects of the book were pointed out to me. For example, the legion of ladies left without potential husbands after the first world war: no families, children or grandchildren for them. So sad. Miss McPherson in the chapter, “The Bequest,” is really a tribute to these often very kindly women. The concept of “Model Gowns,” the unquestioning ubiquity of a “Furs” department, and the employment of war disabled staff have all disappeared. No one starts their “wedding china” off any more with the hope of adding to it throughout a long married life. Can staff members simply arrange for a family member to be employed these days? Mrs Da Costa could in “The Square Peg” and Mr Soames did in “Operation Limelight”. Even the language has changed: no one is asked to “Come forward Miss Glover” as in “Storm in the Teacups” or even to always refer to each other so formally as always to use surnames.
Changed days and not always for the better.