Morningside still thriving as independent shops move in

Morningside has seen plenty of change over the years. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Morningside has seen plenty of change over the years. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A CENTURY ago, as the Great War still raged, Morningside Road was a varied selection of largely home-run businesses – bootmakers, dairies and dye works.

Fast forward 50 years and a car garage, restaurant and fur company appeared at the peak of the Swinging Sixties.

Despite the advent of national chains and internet shopping, a new generation of independent businesses has moved in – offering fresh hope for the high street.

“Over the years things have changed, with people coming in and old people going out,” says Brian Burgess of Stationery Express, a feature for 25 years.

“But it’s Morningside and the good thing is, it’s all small shops apart from a couple of big ones.”

Dusty directories kept at Edinburgh’s Central Library give a fascinating insight into life on the road 100 years ago.

A Mrs D Wilson ran her fishmongers from number 40 – the shop is still a small business today, one of many salons up and down the road.

“It’s like a little village here,” says Sandra Lawson, wife of Panache Hairdressing owner Ian, explaining the street’s appeal.

A few doors down, at number 20, was a Scotsman and Despatch Office – now luxury bathroom showroom, Bubbles, a nod to Morningside’s affluent homemakers.

One relatively new high street phenomenon is charity shops and Morningside Road is no exception.

Housing charity Shelter currently occupies number 104 – from where fruiterer Henry Blanche flogged his wares 100 years ago.

Present-day greengrocer Jamil Ibrahim has run Fruit-a-Licious for nine years, moving to number 314 from next door four years ago, and is wary of the threat big firms pose.

“There’s too many chains coming in. My business is ok but it’s difficult for other people,” says the 54-year-old. “I’ve got the regulars who support me – it’s a mixture of people.

“They’re not too keen on supermarkets simply because there’s a lot of plastic used. They don’t take plastic bags, they use their own shoppers.

Stocking up to nine varieties of mushroom and seasonal fruits including tayberries and loganberries, Jamil’s philosophy is simple: give the customers what they want.

“I have a lot of stuff supermarkets don’t keep,” says the father-of-four. “I probably have the first gooseberries in Edinburgh because I get them straight from the farm – he won’t deal with supermarkets.

“People come in because it smells nice. They can smell the stuff whereas in supermarkets it’s all in fridges and it loses its freshness because it’s too cold.”

Though Fruit-a-Licious is a long-standing fixture of the high street, other independent stores have come and gone.

“Businesses change every year,” says Jamil. “There’s less and less shops. There used to be a fishmongers and a butchers but there’s not anymore.

“There’s always scope for a butcher because a lot of people won’t go to a supermarket.”

But when small businesses do move or close down, the trend is for other independents, rather than chains, to replace them.

Even 100 years ago, the rise of the national chain was evident, however, even on Morningside Road.

Selling eggs and milk to locals from number 245 was a branch of Buttercup Dairy – an instantly recognisable brand of the early 20th Century.

Founded by farmer Andrew Ewing, it grew to 250 stores at his peak but never really recovered from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

A devout Christian, Ewing gave away most of his vast fortune and died penniless in 1956.

Internet shopping may have hit some present-day traders hard, but Bike Morningside owner Andy Rutherford has embraced online as his major supplier in an age of same day delivery.

“Yes, if people find a widget or whatever online, they can find it cheaper but my business relies on it too because all my purchasing is on the web,” says the 36-year-old former webmaster.

Toiling away on cycles below cornicing that betrays his workshop’s past as a luxury woollen clothing store, Andy adds: “They’re paying what I call a dirty hands tax – people who are relatively cash rich and time poor.”

With cycling becoming ever more popular among a more health and environmentally conscious public, business is good, with a line of bikes waiting to be fixed.

“No one opens a bike shop in order to get wealthy, I don’t think it happens, but I love it,” says Andy, praising Morningside’s “vibrant” traders’ association for encouraging small firms.

Across the junction and overlooking Morningside clocktower, Daniel and Joanna Campbell run the Leaf & Bean Café.

With the spectre of their business rates nearly doubling next month, the couple have diversified into venue hire and business consultancy.

“Brexit hit us quite hard as well with costs going up on butters, cheeses and coffee. A lot of people don’t see it because we can’t pass the costs on or else people will just go to chains,” says Daniel, 41.

Young families and elderly enjoy a late lunch or afternoon tea as Daniel runs through his overheads – electricity up, gas up, wages up, adding to the crippling rates rise.

“We’ve been here four years and we’ll still be here in another four years,” he assures, defiantly. “We just have to think out of the box.

“We can’t just rely on the cafe, if we did, the public wouldn’t be here,” he adds, praising Morningside’s support of start-ups.

At less than a month old, one of Morningside’s newest stores is tailors and dressmakers Grace York – so new, the sign is yet to be installed.

Designers Anna Morgan and Anna Chodor-Szezepanska, both 39, make alterations and craft bespoke garments.

“With tailoring and dressmaking, it’s simply about trust,” says Ms Morgan.

“You have to pick a person, trust the person and then come back – it’s about the quality of the job done.”

The partners chose Morningside because of its reputation as a hub for start-up service sector businesses – while customers also come from miles around.

“When it comes to ready-made clothing, you can just go into a shop and buy something off a rack,” adds Ms Morgan, gearing up for a busy spring.

“But if you want something special then you have something made and you know no one has something like it in the world.”

One constant throughout the century has been the local watering hole Canny Man’s at number 237 – formerly the Volunteer Arms.

The name may have changed but many of the fixtures and fittings remain as Canny Man’s proudly boasts its heritage with never-changing décor.

Opened in 1871, the original bars still stand holding trinkets of past regulars while original intricate woodwork and antiques line the walls.

Still family run, the nickname Canny Man’s has been adopted as the pub’s official moniker, while the Volunteer Arms was a traditional name used for bars back in the late 1800s.

Back at Stationery Express, husband and wife team Brian and Gillian moved into the former Hudson’s newsagent a quarter of a century ago.

The store thrives on the area’s students, schoolchildren and at home workers.

“The people of Morningside support local shops – we’re very lucky and they’re very good like that,” says Brian, from behind a row of Parker pens. “We get students coming in panicking because they’ve got to get a dissertation in by midday.”

Again the emphasis is on providing a personalised service that large chains may struggle with.

“I think as time goes on, as long as you offer what people want then they’ll come back,” says Brian.

“If people come in and we haven’t got what they’re looking for then we’ll get it in – we keep a diary. We’re flexible and versatile.”

But even such an established business has its issues. “Parking is a nightmare,” he admits. “It’s gone up to £2.80 and you’re not going to pay £2.80 to get a 7p copy.”

More established still is the independent cinema Dominion, celebrating its 80th year around the corner in Newbattle Terrace.

Managing director Mike Cameron has spent 37 years treading the foyer’s plush carpets. The cinema has always focused on luxury – the first to install sofas in 1971.

But the 1,300-capacity single screen has been replaced with eight more intimate rooms from 17 seats upwards.

“It’s getting people out of the comfort of their own homes and giving them what they’re looking for,” says Mike, 57.

“There’s no queuing and a hostess takes you to your seat.”

Again the focus is on innovation, with live theatre beamed from around the world a recent development.

And Mike is confident for the future, believing independent cinemas could become members’ clubs.

He could be speaking for all the independents of Morningside Road when he says: “It’s slightly different, more of a boutique feel, a bit more 
special.”

andy.shipley@edinburghnews.com