Let’s celebrate the proud history of Jenners, a true Edinburgh icon - Donald Anderson

It’s not often my eyes well up, but yesterday morning’s headlines in the Evening News and Scotsman announcing that Jenners is set to come to an end on Princes Street brought back a flood of memories.

Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 6:11 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th November 2019, 6:13 pm

My Mum worked in Jenners for many years. She initially worked in the restaurant and café, after which her talent with numbers led to a position in the cash desk down in the basement where she enjoyed many of the very best years of her working life.

Everyone in Edinburgh will have their own favourite memories of Jenners, but mine invariably involve excited visits as a youngster to see Mum working on the till. I was never allowed in the cash desk, a place full of mystery where tubes all around the store despatched cash for purchases – no chip and pin in those days.

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Jenners may soon close it's doors for the last time.

But shopping has changed. I well remember being told by the family during the sale of the business to House of Fraser in 2005 that they could simply no longer compete with the chains.

Since then shopping has changed even more. In July it was predicted that the internet will account for more than half of all sales in ten years’ time. Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and Topshop owner Arcadia have all announced store closures and Frasers has, of course, closed its west end store in Princes Street which will become the new Johnnie Walker Whisky Visitor Centre.

So, what now for Jenners and what for our grandest of boulevards – Princes Street?

Whilst we should mourn the passing of this ‘grand old lady’, the future for the building and Princes Street remains bright. Already plans are being worked on to transform and repurpose the building. Though some people in the city are critical of the tourism industry, it is little surprise that tourism is a key component of the future vision for this architectural gem.

That point is well worth remembering. Despite concerns, tourism helps Edinburgh support a range of facilities that no city of half a million could otherwise support.

We have theatres, restaurants and, yes, shops that simply wouldn’t be open without the additional spending that visitors bring. Tourism has already secured the rapid repurposing of Frasers to create a new magnet attraction in the city’s west end, and hopefully it is about to do the same for Jenners.

Just last week Edward Webb, the development director of Edinburgh St James, told a hotel industry house magazine that Edinburgh was the “most investible city in the UK”.

With healthy visitor numbers and a hotel occupancy rate of 83.7 per cent, Princes Street is well placed to transition from a shopping hub to a shopping and leisure hub, just as it transitioned from townhouses to shops long ago.

Edinburgh already has three new five-star hotels due to open in 2021. New restaurants abound, and whilst city centre retail faces ongoing challenges it’s not about to disappear, especially in places like Edinburgh where the footfall and the economy remain healthy.

So, do we just put our feet up and relax? Well no, complacency is always Edinburgh’s ‘Achilles Heel’.

Airbnb brings challenges and we’ve still got a long way to go to spread the benefits of tourism to the wider city. A new hotel planned in south Edinburgh will be the first ever purpose-built hotel built in Gilmerton.

The Fringe and International Festivals are increasingly pushing our summer arts bonanza out of the city centre, and that looks set to grow quickly, but we need to do more.

Yes, there are issues and challenges, but the challenges of success are infinitely easier to deal with than the challenges of failure.

In the absence of a healthy tourism industry, the Jenners building would unquestionably languish empty and unused.

Let’s celebrate the long and proud history of this true Edinburgh icon. We can even shed that tear, given all the fond family memories we will all have to those special visits to what was unquestionably the finest shop in the land.

But let’s also celebrate the fact that the Jenners building can be quickly turned around and repurposed to welcome new generations to view, shop, visit and enjoy this architectural gem.

Tourism brings challenges, but in this case it’s bringing the answer too.