Edinburgh - Old Town
- Kirstin Innes
- 16 April 2009
Independent Shopping Guide
Independent shops in the capital’s historic centre, presided over by Edinburgh Castle, take their aesthetic responsibilities seriously. That’s not to say that they’re all authentically restored and historically preserved properties frozen in time, nor have many businesses caved to city council pressures to tartan up for the tourists. Old Town shop fronts, tend, on the whole, to be little works of art.
Most of the areas covered in The List’s guide have one strong shopping centre, off which smaller tributary streets and retail clusters pivot. The Old Town has three centres; possibly four. Everything starts at the West Port, where the fabulously stylish high-end vintage clothing and accessories boutique Herman Brown, run by enthusiastic fashion historians, and the street-smart menswear indie Pageant act as a gateway to the West Port Books collective, six second-hand bookshops, each with a different specialism and a differently eccentric, passionate owner. The West Port also manages to sustain bleeding-edge skateboard shop Focus and hip, vintage-focused boutique Godiva.
The newly-pedestrianised Grassmarket, unique among Edinburgh social hubs for more or less managing to sustain a cosmopolitan festival air all year round, contains some of the most ruggedly individual retail institutions in the country. The long-standing Helios Fountain, for example, is a mesmerising magpie’s nest of beads and wooden toys. Matching it for longevity are Mr Wood’s Fossil’s (not just fossils, but dinosaur bones and sci-fi shop displays too); Fabhatrix, where a woman called Fawns creates hats that transcend ‘quirky’; Bill Baber’s shop-cum-fashion studio; the windows hanging with shimmering woollies, excellent amps and cut-price Casios at Red Dog Music; thoughtful plus-size fashion at Big Ideas; and of course, Armstrong’s, Edinburgh’s classic vintage clothing juggernaut. There are other, equally eccentric one-offs dotted around the area; strange knitwear suitable for wizards at Joyce Forsyth on Candlemaker Row, The Cadies and Witchery, a genuine little shop of horrors, the grimy geek-depths of Deadhead Comics and Aha Ha Ha, a joke shop decked out with a gigantic false nose and comedy specs.
Victoria Street, with its curving parade of coloured shop fronts peeling up from the foot of the Grassmarket, tends to attract younger, funkier store owners. Right down at the foot, there’s the crazily hip Analogue, a gallery and bookstore that works with guest artists to publish its own regular zines. Totty Rocks run by two former ECA fashion lecturers, has its own in-house label, as well as stocking Scottish designers such as Bebaroque, while Swish has been busily dispensing skate-smart unisex streetwear for well over a decade. There’s also the food, of course: you can’t ignore the rather forceful aroma of IJ Mellis, everyone’s favourite cheesemonger, and this is the site of the original Demijohn.
A couple of minutes away, curving off down the Royal Mile, Cockburn Street, crammed with youth-focused, grungy-cool clothes shops with pocket-money friendly pricing policies, has long been an after-school Mecca to Edinburgh’s more gothically inclined teenagers. There are some great one-offs to be found here: well-priced indie fashion labels at Pie in the Sky (for cool cotton fashion) and Cookie (fun-formal dresses), velvet goth frocks at Voodoo and graphic T-shirts at Fabrick, as well as mystical homeware at Eden, while the bong-laden windows of Whiplash Trash have attractions all of their own.
Finally, no Old Town shopping round up would be complete without the Jeffrey Street/St Mary’s Street/ Canongate intersection, which, by combining high-end designer fashion (Corniche) and cosy, arty Scottish woolies (Ragamuffin) with idiosyncratic eccentrics such as Present (brilliantly unusual gifts), is almost a microcosm of what makes Edinburgh’s indie shops great.
Angus Ferguson runs Demijohn, ‘the world’s first liquid deli’, with branches on Victoria Street in Edinburgh and Byres Road in Glasgow
‘When I was a student, I lived very briefly in Naples in Italy. The Italians get their wine from cantinas; you take along a container, try the wine you like and they just skoosh it in from a sort of petrol pump. It seemed to me to be a brilliantly simple, good fun way of finding out which wines you like, and I couldn’t understand why we didn’t do it here. The idea stayed with me for years, during which I travelled all over the world with the Black Watch, tasting foods, oils and wines and growing into quite an adventurous foodie.
I’ve always wanted to do my own thing in life too, and the idea for a liquid deli, everything bottled in-house, so you could try the oils and vodkas before you bought them, just started biting me. We started a little hunt for this underworld of British producers and sure enough we found there were teachers out there, retired bankers, farmer’s wives, all having a go in their kitchen. That’s really when the idea started to come together – we could become a co-op, lots of small British producers working together. We definitely took the right direction of sourcing locally, British products where possible, sticking with quality and good sourcing: people really want that.’
0141 337 3600, 0131 225 3265 www.demijohn.co.uk
Area focus: The Grassmarket
The Grassmarket has long been something of a divided area; its increasing popularity as an al fresco drinking and dining location at odds with the traffic-logged roads. The brilliantly simple solution was to pedestrianise the area, creating a leafy, continental-style piazza underneath the castle.
What’s great about the Grassmarket is that despite not being a primarily residential area, there’s a co-operative spirit holding the individual businesses together. The mighty Grassmarket Traders Association, chaired by Jos Bastiansen of Helios Fountain, has a say in all developments in the area.
They’ve also leant their seal of approval to the upcoming GrassMarkets (see what they did there?), a new monthly outdoor market using all of that newly accessible pedestrian space. There have been occasional markets in the site before, of course, but this new, quality controlled collection of stalls selling organic local produce, arts, crafts and ‘cool collectibles’ is a regularly scheduled event, taking place on the first Sunday of every month from May to September. The GrassMarkets are the centrepiece of a new programme of events, including music and theatre performances, to be run in co-operation with local traders and shop owners. It’s a nice nod to the area’s historic roots as a marketplace and social hub; that said, public hangings are probably not part of the upcoming schedule.