Total: £0.00

Give the Shop a bone

By Alexander Clapperton, February 17, 2023 - 5:51pm
Our shop at 84 West Bow being painted black, 2003

The 17th of February 2023 marks 20 years' trading from our wee shop at 84 West Bow (Victoria Street) in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town. We entered our new lair after searching high and low for several months, seeking a suitable ghostly abode. Of course, our walking tours had been operating since February 1984, but prior to securing access to our permanent base, we were housed in a variety of temporary old town spaces. How time flies when you're having fun, as the over-used homily has it.

We were delighted when the shop came up for sale. A shop actually for sale, rather than for rent, in the Old Town was a rarity even back then, so we jumped at the chance to view the property. When we saw the small, empty, run-down and rather grubby interior, we began to appreciate why it had thus far remained on the market. One surveyor, with commendable candour, described the shop as "a dog" and suggested we shouldn't go anywhere near it. (We instantly told him to get off the fence and tell us what he really thought.)

Well, this description did not deter us. We could see the potential in our new canine friend. In fact, we were emboldened by the challenge of renovating the whole space, upstairs and down and opening a wee shop to the public. So, amidst a whirlwind of repairs and redecoration during the winter, the premises became a space to take bookings for our tours, a changing room for our "jumper-ooters" and a wee gory gift shop. In deference to that surveyor's damning assessment, the shop assumed a fairly obvious nickname: The Dog. Having always had cats in the past, it was nice to welcome a pooch to the family.

When we first moved into the shop, the street was a much quieter place. I remember having a conversation with a neighbouring shopkeeper who was desperate to find a way of luring visitors down from the Royal Mile to visit the street, as no one could seem to find it. Changed days, and thanks to a certain boy wizard, Victoria Street/West Bow is a must-see street if you are visiting Edinburgh. It's a shame this shopkeeper has long departed the scene. Today he'd be amazed at the number of tourists visiting the area compared to twenty years ago.

As well as a complete change in the number of visitors traversing the street, many shops have changed hands too. In its previous life, The Dog was Phileas Fogg's Emporium. Directly across the road from us was Robert Cresser's Brush Shop (Est 1873) and we were flanked by the Urban Body Modification Studio (tattoo and piercing parlour) and The Christmas Shop (we'll leave that one to your guesswork). The aforementioned shops have since changed owners and names more than once. In fact, if I was to mention all the changes which have taken place in the past twenty years, I'd be here all week listing them ... so, er, maybe that's a blog for another day.

When the thoroughly reno'd retail space first threw wide its doors to the public, our merchandise selection was quite modest: it mainly consisted of our own publishing catalogue of books and films (on VHS!), postcards featuring our charming tour characters such as the Foule Clenger and the Mad Monk ... and shortbread. The foray into comestibles didn't work out too well: we soon found we were doling out more of the calorie-dense treats free as restoratives to our exhausted jumper-ooters when they collapsed back in the door after an energetic night's work (what monster could refuse them?) than we were actually selling. For reasons not unrelated, the gory-themed stress-balls presented on our counter in those early days proved a short-lived venture ... and, on a side-note, those things make a real mess when burst due to extreme over-compression(!)

From those early wobbly steps, we've felt our way into a grotesquely diverse array of gothic and fantastical merchandise, to the point that not a square millimetre of available flat surface is not hotly contested. We have also used the shop as a base for film production, and planning Festival Fringe stage shows.

Then we launched the (numerically) smallest museum in the world with one exhibit: a calling-card case made from the skin of notorious Edinburgh "bodysnatcher" William Burke. The William Burke Museum, a black box on the shop counter, now attracts thousands of visitors each year. In our time, the street has also become a popular location for filming. Recent shoots here have included films such as Fast and Furious 9, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Bollywood hit Tum Bin 2, the Irvine Welsh adaptations Filth and T2 Trainspotting, and TV series Case Histories and Good Omens.

So, our "dog" is now 20 (140 in dog years). She's brushed up well and is reasonably well trained. What will the next twenty years hold in store (pun intended). Well, you'll have to return to this website in February 2043 to find out how man's best friend is doing.