Article Date: 01 September 2010
When I was a boy, I loved walking with Dad into Roland Tait’s ironmongers in Selkirk. Cubby holes of wartime boxes of bits and bobs. Walls of hanging wood and iron tools. Sprays of brooms, brushes and white cotton mops. Shelves of glass bottles filled with coloured liquids. Bright, shiny plastic buckets and dustpans. Corridors of boxes. Off-rooms of tiny drawers spilling nails, screws and tacks. You never knew what surprises you’d find at Roland’s ironmongers, or end up going home with. “I have just the thing,” Roland once said to me, as he presented an old bashed up top hat from under the counter. He never let us down; if he didn’t have what we needed, he’d promise to have it by Tuesday. We always left the shop happy, knowing everything was in hand. Good old fashioned, local service. There was just something ‘aye been’ about Robert Tait Ironmongers – Roland even kept his father’s name on the shop front. Even the word ironmonger sounded old world, like haberdasher and blacksmith. Then there’s the smell all old ironmongeries seem to share. What is it? Decades of paraffin soaked into the floorboards? Blended scents of brass, tin, iron, cotton, wood and oil? Tait’s ironmonger was a museum of curiosity: of extraordinary, eclectic oddments. But not just random things – extremely useful too. Everything was useful for something – but what? “Da-ad, what’s this used for?” The questions must have driven him mad. So it’s with the same wonder and pleasure I walk into any of the Borders’ ironmongers today, to rifle the shelves for the unusual and useful.
Scott Brothers’ ironmonger on Peebles High Street was founded in 1891 by the great grandfather of Gary Scott, who now runs the business with 5 full-time and 3 part-time staff. “I love the family history,” he says: “I keep the old world image as much as I can – and the mess.” Last week he witnessed a historical moment, as the fifth generation of Scotts joined the shop: Gary’s 13 year old son Anson, who’s picking up the family trade pricing stock and filling shelves. “If people keep shopping with us, we’ll do alright,” says Sally Clark, who began working at Scott Bros. 12 years ago; “It’s up to the people living around us if they want to keep us open.” The range at Scott’s ironmongers is, as ever, diverse, stocking anything a household might need: powertools, glues and tapes, key cutting, hand tools, garden furniture and plants, cleaning materials, pet care, electrical goods, birdfeed, bathroom fixtures, varnishes, wood stains, and 25,000 shades of paint. “We even get people coming down from Edinburgh and Penicuik because they can’t get what they want there – even if it’s a simple kitchen plunger,” she says. “Shoppers perceive B&Q and Homebase are cheaper, without checking,” warns Gary: “We’re as good – and cheaper. People have to stop assuming we’re more expensive than the bigger places. I think they’re brainwashed by the advertising. I’ll give you an example: at Homebase last year they were selling Ronseal fence paint £4 off at £12.99. We were selling it – no promotion – at £8.99. There’s too much making up prices and giving discounts that don’t exist. Paint per tin here is cheaper than B&Q, at £16.99 rather than £17.49. They buy it in bulk, but somehow it’s still dearer. A lot of things here are cheaper. When you fill your basket here, you save loads.”
In agreement with Gary is Paul Dorricott, owner of Dorricotts on Jedburgh High Street, an ironmongers since 1965, still stocking all home essentials and oddments like 1950s bicycle parts and paraffin heater spares. “People are being brainwashed that they have to go to big shops in big towns,” Paul says: “The big stores are perceived as being cheaper; they may look cheaper on things they’re advertising or promoting, but the bulk of it is more expensive. People don’t go round comparing price of the small things. They’d be surprised: the small stuff like light bulbs will be dearer. One superstore charges 8 times more than we do on shelf brackets.” “People have to stop and think,” he explains: “Shopping out of town is very expensive, with the high cost of petrol. The biggest superstores have a limited range, of only fast selling items, so they don’t stock anything out of the ordinary. A lot of big stores don’t have the range, knowledge or service. People come here from places that don’t have local ironmongers, and are over the moon they can get things they can’t get in bigger towns. Locals don’t always see what’s on their doorstep.” Surrounded in his a cavern of Le Creuset pots and pans, wicker baskets, soda crystals, beeswax, polyfilla, pizza cutters, fabric dye, Ordnance Survey maps, jam jars, yacht varnish, cake tins and Silvo is Drew McCraw, ironmonger at Houseproud on Selkirk’s Tower Street. “I find it interesting and challenging,” he says: “I enjoy helping people solve their problems, and finding the right product. They come in with some random thing that they’re doing, and I find a way to solve it. I don’t sell anything I don’t feel comfortable buying myself, because I’ve got to face the customers the next day. There’s no hiding place. That disciplines you. A successful business has to be aware of what the customer wants and demands. I always treat them like I would want to be treated myself.” Like Drew, Stewarts of Kelso, a family-run ironmonger since 1886, takes great care of its customers. “We can do the complete job from start to finish,” explains shop manager Paul Dutch: “Our job doesn’t end when we sell the product: we back it up with a delivery and installation service. If somebody wants something we don’t have, we’ll do our best to get it. We can source most makes and models. We’ll look at the prices, and be as competitive as we can.”
It’s unlikely Stewarts won’t already stock what you’re hunting for: three floors bustle with 9 helpful staff, and house everything from thimbles, TVs, massage cushions, spanners, bath plugs, gas fires, egg cups, dishwashers, chains, picnic tables, door handles, showers, walking sticks and marigolds. If you’re in Galashiels, you can try Kennedy’s Country Store on Bank Close, which specialises in pet and horse supplies, or if you’re in Duns Market Square you can visit Home Hardware. Whether you’re in town for a shop or a festival, why not pop into these incredible places? Let’s try to keep the excellent ironmongers we have in the Borders. Not everyone is so lucky as we are to still enjoy them.