The History of Leith

December 13, 2004

Sets appeal keeps city hobby shop firmly on right track

IN years gone by, model railways and Airfix kits were a Christmas staple for children across the country.

Although they have now been superseded on most youngsters’ wish lists by PlayStations and Gameboys, Leith-based Harburn Hobbies continues to enjoy buoyant trade selling such traditional fare.

And with its owner Bob Baird noting the national trend for festive shoppers to hold off before picking up gifts, it seems there has also been a return to that other old-fashioned favourite, the last-minute rush.

A survey published this week by accountancy firm KPMG and online polling body YouGov revealed that 39 per cent of Scots intend to complete their present buying no earlier than seven days before Christmas.

“The trend recently has been for people to wait until the final week,” says Mr Baird.

“That is how it used to be years ago when we first opened the store. Then everything would fly off the shelves at the last minute. It looks like we’re getting back to that pattern again.”

Harburn Hobbies’ claim to be the longest-established hobby shop in Scotland is seldom disputed, if at all. It can go back a long way, some 75 years, for its roots, but the current ownership is reasonably content to take it from 1966 when Mr Baird and his mother bought the store in Elm Row.

“Until the late Sixties, Edinburgh was pretty well off for shops selling models… trains, build-it-yourself kits for aeroplanes, ships or whatever. They sold toys, too,” says Mr Baird.

“I can think of one in Chambers Street, where the new museum is today; Frank Royle’s in South Clerk Street; Roseburn Hobbies; Homecrafts at Tollcross, and Coltarts in Leith’s Duke Street.

“There have been others since then, but mostly they’ve come and gone.

“Today, we don’t have much in the way of formidable competition. Marionville Models out by the Maybury in Corstorphine has been around for a good while, but they specialise in aeroplanes – the airport is just along the road – and there’s Wonderland in Lothian Road.

“Because what we are about is perceived as a hobby and because we are at the specialist end of it, it’s never going to be part of a multi-billion-pound industry. Essentially, we are small players.

“You perhaps are anticipating the clich√© and I can’t avoid it – for me it’s a labour of love and I mean it. Dedicated’s the word. The job satisfaction is tremendous. You can, of course, get to thinking you know it all, there’s nothing new.

“But every other day we find something we’ve not seen before when we open the box, so to speak.

“The manufacturers keep coming up in their deliveries with something we’ve not seen before. Or if we have seen a particular model we’ve not seen it in such detail.

“The new Hornby model trains, among them the A4 Class Mallard and the Hoover Class 50 diesels, are nothing short of stunning.”

Hornby, a name which is revered by youngsters – and oldsters – down the years, is based in Kent but what it distributes these days is manufactured in China.

Mr Baird says he is not surprised by the resurgence of Hornby, which reported a 20 per cent rise in sales and profits last month, raking in sales of £19 million in the half-year to September.

“The Hornby catalogue is now like a telephone book,” he adds. “They have a huge range of products so you would expect to see good sales. Some of the items have sold very well, especially the ones which have that ‘must-have’ factor.”

But despite the returning popularity of the model train maker, Harburn has been forced to rely on a changing consumer base with more mature collectors making up a growing chunk of their annual sales.

“In the past, every boy would want a train set, but now there are Xboxes or computers,” Mr Baird says.

“If we relied only on youngsters shopping here we would be finished. We’ve found that the market is moving more towards the adults who had train sets as boys.”

But Mr Baird fondly recalls the Sixties when these grown-ups first entered his shop in short trousers.

“In those days, we ran a Christmas club with a thriving membership. We had 1000 boys and 600 girls. They’d put something by from their pocket money.

“Times have changed, youngsters are different. The club’s long gone, alas.” Those were the days, when a Meccano set – a flat box packed with metal strips – was acknowledged as a prized part of every lad’s Christmas stocking.

“The idea was to encourage boys to construct their own models and as a product it caught on for nearly half a century. Inevitably it succumbed, victim of more sophisticated creations.

“Lego was a sensation nationwide in the late Fifties, notably for ourselves. In its infancy, its first four years, we had the biggest sales in the UK.

“At Christmas, we had customers queuing in the street. Like Meccano, Lego has lost some of its attraction.”

However, the intricately designed models will also prove a draw for passing children and sales of modern twists on the traditional railway products remain buoyant.

“Our sales of Thomas the Tank Engine or Hogwarts Express are larger than we’ve had for similar products years ago,” says Mr Baird. “We have found that the weekend between Christmas and New Year is becoming our busiest time of the year.

“That is when children have got their train set for Christmas and are looking for accessories or they are square-eyed and bored from watching television.”

Harburn’s origins date back to the Thirties when Messrs Hargreaves and Burns opened a model shop near the foot of Leith Walk. It sold out to Jimmy Innes, a colonel and engineer in the Army who bought the business with his demob money.

Mr Baird took over the business in 1966 with his mother who’d helped out Hargreaves and Burns during the war, fetching and carrying with the pony and trap she kept in a tiny stable near their home in Warriston.

“We outgrew the premises down Leith Walk and in 1975 we bought 67 Elm Row.

“We totally revamped the shop last year and obviously we’re not well off spacewise. We’re not talking about an exhibition hall, we operate on just over 700 square feet, with a full-time staff of five. My accountant keeps telling me our stock level is far too high and I keep arguing with him.

“Yes, it is, I say, and we could make more money, but if a customer comes in with a shopping list of ten items we don’t want him to go away with just seven or eight.”

Mr Baird is 57 and married to Gilly, who joined the shop in 1976 and does the books.

He was still at school, aged 15, at Trinity Academy, when he took a Saturday job with Harburn’s in Leith. He also has a first-class honours degree in microbiology. Mr Baird maintains that the bottom line about the shop today is fun. “Train sets are still hugely popular, and we’re not talking just kids and adolescents in this regard.

“Among our regular customers are professional men and retired folk. We’ve got them on our doorstop and they stay in touch from elsewhere in Scotland and from south of the Border.”



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