The beginning of the end came quickly. Within a few minutes, the decanting of a shop which had stood, virtually unaltered, for decades was well underway. An Edinburgh institution was departing the scene.
Corson Hardware, on Raeburn Place in Edinburgh, has been the subject of much comment, and indeed mockery, over the years. To some, its inert nature served as a source of mirth. Others saw it as a comforting symbol of continuity. On 9 June, a large van pulled up and swallowed the first portion of the dusty contents of the store. Startled onlookers stared. Some perhaps sensed they were witnessing a historic moment, likely to live on in the memory for years. 'Where were you when you heard that Corson had closed?' 'Well, actually...'
Among the artisanal vendors and boutique charity shops on Raeburn Place, Corson stood out. Almost imperceptibly, the yellow plastic sign faded over time. The 'ghost sign' beneath it indicated that Corson had been around for generations, serving many in this section of the city. Stockbridge has changed greatly in the last 60 years, as captured in the photography of Robert Blomfield, but not Corson Hardware. For the last few years, the shop has been in aspic. Corson tried to but failed to disprove the adage that 'if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change'.
In the classic 1960 film version of HG Wells' The Time Machine
, the traveller (played by Rod Taylor) is able gauge the passing of years through the changing fashions displayed in the window of a ladies outfitters. A time traveller observing Corson's window would barely notice any change. They would probably have concluded that the machine had malfunctioned. Fading products in the window spoke of years planted in the same location, their labels dissolved by the sun. Given the fashion for vintage, I find it surprising that some hipster failed to buy out the business some time ago. Surely the shelving and other fittings (perhaps even Mr Corson's overalls) could have been repurposed by someone peddling seaweed soap or discharging oat milk 'flatties' into Scandinavian stoneware cups.
A visit to the shop was a memorably strange experience. As you entered, Mr Corson would emerge from a dark little nook at the rear of the shop, and traipse forward in his traditional overalls. He would wait for you to ask; a deep sense of unease often gripped the customer at this point. I recall asking Mr Corson if he had a particular cleaning product. A calm but forceful 'no' was his only reaction. When asked about a particular strip light bulb: 'this is the only one you will find'. A quick Google search would have disabused Mr Corson of his certitude.
Corson's customer service was, shall we say, unique. He was, I'm sure, charming to some of his older customers but for others could come across as rather frosty, rude even. Online, a game called 'Corson' exists, playing on the somewhat 'minimalist' customer service that Mr Corson was renowned for. When played, that game will have an elegiac feel.
Corson Hardware was truly from a time gone when things operated at a different pace, according to a gentler schedule. Corson would close for lunch. Mr Corson would trudge back home through the sleepy streets of Comely Bank and up the Learmonth Steps, returning for the afternoon shift. Since Covid hit, there has been no sign of Mr Corson. Instead, notes have been left asking whether the shop would reopen and about his well-being. For many months, the question 'Where are you?' was etched in the dust on the window. Instead of an answer, a sense of mystery prevailed. Thousands of Stockbridge folk of every type and generation pass along this section of Raeburn Place every day, from yoga mat clutching young professionals to mature red trousered gentlemen. They were mildly perplexed by Corson's fading window display.
Early in the spring, it was announced that Mr Corson would be retiring and the shop would finally close after several years in suspended animation. The idea was met with scepticism. Would this symbol of Stockbridge folklore really just vanish? The beginning of the end began in earnest on 9 June. Corson's customers were instructed to go to Marchmont Hardware by a message inscribed on the window. Would they receive the same type of service?
On that June afternoon, an elderly lady loitered around the front window of the shop for several minutes. As if seeking final confirmation, she peered into the dark recesses of the shop. Possibly, she hoped Mr Corson would emerge from the shadows and pass her a piece of kitchenware with his characteristic unhurried theatricality. A minute later she shuffled away, exchanging glances with a massive turbot glowering from the fishmonger's window. While some traditional types of shop have been revived (Stockbridge has two cheesemongers), Corson Hardware has served its last customer.
I again passed the shop in early November. Work had clearly been going on. The door was fractionally open and I could peer inside. What a change! In contrast to the dark clutter of the past, the shop was bright and airy and… empty! Virtually all evidence of Corson had been erased, the signs painted over. Thankfully the wooden interior has been retained, as has the fireplace in the back. Traditional shop interiors are increasingly seen as something to cherish and restore, not rip out and fling into a skip. On 8 November, a 'To Let' sign was abruptly erected.
In search of answers and a replacement Vileda mop head, I headed – as instructed – to Marchmont Hardware. There the owner, Liane Phillips, told me that she had helped clear Corson's shop. He was, she tells me, 'at least 80 and just felt it was time to retire… he'd been there for so many years'. Sorting out the contents of the shop had been a 'fascinating but sad' experience. They had enjoyed exhuming the beautiful fireplace towards the back of the shop. They had found numerous historical remnants, including business cards of people 'long since gone' and a phone book full of numbers from the old phone system. Marchmont Hardware had absorbed the usable parts of Corson's stock. For Phillips, this means that 'part of Corson lives on'. His spirit can't be extinguished.
It was, for Phillips, a 'real shame' that no-one had been found to take Corson Hardware on as a going concern. This was a symptom of the 'hard times' for the hardware business in general. Phillips 'would have loved to take on the shop' but 'trade is hard'. Corson was 'part of a dying breed' who was 'definitely old school' in his customer service but had knowledge which takes years to acquire. Philips was mentored in the trade by her stepfather. She now runs, following the closure of Corson, Edinburgh's last independent hardware shop. Phillips hopes that Marchmont Hardware can survive, profiting on its local reputation and the expert knowledge the staff have.
What lies in store for the site of Corson Hardware, now just a shell? The 'property consultants' selling the unit outline that it 'occupies a prime position' in Stockbridge among a 'high end mix' of shops as well 'as thriving independent restaurants and cafes'. The exciting new business will no doubt attract plenty of attention but we should also mark those businesses which expire. Particularly those which epitomised a previous retail culture and Stockbridge before it became vogueish and 'Instagrammable'. The passing of a fragment of Stockbridge in its previous incarnation is worth remembering.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics