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Lost Edinburgh: John Menzies & Co

John Menzies Princes Street pictured shortly before it closed in 1998

John Menzies Princes Street pictured shortly before it closed in 1998

  • by David McLean
 

THE STORY of how a small Edinburgh bookselling business survived, thrived and evolved to become a dominant force on airport runways around the globe.

A little over a decade ago if you had asked a random Scot on the street who or what John Menzies was, a common response would have been: “The newsagents?”. Today the once popular high street retail chain has long since disappeared, but the name endures and is recognisable around the world through its aviation and distribution branches. It all began in Scotland’s capital 180 years ago.

Beginnings

In the bitterly cold winter of 1832, 25-year-old London bookseller John Menzies made the 60 hour trip back home to Edinburgh to attend his father’s funeral. Bequeathed little and with a family to support, Mr Menzies turned to the only trade he knew and decided to open his first bookshop at 61 Princes Street.

Aided by several years of experience on Fleet Street and a plethora of publishing contacts, Menzies was quickly able to develop an innovative business model which enabled the citizens of Edinburgh to purchase many otherwise unavailable book titles, as well as a large selection of stationery and office supplies, all under one roof. A trail-blazer from day one, Menzies led the way by becoming the first Edinburgh bookstore to sell issues of the Scotsman over the counter and was the first Scottish agent to feature copies of the popular satirical journal Punch Magazine.

In the 1850s, Menzies spotted yet another niche in the market by obtaining exclusive rights to open newspaper and magazine stalls in railway stations up and down the country. This idea was expanded further by forging a new distribution line that saw the company employ basket boys to flog newspapers on the carriages. Turnover had now exceeded £8,000 a year – roughly £600k adjusted for inflation.

A change in direction

Buoyed by recent success, Menzies made the pragmatic decision in 1859 to close the premises on Princes Street and move into the world of wholesale distribution. Although numerous book and magazine stalls remained, the ambitious venture meant that the company would be without a dedicated presence on the Scottish high street until 1928. After his death in 1879, John Menzies’ profit-making distribution empire was passed over to his sons. Incredibly, family involvement would last another 128 years until 2007 with the passing of John M. Menzies - the founder’s great grandson.

John Menzies’ return to Princes Street in 1928 gave the company a welcome foot-hold as the Great Depression loomed. Despite a nationwide drop in magazine and newspaper sales in the years which followed, the business managed to endure and flourish. By 1960, the company boasted hundreds of outlets in city centres, railway stations and airports across the United Kingdom.

Princes Street flagship store

In 1973 with turnover at an all-time high, John Menzies opened its flagship store at 107-108 Princes Street. Over the next two decades, the company embraced new markets and became well-known as a vendor of records, toys and games, in addition to its traditional range of books, magazines and stationery. It is during this period that John Menzies etched its way into the hearts and minds of an entire generation of Scots.

Menzies Distribution & Aviation

As if able to peer into the future and foresee the eventual rise of the internet and catastrophic decline in sales of its core products, Menzies’ owners made the bold decision in 1998 to sell off its famous retail division to its nearest rival WH Smith for £68m. Since then the company has focused primarily on its distribution and aviation services. Menzies Aviation, in particular, is now a lucrative and globally-recognised baggage transfer provider, with a presence at 130 airports from Scotland to Australia. Combined turnover of its major business operations in 2012 was reported at close to £1billion.

Back in Edinburgh, the company has retained its Scottish headquarters, despite a recent move from its long-time offices above Next, Princes Street to Edinburgh Park.

A starring-role for its iconic angled-glass flagship store frontage in the opening scene of Danny Boyle’s 1996 hit Trainspotting, has ensured immortality status for the fondly-recalled newsagent king.

John Menzies’ purpose may have altered drastically but its success has endured in a canny, Scottish fashion. No doubt if its founder were still here today, he’d be delighted with the current directors’ ability to predict changing markets and move into unfamiliar new directions with consummate ease. After all, it was Mr John Menzies who sacrificed the original business model for the greater good all those years ago.

SEE ALSO:

Scotsman archive: death of John Menzies

 

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