On the evening of 25 August last year, Brian and Sarah Stark, who run the Boardwise surf and snowboard shop on Edinburgh’s Lady Lawson Street, got a call from their neighbours at the Timberyard restaurant to tell them their building was on fire. “We got there in 20 minutes,” remembers Sarah, “but by then there were already nine [fire brigade] units outside.” The blaze was eventually extinguished at 4am on the morning of the 26th, but by that time the damage had been done. Thousands of pounds worth of stock had been destroyed – either burned by the flames, melted by the intense heat or ruined by the smoke. More devastating still, it seemed that over three decades of board-riding history might also have been lost.
Set up by Brian and his dad in 1983 (at that time selling predominantly windsurfing gear), and now owned by Brian and his sister, Carolyn Corrigan, Boardwise was never really just a shop. Yes, it has always been in the business of buying and selling stock, but over the years Brian and Sarah had also built up a collection of rare and notable surfboards, snowboards, skateboards and other memorabilia, much of which was also destroyed.
That said, it has been possible to salvage a few important items from the wreckage. When I visit Boardwise almost seven months on from the fire, the long, arduous process of stripping out all the fire-damaged fixtures and fittings is almost complete. Brian tells me they’ve had to get rid of 20 tonnes of debris – he knows the figure, he says, because he’s had to pay £200 per tonne to dispose of it. Before the fire, Boardwise used to feel like a treasure trove bursting at the seams with desirable gear – wetsuits on the left as you came in through the door, surfboard rack on the right, then walk straight ahead to the counter and turn left to find enough snowboard kit to see you through 1,000 winters. Now, though, the shop is an empty cavern, stripped right back to its mid-19th century stone walls, and the smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air. In spite of everything, however, there are still a few clues as to the building’s past. On the banister at the top of the stairs leading down to the basement, for example, there’s an old Sola wetsuits sticker dating from the 1980s, miraculously unscathed.
Sarah takes me down into the basement storeroom where the fire began. “It started just over there,” she says, pointing to a corner that would have been directly underneath the spot where the snowboard rack used to stand. “We had a dehumidifier on because we’d had a flood two weeks before. After we’d ascertained the cause of the leak we had to get hold of a dehumidifier to get rid of the smell and the dampness.”
Unfortunately the dehumidifier was faulty – faulty enough to take out the entire shop. Still, not everything was lost. In another area of the basement there’s a small collection of vintage snowboards – damaged, but still recognisable.
“That board there is quite an old one,” says Sarah, pointing to a slightly singed Burton Brushie Cruzin 153, designed by halfpipe pioneer Jeff Brushie and handmade in Vermont in the mid-1990s. Beside it is a limited edition Lib Tech Travis Rice Art of Flight Pro model, as used by Rice in the iconic Art of Flight movie. Before the fire it was in mint condition and still in its wrapper; now it has large scorch marks all along its deck. “It was worth a lot of money,” says Sarah, “now it’s not.” There’s also an Apo board that once bore custom graphics by Brian Froud, along with the artist’s signature – one of only three he signed. Now, though, most of the board’s topsheet is burned beyond repair, and the fantastical illustrations can only really be seen towards the tail.
But Brian and Sarah are doing their best to stay positive: they hope to throw a “big bonfire party” on 25 August this year, then reopen the shop the following day. And then we’ll go “what happened to that year?” jokes Brian. And although a lot of historic artefacts were lost in the fire, there have been one or two intriguing finds in the aftermath. A yellowing newspaper front page discovered during the clean-up operation dates from 1917. “Rapid progress beyond Peronne” reads the headline, “British reach points ten miles east of the Somme.” Nobody seems sure what purpose the building was originally intended for, but one theory is that the high ceilings, grand cornices and multiple fireplaces might have originally housed some sort of gentleman’s club.
And then there’s the dead bunny. In order to ensure the fire had been extinguished, fire crews had to rip out chunks of the ceiling to check under the rafters. After they’d gone, Sarah climbed a ladder to have a look and “nearly screamed the place down” when she discovered a rabbit skeleton. The National Museum of Scotland is sending an expert to investigate, but apparently builders often used to seal dead creatures into new buildings to ward off evil spirits. For now, though, “bony bunny” is staying in the shop, just in case.