'Last Laugh' for Edinburgh couple as they sell up 'Diagon Alley' joke shop

Bill Bowen in the joke shop.
Bill Bowen in the joke shop.
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After tickling the ribs of generations of prank and gag-lovers, Capital couple Bill and Cathi Bowen are finally having the last laugh and are selling-up A Ha Ha Jokes and Novelties shop on West Bow.

Their business is believed to have been the basis for JK Rowling's ‘Zonko’s Joke Shop’ in Diagon Alley - a favourite place for young wizards including Harry Potter.

Bill outside the joke shop.

Bill outside the joke shop.

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And over the years it certainly has not lost its magic. Much like ‘Zonko’s’ being reinvented by the older Weasley brothers in Harry Potter, owners Bill and Cathi took over the vacant shop that once hosted Score Commotions, another joke and novelty shop, for 17 years.

Maintaining the movie theme, Score Commotions was where the ‘Restless Natives’ got their masks in the film of the same name.

The couple had owned a Grassmarket leather shop and Bill looks back with nostalgia to 1996 when they first bought the store.

He said: “Seeing how the joke shop was sorely missed, we decided to reinvent it as ‘Aha Ha Ha Jokes & Novelties’.

“When we opened in 1996 we immediately caused a stir, not least because of our shop sign that which made the heritage lobby apoplectic. It was fantastic free publicity.”

The couple love their work but feel the time is right to modernise the shop before it becomes, in Bill’s words, “another iconic business run into the ground by some old farts.”

He said: “We were revolutionary for our time and were the first joke and novelty shop in the world that used bar code scanners. I remember having to train our suppliers on how to work with the codes. I often joke about the fact that we currently hold more items of stock than Lidl.

“We tried to make the place more upmarket by improving the lighting and setting the place up as a self-service styled shop.

“To be honest with you, though, I have loved my time here and it certainly beats selling diesel parts.”

Zak Riding, 23, who has been the manager of the store for five years, said: “I have worked in the industry for a long time and would not want to see the knowledge I have acquired go to waste. I would buy the shop myself if I had the money but I hope to continue working here under a new owner. The shop could become even better with a modern digital vision in place.”

The shop has welcomed a host of celebrities over the years from Emma Thompson to Jason Isaacs and just about every Fringe performer desperately seeking props.

Looking back on the shop, Bill said: “This business sells nostalgia and some of the props and pranks we have never get old. You see grandparents wanting their grand kids to share the same laughs that they did. That is what it is all about for me. To see the joy that we bring into people’s lives- it is just such a wonderful thing to witness.”

The couple will look to have more free time in their retirement, with Bill vowing to explore the world and the unseen parts of Edinburgh that he has not yet had the time to enjoy.

Cathi and Bill's Top Five Products:

1. Funny noses: Synonymous as part of the Groucho Marx get up and part of the infamous A Ha Ha shop sign.

2. Rubber chicken: In more recent times the rubber chicken is famous for going viral eating a variety of things on social media, however, the rubber chicken has been a famous prop used for decades by comedians such as Max Wall.

3. Stink bombs: A head teacher’s worst nightmare and the favourite of any school boy who loves his Tom Foolery.

4. Magicians thumb tip: One for the pranksters of the world. Ideal to use as a prank by convincing loved ones that you have chopped of the end of a digit by doing the veg.

5. Fake poo: A well loved classic that gives the heebie-jeebies to all that fall for the prank. The fake poo has tricked many a young school kid into turning green.