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Christmas 2012 / It’s business as usual for Harry

Harry Jamieson, 50 years in business

WHEN visitors to Shetland fly into Sumburgh airport for the first time they’re probably both amused and slightly bemused by the sign that reads ‘London has Harrods, Lerwick has Harry’s’.

But Harry’s Department Store is as synonymous with Shetland’s main town as its perhaps more famous counterpart is with the capital of England.

In the 50 years of its existence, Harry’s has grown from small beginnings as a barber’s shop into a multi-storey treasure trove selling everything from jigsaw puzzles to kitchen implements, and greetings cards to light bulbs.

The man behind it all, Harry Jamieson himself, is still very much at the helm, and he has seen a lot of change in those 50 years.

“It was a completely different environment then,” says Harry, who, when he left school at 15 was one of just five of 29 schoolmates who were able to find work on Shetland. “A lot of folk don’t realise how bad it was in the fifties and sixties. There was no work at all. Lads went to sea, to the RAF, to the army – a lot of them went to Corby to the steelworks, but there was nothing in Shetland.”

Was it distressing to see all his friends leaving the islands? “It was, yeah,” he says. “Especially as we had a good football team, and it was hard to watch them all disappearing!”

Harry was fortunate, offered the chance to train as a barber, but though he had a lucky break, it was hard work and good business sense that took him from there.

“I bought what used to be called the Cozy Corner Cafe,” he reminisces, “and got a good deal: if I paid half up front he would wait five years for the rest. But in those days you couldn’t sell property, everything was so down.”

The premises left Harry with lots of room to spare around his barbering, and he hit on the idea of filling up the space by selling masks for Up Helly Aa. At that time, the front and the main street at Lerwick presented a very different aspect from today. There were few retail outlets, most of the properties along the front were warehouses and wholesalers. But as these began to move out to the industrial estates springing up on the edges of town, so Harry was able to acquire more property and expand his shop.

From selling masks for Up Helly Aa, he moved into toys, and once he acquired the warehouse where Harry’s Department Store now stands in the 1970s, he moved into cosmetics and gifts, linens and household goods.

It was pretty tough in the beginning, though Harry made a decent enough living. What made the big difference, of course, was oil. “Obviously it gave us a big boost: you had 10,000 men working at Sullom Voe; all the Shetland people working, and earning good money. We had a job getting staff!”

Lerwick looks very different now from how it did 50 years ago, vibrant and bustling with a good mix of independent shops. As chairman of Living Lerwick, the town centre regeneration body, Harry feels strongly about this.”‘Compared with the streets that you see down south, Lerwick’s really good, and shops are at a good standard,” he says. “When visitors to Shetland see the independents and the variety of stock that’s in the shops they’re amazed.”

Rooted and grounded here, Harry is involved in the town in many other ways, too. Despite the setback of losing his youthful teammates, his passion for football never faded, and he has been coaching local youth teams for 40 years. His involvement in Up Helly Aa has moved on significantly from supplying masks – he is proud to have been Guizer Jarl in 1981 – and he is also chairman of the Lerwick Port Authority.

And Harry is optimistic about the prospects for the young lads he coaches today. “I think things have never been better,” he says emphatically. “There’s the salmon farming and Total coming, and of course decommissioning is going to be big – 30 years at a billion pounds a year; and Shetland is going to get a share of that. That’s going to be work for a lot of people.

“And of course we have to regenerate the windmills – renewables is going to be massive, too. Shetland’s got a real good future. I’m not worried about it whatsoever, compared with the old days!”

And the future looks good for Harry’s too – his children are very involved in the business; his son Stewart now manages the toys section, while daughter Caroline looks after the gifts. Harry, though, still has control of the ‘middle floor’ the household department, and he has no immediate plans to sit back and relax.

“No, I couldn’t do that,” he says. “I’m certainly going to have more time off, but I like to be active, I need a project.”

In the meantime, though, he has more immediate concerns, such as organising the shop for Christmas – “Oh it’s busy, everything’s got to be changed around and we’ve got to get the Christmas windows in,” he says, before heading off back to the shop floor.

Yes, it’s business as usual, just as it has been for the past 50 years, for Harry Jamieson.

Text and photo: Olivia Abbott