Browsing Harrogate’s collection of independent shops, cafes and restaurants is a bit like trawling around record shops and the internet for music.
You can spend hours discovering great new bands, enjoy listening to their songs and getting swept up in a wave of excitement by uncovering a previously hidden gem.
But for all the new music that’s waiting to be discovered, music lovers will always have a soft spot for their old favourites, enjoying their albums again and again.
It’s the same with shopping independently - Harrogate is blessed with an ever-changing indie scene with fantastic new additions cropping up all the time.
But it’s the Old Guard that’s paved the way for Harrogate to become what it is today - a haven for independent stores and still loved to this day.
Fattorini’s and Ogdens of Harrogate have been shining their independent light for decades and still remain as popular and as crucial now as they did then.
Jespers of Harrogate certainly falls into this category; having been established in 1901 it is one of the oldest independents the town has to offer.
History of Jespers
Peter Jesper is the fourth generation of his family to serve in the business after his great-grandfather Foster Barrett Jesper launched the workshop on Prospect Crescent.
He recalled that the workshop moved to Parliament Terrace in the 20’s and was developed further by his grandfather Dennis and the 50’s by his father Charles.
Peter joined the family business in 1979, with the shop now in its familiar position on Oxford Street, before the company focussed on selling general stationery products.
Having celebrated their centenary 15 years ago, Peter explained that his family’s key to longevity was keeping up with the times.
He said: “If you think about restaurants, people don’t tend to recommend restaurants to their friends when they haven’t changed their menu in a while.
“A lot of people recognise that need to keep up date and keep improving because, if you don’t, you’re going to have a decline in customers for the business.
“Around 25 years ago, our shop almost exclusively sold just stationery, but now we stock a whole range of products that are contributing fantastically to the business.
“We realised that we needed to diversify. We knew office products were in demand but so were arts and crafts supplies and we’ve also added a range of home office furniture.
“We are building on our greeting card collection and collection of learning and education games. We also have about five or six new suppliers and their products are starting to sell really well.
“We have a long established team and when people come into the store I’m very confident we give them a really good experience.”
Despite his family’s continued presence in the town centre, Mr Jesper is acutely aware that the landscape around him has changed massively over the years.
The number of established independents are dwindling and newer businesses continue to battle against business rates and competition from chains.
So, while shoppers continue to flock to Harrogate to enjoy the independent culture, Mr Jesper warned that their existence is coming under threat.
He said: “A few months ago somebody posted a map on the Internet of Harrogate Town Centre and the amount of businesses that were there that areno longer is incredible.
“Harrogate used to have a vibrant retail community, the position o f the independents has lessened considerably in the last 20 years.
“If we’re not careful, we will lose too many of our independents and we will lose a portion of our identity.
“People love coming to Harrogate because of the independents but then you see its decline you have to ask where the cut off point is. How many do we have to lose from Harrogate’s Town Centre?”
As detailed in the Advertiser’s most recent ‘Love our Indies’ campaign, there are still areas within Harrogate where the independent culture is as strong as ever.
Cold Bath Road and King’s Street boast a tremendous selection of indies but the town centre could soon be struggling to sustain this culture, Mr Jesper explained.
He said: “We’ve seen a lot of changes in the town centre and Cambridge Street is now dominated by the chains. It’s now the same as any other town centre.
“The recent rise of independents shows that they do have a place in the town centre but I would hate to see Harrogate town centre turn into a place full of chains.
“There is still a place for quality independents too. But, as business rates increase and takings come under pressure, the independents will come out of town centre.
“It just shows because Cold Bath Road is a vibrant independent community, it’s great that they have that culture but the town centre does seem to have lost a bit of that.”
Challenges facing indies
Competition from chains and high business rates don’t just affect the new indies fighting for their place on the high street, but also the Old Guard with their position firmly secured.
However, Mr Jesper added that these weren’t the only challenges facing the indies; with changes in shopping patterns and the make-up of Harrogate’s high street also causing problems.
Harrogate Borough Council is currently in the final stages of its Town Centre Masterplan and Strategy, which Jespers has contributed its opinions to.
Part of the plans aimed at improving the town centre is pedestraning some areas, including James Street, but Mr Jesper feels some of the town centre businesses are ‘under represented’ in the consultation.
He said: “Over the last 7/8 we have seen the introduction of the digital age and the millenials coming through.
“They are very comfortable on their gadgets and computers and perhaps have not been exposed to the pleasure that can be derived from proper shopping.
“The physical side of the town centre has not helped, traffic congestion and parking charges and the loss of disk parking, all these things to my mind discourage access to shoppers wanting to just pop into town.
“But Harrogate has got so much going for it, and now there’s the Town Centre Masterplan. However, as an independent business, it’s difficult to have a massive influence.
“The consultation process is not the easiest for many people, the chamber of trade and commerce is proactive but town centre businesses are also under represented.”
Mr Jesper, a member of Harrogate’s Chamber of Trade and Commerce, has now encouraged other smaller businesses to join and have their voices heard.
He said: “As an independent business, it’s difficult to have a massive influence on these plans. There’s not many independents on the chamber; there’s only a handful in there getting there issues across.
“The danger is that independents can sometimes hide behind their front door, you have to engage.
“I have had so many benefits from being part of the chamber, sharing my views and having a place at the table with the council
“It’s also great getting to know the businesses around the town and supporting them yourself. “