Sad closure of local landmark – James Cook’s Antique Furniture Shop, Summer Place

by Marian McIntyre 

(reprinted from The Inverleith News, Summer 2003)

We were all saddened to see the closure of James Cook’s antique furniture and furniture restoration shop early this year. The closure followed the loss of both James Cook himself in October 2001, and his wife Irene in Febuary 2003, leaving their three sons, Murray, Graeme and Martin.

The shop at No.2 Summer Place, with its contents intriguingly piled up outside the shop, has been a landmark in Inverleith since the Cook family moved there in 1982. They sold their house in Leith to buy the shop for £17,000; a price which seems unimaginable now but was able then to secure the shop plus a substantial basement and back shop sufficient for the whole family to live there initially. They kept the first five pound note they took in the shop, and framed it.

James and Irene met, aged 19 and 16, in Leith. James was apprenticed as a french polisher to Whytock and Reid, working in their workshop in the Dean Village, and at their showrooms at Charlottle Square, now the “Georgian House”. He was also sent by Whytock and Reid to restore furniture in country houses all over Scotland including the crown estates; a particular favorite was the harpsichord in Holyrood Palace. After seven years he joined Fyfe’s, the busy shipping agency which sent large volumes of furniture to the USA. Irene worked as a bookkeeper at Leith Nautical College, a useful skill for a small business.

The intention was primarily to operate in Summer Place as a french polishing service, and this always formed a substantial part of the business, but furniture sales grew. Most furniture came not from auction but from local house clearances; James Cook was a trusted agent.

The pavement display was an essential ingredient in catching the customer’s eye; in terrible weather they learned to shut up shop. Heaving the furniture in and out was heavy work, but rewarding; some customers were compulsive buyers, and photographers often took photos of the shop and its pavement, some included in exhibitions. James Cook’s particular passion was for original old maps of Edinburgh of which he had built up a substantial collection long before they were fashionable. He also spotted the potential in a pair of stained glass windows which attracted no buyers until he eventually decided to have them built into his stair wall; following which, of course, everyone wanted to buy them, but too late; he had decided to keep them.

In 1987 the Cooks bought their house in Ferry Road. Over the years the Cooks travelled all over Scotland restoring or buying up furniture, retaining and swapping favoured pieces between their home and the shop. Although house and shop were now separated, the shop still felt like home and the boys spent many happy hours there.

It was a terrible shock when James died suddenly of a heart attack, and tragically Irene was diagnosed with cancer not long after. Their sons seriously considered continuing to run the shop which had been such a central and enjoyable part of their lives, but they are already launched on their own paths. Murray and Martin are both archaeologists working in the field with AOC (the privatised archaeological service which originated with Historic Scotland) and Graeme is currently based in Norwich, writing his PhD in plant genetics. They plan to split the shop premises, creating a residential unit on the lower floor, and lease the shop out to a suitable business; not necessarily another antique shop, perhaps a trade or other activity which would benefit from the passing trade. Murray, Graeme and Martin have now sold off all the remaining furniture, and closed the shop. The last five pound note taken has now joined the first in its frame, marking the end of an era.

Postscript, Autumn 2004

by Graeme Cook

Many of you have asked about the building work going on in my parents’ old furniture shop on Summer Place (Inverleith Row). Following our closing-down-sale, Murray, Martin and I decided to separate the existing shop and residential parts of the building.

I had planned to move into the flat, but circumstances changed and it is now likely that we’ll rent out both the flat and the shop. Following a few delays the work is almost complete and by the time you read this Derek Bolton and Douglas Telfer (antiquarian bookbinders) should be in place. In keeping with the spirit of my parents’ business, Derek and Douglas intend to mix sales with restoration. They use traditional bookbinding and picture-framing techniques and so should be a very interesting addition to the neighbourhood. I hope they’ll be lucky in Inverleith and feel sure they’ll be very successful