THE closure of an established shoe shop in Thurso will signal the end of an era for a family-run business.
J. Gunn & Co has served the public at its High Street premises for almost 40 years but will shut its doors for the final time around the middle of September.
However, the property will still have a commercial role to play as it is being leased to an existing business which is looking for bigger premises. It is understood the building will become a ladies’ fashion and gift shop.
Stewart Gunn, who has helped run the business for 37 years, said it will be sad to see the shoe shop close after nearly four decades.
"It was a difficult decision to make because my mother and father – John and Jessie Gunn – started the business. It was hard but with hindsight the shop should probably have been shut three or four years ago.
"I kept it going a bit longer thinking things would turn round," he said in an interview with the John O’Groat Journal this week.
The closure will affect three staff. "They are sad to see the end of the shop but they have seen how the business has gone in the last three or four years," said Mr Gunn, who stressed the decision will not affect the Wick shoe shop in Bridge Street.
One of the Thurso employees who has been with the firm for 30 years will transfer to Wick to replace a member of staff who is retiring. Another employee has found a job while one person has been made redundant.
Mr Gunn, who will be 60 next month, said he will be consolidating the business in Wick. "The shop here in Bridge Street and the three staff are secure," he said.
Mr Gunn pointed out that up until about 2007 trade at both shops was about the same but he has noticed "a significant difference in favour of Wick" over the past few years.
"I have probably been subsidising the shop in Thurso for the past three to four years."
He identified a number of factors for the changing trend in the west of the county, including the rundown at Dounreay, the closure of Woolworths and the redevelopment of the former town hall.
"It was a building site for 18 months and that did not help matters at that end of the town. They made a lovely job of the building [which now houses Caithness Horizons] but there is not the same throughput of people as there was.
"The closure of Woolies was a big loss to the town centre and made a big difference there. People go to the Original Factory Shop, which took over Woolies, but it is not the same," continued Mr Gunn.
The advent of the internet has also affected business. "I don’t see many 16 to 30-year-olds coming through the door," said Mr Gunn – although he accepted the internet can provide business with an opportunity as well as a challenge.
Despite the changing trends, he emphasised he wants to be positive about the future and is glad to see younger people getting involved in business. "It is encouraging to see new young blood coming in and working along with the internet," stated Mr Gunn.
He welcomed the Caithness Chamber of Commerce initiative to try and regenerate the town centres of Wick and Thurso but feels it will be "a huge challenge" to make it work.
But he added: "Every town centre is going through this. It is not just Wick and Thurso. It is a national problem."
Mr Gunn joined the family business in 1975 after serving an apprenticeship at Dounreay and has seen "a huge difference" in the retail trade in the past 37 years.
At one time, the Thurso shop had a manager, two full-time staff and a couple of part-time workers while six people were employed in the Wick business.
"In Thurso we were in a prime site and were positioned between two supermarkets at that time.
"Woolies was close by and thousands of people were passing our door.
"It was not so easy to get to Inverness then but things gradually changed and trade declined.
"In recent years the Wick shop has been busier and I see more people from Thurso who come to shop at some of the bigger stores here," said Mr Gunn, whose family have been involved in local businesses since the 1920s.
His grandfather was a licensed grocer in Bank Row, Wick, and ran a taxi business before taking over the Nethercliffe Hotel. Mr Gunn’s parents had a café, restaurant and confectionery as well as a bed and breakfast in High Street in 1944.
They operated the business successfully until the 1960s although the café closed a few years before that.
In 1963 the couple, who were working seven days a week, decided on a career move and spotted a gap in the market in Thurso.
"My parents saw an opportunity there because no new shoe shop had opened to cater for the increase in population due to the advent of Dounreay. They got premises in Olrig Street and stayed there until the redevelopment of the town centre in 1975," said Mr Gunn.
The couple then moved to High Street as their son decided to get involved in the business which was doing well and needed to expand. "It was a prime site and was twice the size of the shop in Olrig Street," he stated.
Mr Gunn, who ran the business after his parents retired, said he has had offers in the past for the lease of the Thurso shop but always turned them down.
Although on this occasion he initially rejected the approach he later thought about it and decided the time was right to close the shop and consolidate the business in Wick.
"We bought the shop in Bridge Street – formerly Wilfred Weir’s – in 1978. I will concentrate on it and maybe have a bit more time for myself," added Mr Gunn.