There is an old saying which goes “The best thing about having a sister is that you’ll always have a friend” and never has that been truer than when applied to this week’s Big Personalities… Yes, that’s right we’ve had to break our mould and double up because with this dynamic duo you don’t get one without the other. This is a tale of family, of business, of whip smart women going back generations and an indie retail story that spans six decades. Perth’s best double act since The Krankies played the City Hall, we present to you Marian Merron and Eileen Leslie, the winning combination behind the much-loved Marian’s of Perth.
To start though, we have to go way back to the fifties to meet a woman before her time, Anna Brennan. Anna had four children – three girls and a boy – and was married to a hard working labourer who supported his ambitious wife. She opened a wee second hand shop down by Meal Vennel and called it The Wardrobe, offering up affordable clothing in a post-war Perth. Anna’s new baby would be lying in her pram when the ladies of Perth came in for a look but little did they know at the time that this was to set the path for baby Marian’s future.
Anna worked hard and moved from Meal Vennel to Stormont Street before settling on not one but two shops; one in Caledonian Road and one in Mill Street. Alongside her retail enterprise, Anna also ran a B & B from their home in Balhousie Street and it would be entirely normal for her, her husband and her children to squeeze into one room because she’d rented out the entire house.
Marian: “I remember when we were little and she’d take in all these guests and then we’d all end up in one bedroom. We’d have to climb out the window and go with Dad to the public loos in Dunkeld Road swimming baths so we didn’t disturb anyone. She was an amazing business woman; she ran completely on instinct.
Anyway, when Caledonian Road and Mill Street were redeveloped Mum decided to rent the corner shop at North Methven Street that was up for lease. That’s where The Wardrobe is today – our shop for curvier ladies – and we’re still renting it from Perth and Kinross Council! Back then it was called Bargain Stores and we stocked all sorts of fancy goods, dishes, pots and pans alongside the ladies and kids clothes.”
Eileen: “We’d all help out – us kids grew up around the shop and we all just mucked in and did what we were asked. Then Marian left school at 15 to help Mum full time and by the time she was 17 she’d opened Marian’s Boutique which was in where the kebab shop is now. I was still at school at that time but the shop was fabulous. Mum did Anne’s Fashions for the more mature lady and Little Bo Peep for the kids’ clothes and Marian had all the fashion for young girls her age. It was a proper family business.”
The fashion empire grew and Marian would head off down to London to the East End manufacturers. The only factories in Perth at that time were Pullars and Tay Textiles and much like now, the girls wanted something new and different for going dancing at the weekend. It was the early seventies and Marian was fearless in her buying, picking up clothes that you just couldn’t get in Perth at that time. Hippy bells – lots of – adorned jeans and were worn with fur bolero jackets and halter necked tops in bright colours.
Eileen worked every Saturday in Bargain Stores and then when she left school she went to do a cookery course for year. As it turns out, that wasn’t for her and she left to join the family business!
Eileen: “Mum was in the shop from 9 to 6 and we were both with her every minute. We were paid a wage like everyone else but the truth is you had to work harder and longer than any of the others. She was a great business woman though and she taught us extremely well. We had someone that did the books but other than that it was us.”
In 1975, they moved Marians into where The Wardrobe is now and the pair started their adventure as fashion buyers together!
Marian: “Marian’s was building up a great customer base by that time and we started doing more with Little Bo Peep, the kids shop. It did these American designer style dresses by David Charles and we’d head down to London to go to the Kid’s Fair and then stay the night and do the ladies stuff the next day.
We were learning everything on the job but we had a great gut instinct because we knew our customers. They wanted something different and they were prepared to pay a bit more for that. We started buying clothes that would last and suddenly we were all about velvet collars and rudi anoraks and snowsuits with Satilla Kids hats for the kids.”
By this time they had both married and Marian’s family arrived with Laura in 1979 and Jo in 1982. Always a pair for doing things in tandem, Eileen’s children arrived not much later with Suzanne in 1984, Sean in 1987 and Jane in 1990.
Marian: “Mum was still in the business with Anne’s Fashions across the road and so we’d just take all the kids to work and have the prams sitting outside the shop. Everyone would stop and chat and they loved it. There was loads of juggling but we were just the same as any other working mums really.
We were a family business and I think people were more okay with that sort of thing back then. Laura would be in her baby-walker, pulling labels off the clothes and Jo would be asleep in the changing room! No-one bothered.”
The pair are smiling widely and shaking their heads in mock disbelief at the memories, a wee glass of wine in hand as we sit dissecting their story. They remind me of an old married couple, knowing instinctively what the other is about to say – laughing before the punchline because their tales are one in the same. With Marian and Eileen it is almost impossible to know where one starts and the other stops; there is a bond that runs deeper than sisters and farther than friends. You just know, after a short time their company that if they hadn’t been born to the same parents they’d have found one another and become life-long pals.
In the late eighties Little Bo Peep closed, a change in the market bringing a business decision they’d never regret. Marian’s of Perth, however, was doing well and so they extended into what was Webster’s hairdressers – another great Perth institution - and gave themselves the extra room they needed.
By then they were stocking brands such as Escada and Basler in a bid to differentiate themselves from the cheaper shops that were starting to emerge. Knowing they had nailed the winning formula by this time they made the bold decision to branch out and bought Jane’s of Leslie in Fife.
Eileen: “And then just a couple of years later I moved to open a restaurant with my then husband. 1774, where North Port is now. We’d approached the owner the year before saying if he ever thought about selling that we’d like first dibs on it. So he came back to us and we bought it.
On the flip side, the business next door to us in Fife was a beauty room who were doing really well and they had always said to us if you ever think about selling we’ll take it!”
Marian: “So we did. We were just spreading ourselves too thin and I think people like to see you when you’re an independent retailer. Service is what sets you apart - that was true then and it’s still true now. I always say all of that happened at the right time for us because it gave us a chance to extend into what we have now.
So that was 15 years ago.”
They look at each other with knowing glances.
Eileen: “Yes… and then the recession came in 2007 and we shut Anne’s Fashions and moved everything into the two shops. We called the corner unit The Wardrobe after Mum’s first business and she was so chuffed.
It was a tough time though. We’d traded through two recessions before that but I think it was the worst we’ve seen.”
Marian: “Oh it was terrible. We were okay because we could condense everything and save on the rates and the insurance and staff. But then remember, the bad winter came and no one could get out. People just couldn't get into the town – you’d have been as well closed. Everything still need paid though – that was the problem for everyone.”
And this is where the experience and years of knowledge shine through. Marian Merron has been an independent retailer for 45 years this year and she is closely followed by her sister Eileen who has easily chalked up four decades herself. Before this though, the pair watched their Mum grow her own business, a hard-working individual who was flying the flag for women way before Girl Power every entered our consciousness.
Such is their staying power that in 2014 they won a competition for shop windows for welcoming the Ryder Cup to Gleneagles. They are second-generation retailers and the trick to staying current, to knowing the market and what it wants is right there running through their blood.
Marian: “You have to keep it tight and you should only be buying what you can afford. We love what we do – I still get a buzz out of it and I doubt that’ll every stop. There is nothing better than helping someone find their dream outfit and leave the shop feeling great about themselves. We want folk to look good – that’s our advertising. I’d never let anyone leave the shop in an outfit that didn’t suit them.
Loads of our customers have been coming for as long as we’ve been open. I always say our customers grew up with us, not old with us! We’ve seen their kids being born, their grandkids being born… We’ve dressed them from going to the dancing in the Sally to becoming Mother of The Bride or Groom! That’s a very special place to hold in someone’s life and we appreciate it more than I could say.”
For anyone who hasn't been into Marian's to shop there's a few things you should probably know. First off - it isn't just for mature ladies. I've had plenty of compliments on items of clothing and been met with a "REALLY?" look when I say it came from Marians. Next up... Don't worry if you have no clue what you're looking for; these women can look at you, know your size and shape in every designer they stock and go straight to the items that will fit and flatter you instantly. Its incredible to watch!
Eileen: “I think the trick is that we’ve gone with flow. Once upon a time you could have a few special occasion pieces that were up at £700 but we had to bring that back down again and find a more affordable price point for the current climate. And you get to know that through years of experience.
You’re buying six months in advance so you have to keep your eye on the ball – it’s a total disaster if you get a season wrong!”
They both nod knowingly. Eyebrows raised and another swig of wine. ‘Do you still get nervous?’ I ask them.
Marian: “No…. We’re old professionals now!” Wink! Cue much hilarity and the wonderful glance that flies between sisters when you know they’re only half-kidding.
Marian: “The thing is we’ve been working with suppliers for years. We have a good rapport and we’re well thought of because we pay our bills on time and in the terms we agreed. It’s an old fashioned work ethic that our Mum passed down – the idea of ‘cutting your cloth to your means’ might not be fashionable among the huge credit accounts of modern life but it has always worked for us. “
That work ethic is well instilled and it’s no surprise really when you look to their Mum and teacher, Mrs Brennan. She retired 30 years ago and yet each day still phones to find out what they’ve taken in the till. When new stock comes in she’ll wander down and have a browse around the store. At 88 years old she is their biggest Facebook fan and will be first in there, liking their posts and commenting on outfits and their suitability for particular events.
For the eagle eyed among you, you will want to know what happened to the family business at the old B & B. Well, it wrapped up when the retail empire grew bigger back in the early eighties but five years ago Marian’s daughters, Laura and Jo, converted the old family home into Apple Tree Nursery and it is once again a business going from strength to strength. Anna Brennan’s businesswomen’s blood was clearly strong enough to be passed down to another generation.
Marian: “That home has been in the family for 54 years and it was always a happy house. To see all the wee ones in it now is lovely. Once upon a time it was our T-Rex posters on the walls and now you’ll now see hand paintings and kids’ drawings! 50 years ago we’d be putting out the B&B sign and showing folk round and now, sitting across the road in my own house, I can see parents arriving and my own girls showing them round their business.
My mum is tickled pink about the whole thing – she’s still as sharp as a tack. Our kids think it’s great that their Granny is on Facebook and she’s now commenting on photos of all her great-grandchildren.
Family is important to us and our Irish roots I think make that even stronger. Me and Eileen have always been close - when we were teenagers we’d head off to Ireland together and we still do the same now. We like the same things – we’re just in tune with each other. Once when we were in New York we went into the same shop and bought the same trainers for our girls even though we were shopping independently.
Eileen: “We both split from our first husbands so we’ve been there for each other through everything. We’ve built a whole life together really but somehow we’ve never argued or fallen out. We just agree with each other. When we go to do the buying I’d say about 99.9% of what we pick is exactly the same. When we do go away separately we buy for each other’s grandkids and it’s always stuff the other one would have bought. Paul, Marian’s husband now, always says he got two wives!”
They go away often to Ireland for what they refer to as the Teenage Weekends. Weeks of planning go into finding fancy dress outfits to theme their short breaks; they will tell you they have no time for hobbies but I know from the photographs that these girls like to play as hard as they work. They are warm, open, fun and welcoming, years of service lending itself to a constant air of hospitality.
“Do you want a coffee? Or a wine? Have a biscuit. Here, here’s a wee candle for you Nicki.” are all well-worn phrases that I will never tire of hearing from these wonderful women.
The pair agree that they’ll probably need to retire at some point but you can tell that there is no plan for it, no rush. Marian celebrated her 60th birthday two years ago with a party in the shop and an invite list extended out to customers old and new. They are as much about their business as they are each other and somehow you know that the shop will never run with just one or the other. When the day comes to hang up the bunting for the last time it will be goodbye from me, and goodbye from her.
You may have realised that I originally asked one Brennan sister to be a Big Personality. The moniker above the shop seemed to lend the tale to Marian. However, with this marvellous twosome you always get much, much more than you bargained for and I found myself with a new type of story on my hands. Two for the price of one – and who doesn’t love a deal as fabulous as that?
Find out more about Marians of Perth over on our Independent Retailers in Perth Directory.