Jespers has been a part of Harrogate’s retail heritage for 118 years, passing through four generations of the family in the process.
As Peter Jesper and the Jesper family announce their retirement from their stationery store, he reflects not on the end of an era but on the evolving nature of Harrogate’s high street and the opportunities that lie ahead for the town.
Peter is hopeful that the family can also find a buyer for the business to continue the Jespers story.
Peter began working full-time in the family pen shop 40 years ago when a first-class stamp cost just 10p. His father Charles, now 79, has continued to help out at Christmas and Peter’s three children George, Vicky and Dom have all spent time behind the counter sharing their mutual passion for fine writing instruments with customers.
With the next generation settled in other careers and Peter and his wife Kate looking forward to slowing down (just a little) and spending more time with their children and young granddaughter, Peter said the time was right to hand over the building’s next historic phase to someone new.
The name Jespers is synonymous with specialist stationery and fine writing and the store’s loyal customer base of fountain pen enthusiasts extends nationwide, yet the business, founded in 1901 by Peter Jesper’s great grandfather, Foster Barrett Jesper, had already been trading for more than 50 years before the second generation Jesper, Dennis, first introduced stationery to this renowned engraving business.
During the war Dennis and his chief machine engraver Jack Elsworth had been busy supporting the war effort by undertaking secret engraving of control panels for the allies’ early radar system, work that required them to sign the Official Secrets Act.
Dennis was also a well-known naturalist and sold beekeeping supplies alongside rubber stamps, which were made to order on site. Jespers also ran a duplicating service which became Harrogate’s first copy bureau.
By the 1950s, with Dennis’s son Charles becoming the third generation to work in the family business and Jespers acquiring its first retail site at number 27 Oxford Street – now the rear of Primark - demand was growing for its range of stationery and office supplies and Charles drove the commercial side of the business forward by ensuring that Jespers became the region’s ‘go to’ supplier of office supplies, typewriters and furniture.
“By the 1960s, Oxford Street had become a true retail destination thanks to a growing number of very varied independent shops, the bustling Lowther Arcade, and the market, which made it a popular focus for Harrogate’s shoppers,” recalls Peter.
In the late 60s, Harrogate saw a period of redevelopment. When Marks and Spencer decided to develop the area between Oxford Street and Cambridge Street to create a larger store, Charles Jesper was keen to find a new location in the vicinity, resulting in a move from number 27 to the current site at number 14, near the theatre. For many years, the first line of Jespers’ address was ‘Typewriter House.’
“My father Charles had the foresight to realise that a lot of the development was focused on Oxford Street and he knew it would be important to stay as close as possible to our previous location,” says Peter. “Until then this part of town had been largely residential and the move to developing an expanding retail activity was a huge transition for Harrogate,” he adds.
Charles has also always been heavily involved with everything to do with civic life in Harrogate and during the 80s was acting President of Harrogate Chamber for two years, being largely responsible for forming the Harrogate & District Initiative - locally known as Action Harrogate - to promote business, tourism and conference trade.
From this point on, Jespers became renowned as a specialist stationer, developing strong relationships with many of the world’s top fountain pen makers. Peter joined full-time in 1979, the year that Margaret Thatcher was voted into office and the nation’s top TV favourites were Dallas and The Good Life.
“One of the true joys of my career has been the conversations I have had with fellow pen enthusiasts as I have helped them select writing instruments that will become cherished gifts, heirlooms or something that they themselves will enjoy using. The care and attention to detail that me and my staff have been able to offer customers over the years is something I value deeply,” says Peter.
Time has not stood still for Jespers however and Peter has been enthusiastic about embracing new technology such as social media and ecommerce to share the latest stationery trends and reach new customers and fountain pen aficionados.
“We have always been good at listening to our customers and this has led us to progress from engraving to stationery and office supplies and, more recently, to expand into arts and crafts materials too,” Peter adds.
As well as being a familiar face behind the counter, Peter has been a prominent figure in the local community. He was a founder member of the Saint Michael’s Business 500 Club and spent many years at the forefront of Harrogate Chamber of Commerce as vice-chairman and as part of the management group. He set up the Town Centre Development Group in 2014 that saw 120 town centre stakeholders gather to discuss the future of the town and more recently he was part of the Harrogate BID committee.
As Peter and his wife Kate look forward to new opportunities and to their retirement and with their three children, Georgina, Victoria and Dom, following other career paths, the family is looking for someone new to write the next chapter for the Oxford Street premises, which are being sold by Harrogate property specialists FSS.
The family are also looking for a buyer for the historic stationery business to take the much-loved Jespers brand into a new era.
“The family have taken the difficult decision to retire but we hope this won’t be the end for Jespers and there is an exciting opportunity for someone to build on the heritage that has been such a big part of our family for so long,” says Peter.
“Thanks to the vision and drive of those leading the new BID and the many local organisations that have the town’s interests at heart, Harrogate has a bright future with many committed people determined to drive it forward,” he adds.
“I am extremely passionate about our beautiful town and, having been an integral part of its retail story for more than 40 years, one thing that I have recognised is that we live in a very resilient place with an unrivalled power to embrace progress, change and to look to the future, too.
“The whole Jespers family is confident that both the new owner of 14 Oxford Street and the succeeding guardian of the Jespers brand will make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead and we look forward to continuing to take an active interest in our town.”