Shopping: Save Our British Sweetshops

Purveyor of humbugs and bullseyes to the great British sweet tooth, the high-street confectioner is back in business
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The Independent Culture
There is something irresistible about big glass jars full of brightly coloured sweets, especially when they glint from a tiny window in a brightly painted sweet shop. Childhood memories are reawakened: the witch's house in Hansel and Gretel; the magical sweet shops in Roald Dahl's literature; buying penny sweets at the corner shop.

The British sweet tooth is legendary - making us the biggest consumers of confectionery in the world. And, few and far between as they may be, small sweet shops with their enduring memories of halfpenny happiness are back in vogue, literally: "The old-fashioned sweet shop in Whitstable is a cult destination," said last month's Vogue. "At the seaside, it's hip to eat ice-cream cones, aniseed twists and flying saucers from the local store."

Indeed, Mrs Thompson, owner of that very Whitstable shop, Parkers, is beginning to feel quite a media star. Her single-fronted shop window, lined with jar upon jar of sweets, has suddenly found itself in fashion shoots and film sets.

"I ought to put copies up on the wall," she says, before scooping out another quarter-ounce of rhubarb and custards. The space is tiny. More of a walk-in wardrobe of candy pebbles, glace fruit drops, pineapple rock, midget gems, humbugs, pink shrimps, gobstoppers, aniseed balls, blackcurrant and liquorice ... 130 jars in all crown the yellow tongue and groove walls next to curtains patterned with Liquorice Allsorts and trays of one-penny chews.

A stream of customers, young, old and middle-aged, flows in and out. "This is quiet," Mrs Thompson says between pleasantries with her customers. "You should see it when the children are back at school. They queue up sideways to come in. And the London types, they are amazed. The window reminds them of old times. They buy six or seven kinds of sweets. That's why we keep the jars in the window."

Small, well-presented and friendly, with round spectacles, Mrs Thompson fits her role perfectly - as far as can be imagined from the grumpy, Llandaff shopkeeper in Roald Dahl's autobiography.

"When we came here, a lot of people came in and said to me 'you're not going to change it, are you? Turn it into an estate agent or a fish and chip shop, or replace all the jars?'" she says. "Of course, I'm not," she would reply.

Parkers, like many of the old-style sweet shops, has been around for more than 70 years as a family business. When Mrs Thompson took it over four years ago, she'd never run a sweet shop and seems as starry-eyed about it as many of her customers: "People come in here for lots of different reasons," she explains. "Some because they've never seen a thing like it before. Others to show their kids what sweets were like when they were young.

"Then there are the old regulars who buy the same things every week, and lots of American tourists who like it because it's so unusual."

While newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations thrive in the grand metropolis, the traditional sweet shops fare better in quainter spots. Margaret Webb runs Ye Olde Tuck Shoppe, in Rye's old town, with her husband David, after buying it from his parents, who'd owned it for 18 years. Their business depends on being different to the normal chocolate dominated confectioners.

Part bakery, they make bread hedgehogs and other cake delicacies, but buy in all the sugar mice, pear drops, liquorice torpedoes, dolly mixtures, rainbow drops, chocolate chewing nuts and other sweets, many of them hand- made.

My metal-filled teeth rattle at the thought. "We sell sweets in whatever quantities people want," says Mrs Webb. "We even sell one ounce portions and penny sweets, but we are obviously keen to get the average spend up."

Plans include making their own chocolates - and selling mail order from their new website.

Like many sweet shop owners, Mrs Webb is having to find new suppliers as the giant manufacturers, that are regularly gobbling up the smaller ones, think that it is not worth supplying her. "Benewicks told me before Easter that I could no longer have my old favourite, rose and violet creams," she laments.

"Big manufacturers just want to sell to Woolworths."

The double-fronted Royal Sweet Shop in Cardiff's Victorian Royal Arcade is facing a similar quandary. On the one hand, business is good as people rediscover perennial favourites like Lion's Sports mixture, Alphabet letters, nut clusters, coconut mushrooms, fruit salad and Pontefract cakes; on the other, some of them just can't be bought.

"We have about 5,000 customers a week. But the manufacturers are stopping making lots of lines because the bulk of shops have just stopped selling them.

"We lost Riley's chocolate toffee rolls six months ago, and there'll be no more Cherry Lips or Floral Gums - horrible, soapy things anyway - because their manufacturer went into liquidation."

Indeed, although the British may each consume an average of 16kg of confectionery each year, the number of small-scale shops has declined dramatically since the end of the sweet-rationing war years; as has the number of manufacturers - down, according to Trebor Bassett, from 580 in 1950 to nearer 80 now.

Keith Bidder, director of Bonds, one of the few manufacturers still to service small customers by selling direct to them, is pleased that larger retailers like Woolworths, synonymous with pick & mix, have recently introduced some "traditional" sweet sections.

Others, like the Co-op, are bringing back more pick & mix lines as the older staples gradually come back into fashion.

"Pick & mix has shown a 26 per cent rise in sales in the last few years," comments Mintel research. "Most sweets are bought on impulse, and consumers seem to prefer to sample toffee and fudge with a variety of other sweets."

But will forthcoming EC legislation, demanding that all confectionery be wrapped, be crunch-time for the old - and potentially unhygienic - way of selling? Keith Bidder doesn't think so. "We can supply wrapped or unwrapped sweets. The only problems may be on sweets which come in different shapes and sizes, like Liquorice Allsorts, which we don't make anyway."

Every shop has its different best-seller, and every customer his or her own first choice, often based on what they liked most when they were young children.

At Parkers, I opted for a quarter bag of Sweet Peanuts, funny-looking toffees in the shape of monkey nuts, and crunched away. Proustian delight followed, as a gentle, creamy taste, lost to me since childhood, flirted with my taste buds and coated my teeth. I'll be back.

Parkers is at 13, Oxford Street, Whitstable (01227 273557); Ye Olde Tuck Shoppe is at 9, Market Street, Rye (01797 222230); Royal Sweet Shop is at 7 Royal Arcade, Cardiff (01222 387438).