Mr ‘O’ owned the local newsagents on the avenue where I grew up. The actual shop was very small; in fact eight customers were about all it would hold at any one time. Mr ‘O’ was super efficient and nobody had to wait very long to be served. In the evenings and at weekends he was joined by Mrs ‘O’. She helped to look after the customers. When they retired about five years ago the other shopkeepers and most of the older, by which I mean long time, residents threw a street party in honour of his long and faithful service.
The shop was once half of a double fronted establishment at the end of a block of about 10 shops with a Cinema half way along the row. It had been divided before Mr ‘O’ bought it. The other half became Mr Mc’s grocery business. That’s a story for another time.
The window was about waist high with a narrow shelf on the inside. It was closed on the inside to the customers and could only be viewed from the outside. It was not a window to linger over as all the goods and personalities were inside the shop. Window dressings 50 years ago were few and simple. Crepe paper lined the shelf and on it were displayed Bars of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate that in fact were blocks of wood, covered in the foil and wrappers. Boxes of Chocolates such as Mackintoshes Double Centres, Black Magic, Milk Tray or Fruit Jellies were on show. These boxes were only empty cartons; it was just as well because the shop was on the sunny side of the street.
There was a counter 3ft (91cms) high and about 7ft (214cms) long. It ran the length of the shop with a small gap to allow the staff to come out onto the
shop-floor or go into the minuscule store at the back. The first 18 inches from the window end was the children’s corner. You could stand here and look over the counter for an hour or longer with your large old penny burning a hole in the palm of your hand deciding what to spend it on.
Displayed on shelves along the wall behind the counter were what seemed like a wonderland of dentist’s delights from different toffee bars, gob stoppers lucky bags and various sweets including Fruit Salad, Blackjacks, Lollipops, Dolly Mixture, Bubblegum, Liquorice All-sorts, Midget Gems, Liquorice Sticks, Aniseed Balls, Sugared Almonds and Wine Gums.
Next to this space stood a weighing scales. Along the front of the remainder of the counter were large jars of colourful sweets like a row of soldiers standing to attention. These raised the counter level and the newspapers of the day were placed on top of them. The old fashioned Cash register was tucked in behind, out of sight. Rows of cigarette packets were along the wall at a level out of sight of the children’s corner. Pipe tobacco, matches, pipe-cleaners, cigarette papers, lighter fuel all had their place. You could buy papers, magazines, comics, notepaper & envelopes, cards for all occasions, stamps, sheets of brown or gift paper and string. Large Picture boxes of Chocolates, usually with beautiful girls or cute animals on the front were placed high up on the walls. They sold well at Valentine’s & Mother’s day. The only trouble with them was that they were all box and very few chocolates.
Mr ’O’ also stocked milk in glass bottles, cream and eggs, ice-cream and ice pops – they were like a frozen drink on a stick, bright orange or deep red in colour. Fresh bread was delivered daily and he also stocked lemonade, Coke and Pepsi were not in our vocabulary never mind Mr ‘O’s shop.
At the far end of the counter was a mobile oil heater. It was the only heat in the building. The front door was open from morning to night so when the shop was quiet Mr ‘O’ was to be found working away near the heat source. On the shelves above it were an assortment of items not usual for a ‘paper’ shop. He had plasters, cards of sewing needles, sheets of pins, combs, razor blades, sachets of shampoo, fuses and batteries, sometimes you would see him disappear into the store and return with an item of his own to oblige a customer.
I remember once as a child going up with my saved pocket money to buy something for my parent’s anniversary and when I told him I wanted to buy a present he gently asked how much I wanted to spend. I told him how much I had and I know that what I came home with was well worth more than the cash I gave him. He even wrapped it for me and gave me a card to go with it.
On another occasion years later a friend and neighbour was having a party for her 18th birthday. It was to be rather special and for the first time her parents had allowed her to have wine. When it came time to open the bottles they discovered they had no bottle opener to do so. Up they went to Mr ‘O’ and for once it was something he did not stock. Not to be outdone he left his wife to look after the shop and drove home to get his own corkscrew which he brought to the house of the party and opened the first couple of bottles to make sure they knew how to do it, before leaving the opener with them overnight.
Mr ‘O’ remembered everyone’s name, knew where they lived and who lived next door to them. As we grew up and moved on he got to know the names of the new additions to our families and always asked how we were doing and sent good wishes. We in turn always paid a visit when we went back to visit our parents. The younger generation loved to go to see Mr ‘O’ and buy sweets they usually came away with a sweet in their mouth that he had slipped to them.
I know he managed to have a half hour away from the shop to see me walk down the aisle 30 years ago and he was also at the graveside for both funerals of my parents.
We are constantly told how modern times are better. Modern technology means we can actually buy items without uttering a word or seeing a smile. Nowadays in shops when asking about certain items we are told “If it is not on the shelf, then we do not have it”. The Mr ‘O’s’ of this world are fast disappearing and the world should mourn their passing.