Toys: not just child’s play

A good toy shop – like a good sweet shop – is more than just a shop. It should have a kind of magic; something special that excites children and grown-ups alike, and inspires a sense of wonder and delight. Indeed, a good toy shop is a destination, an attraction, an experience in its own right.

Sadly, toy shops like this are increasingly rare. They’ve more or less vanished from the centre of York, my home city, and no doubt from many other city centres too. This scarcity makes the discovery of such a toy shop all the more rewarding and thrilling.

Around 13 years ago, I stumbled across a particularly special toy shop while I was up in Helmsley, exploring my ‘patch’ as a journalist working for Ryedale’s Gazette & Herald newspaper. Tucked away down an alleyway through an arch off Bridge Street was The Toy Shop, run by Andrew Foster and Norma Hawkes. A toy train zoomed past the window as I walked in and gaped at the hundreds of toys covering every surface of this narrow little shop. At one end was a wall of teddies of every size, shape, price and colour. At the other end, down a step, was a treasure trove of toy cars, buses, lorries, trains and other vehicles. And in between were traditional toys of every description, from stocking fillers and pocket money treats to extravagant mobiles and never-seen-anywhere-else games.

It was magical and instantly turned me back into a little boy, set loose in a playful paradise. I wasn’t the only one. Every person who came into the shop, whatever their age, was transfixed, mesmerised by the sea of toys washing over them. And then there was Andrew and Norma, as enthusiastic as their customers.

Over the years since then, I’ve been back countless times, either buying presents for nieces or nephews, later doing the same for my own children, or just popping in because it’s a fantastic place to be. Andrew and Norma have won awards for their customer service, and rightly so – they welcome every person who goes through their door and never tire in their quest to find the perfect toy, whatever your budget. Although the shop has always been practically buried under an almost-collapsing multitude of toys, they know each one inside out and will seek it out for you. Even if you think you’ve unearthed every last toy in the place after your fourth circuit, they can always find more.

My most recent visit was last Saturday. We hadn’t been for two years and my wife said ‘I bet they won’t remember us’.

‘I bet they will,’ I said. And I was right. They greeted us like old friends. But there was a tinge of sadness to this particular visit, because we found out that Andrew and Norma are retiring. They’re not replacing their stock now, so you can actually see the walls (they’re green, I discovered). They’ve been running the shop and making people smile for 20 years, and now it’s time to sell what’s left and step down. But what will happen to the shop?

Well, the good news is that they have found a potential heir to the toy shop throne. A Charlie Bucket to their Willy Wonka, who wants to keep the shop much as it is. And, all being well, that will mean many more years of wonder in this little corner of North Yorkshire – and thousands more journeys for the train in the window. 

Andrew and Norma are an unrivalled double act and will be greatly missed in the town and by visitors from all over the world. But they won’t leave their marvellous shop to just anyone, so if, like me, you love the shop and what it stands for, keep supporting it and enjoying it. It’ll be Christmas before we know it…

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