The family-run newsagents celebrates its half-century, surviving industry shifts, local changes – and personal losses
‘How are all the children? They must be grown now – I remember when you had your first. Three boys and then you had a girl … are they all well?’
Anne Smith’s greeting takes me aback. My ‘first’ is 24 now, and it’s been a very long time since I took my trio of small boys on a Saturday morning trip to Candy’s newsagents in Sturminster Newton for a pick ‘n’ mix treat. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken our 16-year-old daughter.
Yet 81-year-old Anne remembers. In fact, throughout our hour-long conversation in the shop – where she still works every day – not a single customer comes in who’s not greeted by name and a short but unhurried chat.
Anne and Tony Smith began looking for a newsagent’s shop to buy in 1973.
‘We were living in Virginia Water in Surrey, and were just looking for a newsagents that was for sale. Dorset wasn’t intentional. We were looking all over. But we decided that the business and Sturminster Newton were for us, and that was it.
We spent a week in a Weymouth caravan park at the end of June, and our first day doing the papers was 1st July 1973. I said to Tony: “we need to get cracking and learn the area!”.
‘We don’t deliver nearly so many newspapers now, we used to have more than 10 rounds.
‘When we arrived, the shop was very basic. There were no news racks and magazines, no stationery. And of course it was all big jars of sweets, bought in 4oz paper bags!
‘We initially lived downstairs; the shop was just a small cross section of the front of the property. What is now the National Lottery and local books alcove used to be my kitchen, and the card department was our sitting room.
‘We managed to buy the cottage next door, which was derelict, and made its ground floor into what is now the garage and stock room. We switched to living upstairs and managed to triple the shop floor space.’
‘The papers were stacked on the doorstep before 5.30 back then,’ says Anne. ‘They used to come down on the train to Yeovil Junction, and the distributor used to have a whole carriage. The papers came off the train and got loaded immediately on to the vans and straight out to the shops. But then we had rail strikes, and it was decided to bring them down on lorries. It’s never been as efficient.’
Ashley, Anne and Tony’s son, was born three years after they arrived in Sturminster Newton. ‘Born here … still here!’ he says. ‘I do some of the village deliveries by car now. But there’s only so much time that you can devote to the newspapers and deliveries when you’ve got a shop to run. I’m out for about three hours every day, delivering.’
It’s a big commitment for a small family business. Anne admits she’s had just two single weeks holiday since the 1970s. Ashley is more relaxed about taking a break, happy to get away after the Saturday morning papers are sorted … but admits he has to be back for the magazines by Wednesday lunchtime. Neither seems to mind in the least.
‘Probably the biggest change in 50 years is the swing from news deliveries to counter service,’ says Anne. ‘In the 70s and 80s most people had a paper delivered or read one most days. Now, few people want the papers. But the shop itself is busier, it balances out. I do like a newspaper myself, it’s probably an age thing, but I’m all for technology. I’ve got online banking, I’m paying bills on my iPad. It suits me, I can see every morning what’s gone through.’
‘It’s a social shift,’ adds Ashley, ‘we all consume … where one shrinks, another grows.’
The Candy’s dog has been another fixture in the town; locals fondly remember Elliott, the golden retriever who liked to lie across the pavement outside. Bentley, another golden, preferred to sit in the doorway, frequently sneaking off to rummage in takeaway’s bins.
The current resident, May, is by far the best behaved, Ashley says.
Tony died very suddenly in 1997, leaving Anne and the then-21-year-old Ashley to wonder what they should do. ‘I said to Ashley, “We’ll give it 18 months, see how we go. If we sink, we’ll just have to get out”. It was so unexpected. Such a blow,’ Anne says. ‘That was without doubt the toughest of times. But the whole town stepped up for us.’
It was standing room only at Tony’s memorial service, as Sturminster Newton turned out to support Anne and Ashley and to mark his passing.
‘It was hard,’ says Anne. ‘But we’ve also been through I don’t know how many recessions. There aren’t many shops like us left now. In essence we haven’t changed. News and magazines, confectionery and stationery. That’s us. When we came, there were two small stands of cards. We built the range and now they are one of our biggest sellers.
The biggest change has probably been in the town itself,’ says Ashley. ‘We’ve seen nearly all of the housing estates go up. And of course the town shops …’
At this point the interview descended into a delightfully meandering five-way conversation with Anne, Tony, their assistant Sue, with a random customer chipping in, about what is now the Factory Shop which was originally Norman’s Supermarket, before it changed to Buy-Lo and eventually became the first Co-op, before they moved. What is now Marsh’s used to be a florist, and before it was a florist it belonged to Peter Mount’s mum and dad, it was a Spar, and Peter was in what is now Gallery One as a greengrocer. He took on the Spar shop, then moved down to the old railway yard and opened the supermarket which eventually became Normans …