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The magic toyshop Frustrated at being unable to find quality presents for their children, an enterprising trio set up their own traditional toyshop - and they have turned its success into pure child's play WORDS BY JOANNA SIMMONS I PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW MONTGOMERY

A TOYSHOP might not seem the best place to pick up Christmas gifts for all the family, but it is hard to leave Bramble Corner empty-handed. For adults, this magical shop offers a trip down memory lane. When did you last see a bagatelle board or pick-up sticks? Dads have been known to be dragged in reluctantly, only to be dragged out again hours later, after losing themselves among the wooden forts and mini tool kits. And for children, Bramble Corner is paradise. From Viking costumes and wooden crossbows to china tea sets and magic lanterns, it's a place where fantasies come alive. No wonder boys and girls frequently leave screaming. In fact, it's a compliment. At Christmas, this roomy shop in the East Sussex.village of Forest Row is enchanting. Boughs of fir, dripping with clear-glass twists, hang in the window and behind the counter, while on the paved square at the front, a Christmas tree sparkles with white lights. Inside, the bustle and excitement is palpable, as children scamper about exploring every inch of the shop. Bramble Corner was opened in August 2004 by Hamish Blackman, his partner Selma Moncrieff, and Selma's sister,

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Rachael, who, as parents themselves, had long been appalled by the quality of toys available on the high street. "So many are really ugly and scary," Rachael says, ''why would you give something like that to a child?" Selma recalls the stress of hunting for children's birthday and Christmas presents. "We could never find nice toys without travelling miles and miles," she says. "Even when you did, you might only find the odd good thing. There was nowhere with lots of great toys in one place." The idea of opening a toyshop took hold, not only to fill a gap in the market, but to provide the lifestyle shift they all craved. For Rachael, who wasn't working, it was the chance to get her teeth into ajob aftef'Caring full-time for her two children, Elle, 11, and Dylan, eight. For Hamish and Selma, it was a longed-for career change. Both had hectic jobs in restaurant management which made it hard to spend time with their three children, Callum, ten, Fergus, eight,and Lukas, three. So they took the plunge. Hamish left his job in the summer of 2003 and began sourcing stock. A trip to the 2004 Nuremberg Toy Fair (the largest annual toy fair in the world) in February offered rich pickings. "You can find lovely things there, like a !>

DECEMBER 2005 I

73


The shop needed rewiring, replumbing and decorating All three worked round the clock to keep costs to a minimum

beautifully crafted little wooden car or a doll dressed in organic-cotton clothes," Rachael says. They also buy from British businesses where they can; English family-firm Jaques supplies the shop with croquet and rounders sets, and increasingly they are approached by local craftspeople, including one who makes gnomes with hand-knitted and dyed clothes, and another who produces beautiful lanterns. Finding unusual pieces is getting easier as they come to know more British artisan makers, but mainland Europe, with its long history of wooden toy making, remains their main source. "The industry is much bigger over there. Many of the manufacturers are long established and have good production techniques, so it's easier to fi find the type of toys we want to stock," Rachael says. "All the toys are at least partly handmade and most come from small companies - like the little wooden tool sets from a fi firm in France, or the leather soldier's jerkins, which are hand stitched in England and English Heritage approved." These toys look good, feel good and, most importantly, encourage children to use their imagination and interact with others, rather than sit alone in their rooms playing endless computer games. Plus, there are no gaudy colours, flashing lights or annoying tunes. Batteries aren't needed. Wood, metal and even, in the case of a hobbyhorse, recycled car tyres, are the materials of choice, giving each item a realistic feel that satisfies children's natural inclination to mimic adults. A nurse's costume, for example, has a working stethoscope, while the cookery equipment comes in the same enamelware, wood and metal to be found in every grown-up kitchen. The shop itself is just as practical as its stock. Chunky tables and rustic shelves house the toys and games, while an old leather sofa by the counter is a good place to relax after exploring every nook and cranny. It used to be a butcher'S shop; the original metal hooks still hang from the ceiling, but they now support wooden tricycles and toddler-size classic cars, rather than sides of beef. When the trio took it on, the shop had been empty since the butcher retired 12 years earlier. "It was in a dire state," Hamish remembers. "It needed rewiring, re-plumbing and decorating. We found old animal bones behind the pipework as we cleaned up." To keep costs down, they did most of the work themselves, with Rachael's partner Giles helping, too. "We had to do it cheaply," Rachael says, ''so there aren't any frills in Bramble Corner." They built a counter and some storage space from old scaffolding planks that cost ÂŁ2 each, and simply painted the concrete floor white. It now has a rough, age-worn look, which, Rachael says, 'disguises the muck trodden in by countless country wellies". It took two months of round the-clock work to get the shop ready, but they brush it off as "great fun". In fact, when they talk about those early days, they make it all sound wonderfully simple. When it came to funding, they simply asked the bank to match !>

ABOVE, RIGHT

Hamish puts shelves in order, ready for the

Christmas rush.

LEFT

Bramble Corner is filled from floor to

ceiling with toys to amuse both adults and children. www.countryliving.co.uk


IF WE'D KNOWN THEN WHAT WE KNOW NOW ... We would never have worried

through catalogues filled with

about whether we would enjoy

rubbish, persuading yourself

running a shop because it's

that some of it is nice, but it's

the best job any of us has ever

important to believe there is

had. Living nearby means

something better out there and

there's no time-consuming

not lose sight of your vision.

commuting, plus three heads

Can you make it pay?

are definitely better than one.

Yes, we have exceeded our

Biggest mistake

budget plans already. Selma

Honestly, there hasn't really

wasn't going to leave work

been one - yet!

until early 2005, but she

Best decision

stopped and joined us one

Not getting sidetracked. You

month after the shop opened

can find yourself looking

because we were so busy.

their savings. And it did. How about market research? "We tried;' Rachael says, "but it felt like a waste of time. We knew there wasn't anything similar in the area and that many people felt the same as we did about the lack of good toys to buy. It's something we'd been aware offor quite a few years." Any advertising? "None;' Hamish says, ''word of mouth has been enough." A shared confidence and cheerful willingness to have a go is at the heart of Bramble Corner's success. "People used to be so negative, but we never felt worried;' Rachael says. "There's very little risk really. You're not going to go to prison for owing the bank a few grand if it doesn't work out. You just get another job. Maybe because there are three of us, the whole venture feels more secure." And working together helps - if one of them has doubts or a gloomy day, the other two can cheer them up. And there are always plenty of hands on deck so no one is ever left isolated in the shop, unable even to go and make a cup of tea. ''And working as a couple wouldn't be the same;' Selma says. "It would be more intense, whereas three works brilliantly." Their belief in the shop's potential was not misplaced. Bramble Corner has been busy from its opening day. Its combination of beautiful toys, spacious premises and the owners' enthusiasm for what they sell, is irresistible. Even during the hectic pre-Christmas period, you'll find Selma on her hands and knees demonstrating an elastic band-powered car to an entranced toddler, eyes wide, cheeks glowing and fingers eager to try it himself. In the meantime, Rachael shares memories of childhood toys with a customer while she restocks shelves with linen rabbits. Children are free to touch and explore, and feedback is unanimously positive. One girl leaves shouting, "This is the best toy shop I've been to EVER, EVER, EVER". Adults are equally impressed."People have bought us chocolates and told us, 'Thank you for being here, it's made life so much easier'," Rachael says. And the owners' children think it's pretty great, too. "Although," Selma says, "Lukas assumes that all the sweets behind the counter are his." As another busy Christmas shopping day draws to a close, business remains brisk. One woman hoists a basket laden with gifts onto the counter, saying she has found all her presents. Another simply hands over ÂŁ1 for the luminous stars her little boy has chosen for his bedroom wall. "You can spend a few pennies here or much more. Nobody needs to leave feeling the shop isn't for them;' Rachael says. With closing time approaching, the three are still as bouncy and welcoming as when they opened up the shop that morning. The reason? "It's still so much fun;' Rachael says. "Sometimes we feel a bit guilty that it doesn't involve enough hard graft." .. Bramble Corner, The Square, Forest Row, East Sussex (01342 826800; www.bramblecorner.com) is open Monday-Saturday, 9am-S.30pm. It also offers a mail-order service.

ABOVE, RIGHT Selma

and Rachael take time to entertain

a young customer. LEFT Children are free to explore the shop and dart between the rooms to tryout toys.

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The Magic Toyshop  

Country Living feature on Bramble Corner Traditional Toys and Fine Things in Forest Row, East Sussex

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