There are some things in life you just can’t turn down, even if it involves a 300-mile round trip to North Wales on a miserable Tuesday in January. The chance to explore inside an old toy shop, abandoned five years ago with all its stock left behind like the Mary Celeste of retail is definitely one of them. I’m glad to say it lived up to all expectations.
For generations of children, Frank Beech’s toy shop in Holywell was paradise. An Aladdin’s Cave, where stock was literally stacked from floor to ceiling and it seemed that they sold every toy ever made. For decades the shop was run by Mr Beech’s daughter Dorothy and, until his death, her husband Stanley. Dorothy tried to continue to run the store on her own but five years ago, aged in her nineties, she decided she could no longer manage the business and made the decision to shut up shop.
The legend goes that until a few weeks ago, the shop remained in the exact same condition as it was on the day it closed down in 2009… and if that is the case you wonder how on earth it ever managed to operate at all. To be blunt, as I discovered when I visited, the place was an absolute shambles.
The main public part of the shop was piled high with toys. Until recently it had been impossible to even walk in this room, so full had it been. But towards the end of 2014, auctioneers Vectis, who specialise in rare toys, were brought in to clear the shop and sell anything they thought was valuable. By the time of our trip, there had already been seven van loads removed by the auctioneers and the shop was still more than half full.
Inside the door, an old Christmas Club poster lay on the ground, but other than that the path through the front shop was now clear. On the left was the glass counter where Mrs Beech had served local customers for so long. Behind that were shelves packed with all sorts of long-forgotten toys and games and beyond it a display cabinet containing slightly creepy-looking porcelain dolls.
If this had been all there was it would have been interesting enough, but it was just a taster. The premises were massive, with at least three floors of storage rooms, each packed with boxes of toys from the 1950s right up to the early 2000s. It wasn’t so much a time-capsule as a time-line of toys, charting the changing tastes of kids through the generations, from the dolls, cowboys and toy soldiers of the post-war years to the fantasy and super-hero action figures of the modern era.
As we crept carefully through the warren of passageways in the darkness, doing our best to avoid holes in the floorboards and huge spider’s webs, it seemed that in some places the only thing holding the building up was the amount of toys piled up against the walls. Every square foot of the building was covered with toys. They filled stairwells, were piled up on shelves or left neatly stacked on the floor. In some rooms a huge mountain of toys rose from the ground, sometimes reaching as high as the ceiling – either the neat piles had collapsed or the toys had just been thrown in to make space for new deliveries.
Often it looked like junk, but appearances can be deceptive. In one room full of boxes damaged by water coming in through a leaky roof, we opened an unpromising looking carton to discover 96 mint condition Return of the Jedi figures. Some of these individual figures can be worth up to £100 each so there’s potentially £10,000 worth of toys in that one box. The auctioneers found seven similar Star Wars boxes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the avid toy collector, the shop was a treasure trove. Other highlights included trade boxes of Action Man figures and accessories from the 1960s and 70s, along with Raleigh bicycles that were still wrapped in plastic and Triang pedal cars.
But for me, the real joy of this place wasn’t so much the rare and potentially valuable toys, but the memories it evoked. Exploring Beech’s was like flicking through a pile of old Argos catalogues, but in real life. Room after room conjured up long forgotten childhood memories. In one there was a Paul Daniels magic set, in another a Subbuteo Snooker Express. Each room was filled with nostalgia. Scalextric, Hornby, Airfix, Matchbox, Corgi… all present and correct. There were TV tie-ins like the Les Dennis fronted Family Fortunes board game and the Buzby cuddly toy. Not necessarily worth much in cold hard cash, but priceless when it comes to memories.
Of course, you couldn’t escape the feeling of melancholy. This had once been a thriving business, somewhere people used to flock to, especially at Christmas. The window displays, featuring the likes of Triang, Meccano and Lego, were legendary in the area. On Christmas Eve, parents would queue up to collect orders they’d placed – sometimes it’d be so busy they’d be told to come back in a couple of hours to pick up the bike or train set they were waiting for. Kids would spend their pocket money here, doting grandparents would take them in for a special treat. Despite the apparent chaos, Dorothy knew where everything was – and if she didn’t she would ask you to return the next day. That big Tesco round the corner probably sells toys, but it’s not quite the same.
It was sad to see how business had clearly deteriorated, as the proprietors aged and shopping habits changed. And you could pinpoint by the types of toy that sat on the shelves, exactly when things had started to go downhill. And judging by the piles of unsold Fisher Price toys, the 80s was not a good decade for Beech’s.
Like many similar sized towns around the UK, Holywell is a place with its best days behind it. A real sense of gloom hangs over the High Street today. Too many shops are closed down and boarded up. Traffic is banned from the High Street and these days you’ll struggle to find many pedestrians either. The shops that remain are clearly doing their best, but you get the distinct impression that they’re swimming against the tide. It wasn’t always like this though. Holywell was once a busy retail centre, where independent shops of all kinds thrived. It’s obviously far too late for a revival for Frank Beech’s toy shop but it would be nice to see a resurgence in the town’s fortunes one day.
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