The House of Toomer was one of the oldest family businesses in Newbury. Members of the family were associated with the town as bankers and ironmongers from 1692. It was not so much a local business, as a local institution.
Of all the retailers who have come and gone in Newbury over the years, surely none is more fondly remembered nor more sorely missed than the House of Toomer. The shop, arranged on several levels including a central mezzanine floor was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of hardware and ironmongery. It had the enviable reputation of always having what you needed, however bizarre your request. And if you only wanted one nail, you could buy one nail – no need to fork out for a bag of a hundred. And if you didn’t know what you needed (we’re not all DIY experts) – the helpful and extremely knowledgeable staff would soon get to the root of your problem and sell you exactly what was required to fix it.
The company ran as an ironmongery in the Market Place until 1851, then as a hardware shop on the Northbrook Street site of Boots until 1935, moving a little further along Northbrook Street to the site now occupied by Costa Coffee and Clark’s shoe shop. Surviving a serious fire in 1961 which gutted much of the centre of the shop, House of Toomer remained in Northbrook Street near the bridge till January 1984, when it closed its doors for the last time with the loss of 38 jobs. On 1 February 1984, it re-opened, with fewer departments in smaller premises at 53-56 Bartholomew Street, having bought out the previous occupant, Vincent’s Ironmongery.
But times change, and in 1996, the House of Toomer finally closed down. Neighbouring electrical shopkeeper Barry Forkin (himself something of a legend in Newbury’s retail history) stepped in to save the name and took on the key and lock parts of the business and a few of the staff in his shop next door. He remarked “I was born 300 yards away from the current site and I couldn’t bear to see the name going down the drain.”
Toomer’s benefitted from long-serving and knowledgeable staff. A 1989 interview with the NWN revealed that tools section head Doug Bailey and ironmongery section head Derek Barrington had 73 years of service between them. At that time, 80 per cent of the staff had been employed there for more than a decade, and half of those for over twenty years.
Speaking in 1996, Doug Bailey said “I joined as an apprentice when I was 16 years old. I spent the first six months working in the cellar with the storeman, then moved to the shop floor.” 65 year old General Manager Ron Berridge remarked: “I arrived when I was 16 and spent five years learning the trade in every department of the store. It was well known that if you had done your apprenticeship at Toomer’s you could get a job anywhere in the country.”
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