Monday, 22 April 2019

‘Uncle Mick’ retires from oldest shop in the village

‘Uncle Mick’ retires from oldest shop in the village

A SHOPKEEPER in Sonning Common has retired after 21 years running the business.

Mick Wells has sold hardware shop Heath & Watkins in Wood Lane, which opened more than 80 years ago and is the oldest surviving retailer in the village.

He was forced to retire after being diagnosed with lymphoma, which meant he needed regular treatment and found it difficult to keep the shop open.

The business has been taken over by Sharona Fairweather with the help of her partner.

Mr Wells, who also lives in Wood Lane with his wife Jo, took over the shop in 1997 after retiring from the family business, a potato merchants in Slough.

He didn’t want to give up work and felt running the shop would be a good thing to keep him busy.

Mr Wells said the key to his success behind the counter was “old-
fashioned service” and a sense of tradition — he would only accept payment in cash.

He said: “I came to Sonning Common and retirement did not suit me so I decided to take on the shop.

“It has been in continuous operation in the village since 1938 and it has been under various managements since then. I took over from Brian Hoare when he retired.

“I didn’t want to run a newsagent as it would mean getting up too early in the morning, so a hardware store seemed a chance to run a shop in a traditional way.”

Mr Wells said it took him some time to get to know the job and how to manage stock levels and advise his customers.

“My father was an engineer and came from a background of practical people,” he said. “When you run a shop people ask for your advice from time to time so you have to make sure you are in a position to be able to give it. It’s part of the job.

“You get this brown coat syndrome, the Open All Hours thing, where you become the person who knows where everything is in the shop.”

For many years he worked alongside his assistant Emma Wheadon and the pair were known to customers as “Uncle Mick and Auntie Em”.

Mr Wells said: “I’ve enjoyed most parts of the job. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and Sonning Common is a nice place to be.

“The business has been affected by the internet, like many other shops, but I see Heath & Watkins as a niche business, which is why it will continue for some time to come.”

Miss Fairweather started running the shop on October 1 and it is now open six days a week.

She is being supported by her partner Hugh Fort and his father, parish councillor Tom Fort, and his wife Helen.

Miss Fairweather had known Mr Wells for about two years as she had been using the polytunnel behind the shop as an allotment.

He told her that he wanted to sell up and she took the opportunity.

Miss Fairweather said: “It was a chance to have a change from an office job and to do something a bit more interactive and customer- focused.

“Since I took over I’ve had lots of support from the locals and people coming in to say how pleased they are the shop is going to continue.

“For me it has been a massive learning curve because there is so much in the shop and I’m still working out where it all is. It’s quite a challenge.

“Every day I learn something new about the products, mostly because people come in, want something and I have to learn about it pretty quickly.

“It’s a good job for someone who is a problem-solver, which I feel I am, and Mick has been really helpful.”

Mr Wells said he wished Miss Fairweather every success.

He added: “The shop needed some fresh energy injected into it and that is what is happening now.

“I’ve known Tom for some time and he is a neighbour and a friend. I think he feels, and the parish council feels, it was important that the shop stays part of Sonning Common.”

Heath & Watkins was set up in 1938 by Ted Watkins and Jack Heath who were engineers at the Metac Wireless Company in Caversham and specialised in radio and cycle repairs. 

Mr Watkins and Mr Heath spent two years getting the business on a sound footing before being called up to the navy and RAF respectively during the Second World War.

While they were away the shop was looked after by a volunteer from Emmer Green.

The shop was originally on the north side of Wood Lane but it relocated to its current site in 1958.

Mr Heath passed away in 1960 but Mr Watkins kept the shop going with his son James, who took over when he retired.

He sold the business to the Hoare family in the late Eighties or early Nineties before Mr Wells took it on.

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