Customers travel from far and wide to visit John and Julie Maskell’s business, Larter and Ford, in Diss. TARA GREAVES discovers why and also how you can own this slice of history.

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It opened at a time when service was key and the customer was always right – and while its ownership might have changed hands in the 73 years since then, the traditional values remain the same.

Whether you need a single nail or screw, an old fashioned light bulb or a quality cooking pan, at Larter and Ford, the hardware, ironmongers and cookware shop in Market Hill, Diss, you can be sure of a personal welcome.

And if service with a smile appeals to you, there is a chance to buy this slice of history as its current directors are rather reluctantly retiring.

John Maskell first became involved with the business through his first wife Shelagh whose father bought it off its founders.

Mr Maskell said: “The shop used to be a foundry run by Aldridge Brothers. They were a big family in Diss and had many different outlets, like the grocers, Aldridge and Bryant, and a brush factory. In 1832, this was their foundry where they used to make shovels and pokers and farm equipment.”

The foundry burned down in 1938 but two years later the site was given a new lease of life when Mr Larter and Mr Ford opened their shop with shelves laden, as they still are today, with DIY and household items.

“They had it until 1961 when my father-in-law bought it. My first wife Shelagh had just left school and so she came to work with her dad,” he said.

“We were courting, as they used to say, and in 1965 we got married and a year later I came into the business. I started off taking on the office work and then gradually moved into everything else over the years,” said Mr Maskell, who previously worked as a bookkeeper.

In 1971, when his father-in-law retired, Mr Maskell and Shelagh took on the business and the couple carried on until 1984 when she sadly passed away.

“It was very sad, she was only 39,” said Mr Maskell whose two daughters, Caroline and Rachel, were just 12 and 13 at the time.

“My parents lived across the road and they were very helpful. Both of the girls used to work in the shop on a Saturday and during the holidays as well,” he said.

In 1985, Mr Maskell first met the lady who was to become his second wife, Julie, who was new to the town and had moved with her job at the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society.

The couple married in 1986 and had two children, Katie and Oliver, and once they were at school, Mrs Maskell came to work in the business at first part time but now five days a week.

“From 1986 we have run it together until the present day,” said Mr Maskell, who is proud that all of the children have worked in the shop at one time or another.

For Mrs Maskell there was initially a lot to learn: “It was difficult at first because we sell a wide variety of goods but John knows most things and I could draw on his knowledge and then we have our staff who are also very knowledgeable.

“Sometimes people come in and say they want something but they don’t know the name so they will draw it and mostly we can work out what it is they need.”

In the last 10 years, as a result of changing times and big DIY stores opening, the shop has diversified and moved into cookware, as well as the items it has always stocked, which has become something of a niche market for them.

“Now our name is getting around East Anglia and further afield for the cookware side of things. It has really helped,” said Mr Maskell.

With the business doing so well, the decision to retire has been a tough one but Mr Maskell is 70 later this year and he and his wife are keen to spend more time together.

“John works two days a week at the moment and I come in five days a week so he is at home when I am at work and I am at home when he is at work and we only really get a Sunday together. We want to spend our latter years doing things together,” said Mrs Maskell.

The couple, who have two grandchildren, are already planning trips to Devon and Scotland and Mr Maskell, who is a coach for the City of Norwich Athletics Club, hopes to pick up golf again.

It will also free them up to watch Oliver, who is studying at Cambridge University, compete in athletic events – a skill he has picked up from Mrs Maskell, 57, who was a keen runner, even taking part in the London Marathon, before injury struck.

Mr Maskell said: “It’s a well established business and the only one in town in a great location and we are happy to help with a handover.”

The business is being sold by Diss-based TW Gaze and it is hoped it will continue to be run as it is and keep this unique piece of the town’s history going for many more years.

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