End of an era for Norwich toy shop owner

John Fielding ready for his retirement as he leaves Langleys Toy Shop in the Royal Arcade. Picture:

John Fielding ready for his retirement as he leaves Langleys Toy Shop in the Royal Arcade. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

It's been part of Norfolk childhoods since the 1880s, leaving youngsters wide-eyed and spellbound at the sheer volume of amazing toys on its groaning shelves. Now Langleys in Norwich's Royal Arcade is entering a new era as long-standing owner John Fielding seeks new horizons.

A receipt from Langleys from 1930.

A receipt from Langleys from 1930. - Credit: Archant

Magical shop in a magical setting, Langleys is the kind of traditional toyshop you'd summon up in your imagination, a wonderful emporium of all that is glorious about being a child: nets of glittering marbles, wind-up toys, shelves of building bricks and tin cars, row after row of brightly-coloured playthings and the kind of music that makes it feel like Christmas every single day.

And it's that sense of magic, of theatre, of enchantment and delight that John Fielding, 54, will miss most about no longer being at the toyshop's helm.

The shop has been part of Norwich life since 1883 and part of John's since 1971 when his father Tom bought the shop.

Initially on Prince of Wales Road, original owner James Langley moved to the Royal Arcade after buying out competitor Galpins Toyshop in the Victorian Row, which inhabited the space which is now Jamie's Italian. The shop moved to its present location when John took over the business in 1985.

Part of the toys department at Langleys around 1978 before the store's mid-1980s refurbishment.

Part of the toys department at Langleys around 1978 before the store's mid-1980s refurbishment. - Credit: Archant

'I was around 10 when my father bought the shop and it was at a level slightly above unbelievably exciting. It was like my father turned into Willy Wonka overnight. Langleys was THE toy shop as far as I was concerned, and the fact that my dad owned it was so thrilling,' remembers John, who handed over the reins at Langleys at the beginning of November.

'Then, as now, Langleys was the gold at the end of the rainbow for children. They'd be taken on boring shopping trips and be told that if they behaved themselves they could go to Langleys before going home to pick a pocket money toy.

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'I remember that at that time, there were only three shops I was remotely interested in: Jarrold, Woolworths and Langleys, maybe Pilch, too because it used to sell toys and toys were all I was interested in. When my father bought Langleys, it was like I'd won the golden ticket, like a beam of light came down on me!

'I loved toy guns and tanks and I used to put my nose up to the glass cabinets in Langleys and just stare at the displays.'

John's older brother Richard, who later went into the legal profession, immediately started to work in the shop alongside their father and John joined him when he was 12.

'I worked in the games department, wrapping up what people bought in Langleys' paper. The first time I was paid I was surprised because I hadn't expected it at all – I'd have worked there for free! The manager handed me a little brown envelope with money in it and that was the beginning.'

After school, and being told by a career advisor that his eyesight wasn't good enough to be a commercial pilot (aviation is John's first love) he went to business school at Bristol Polytechnic and returned to Norwich to work full-time at Langleys from 1985 after a year working in America.

'My father continued to help and offer advice and loved having somewhere to come, a bit like his version of a shed.' Tom Fielding died in 2000.

John's biggest challenge has been surviving in a tough climate where only a handful of the toyshops that existed 25 years ago are still in existence, an achievement which has involved stocking a vast range of toys, branching out into online sales and offering the kind of wonderful sales experience that a chain store or supermarket could never and would never hope to achieve.

Shopping for toys at Langleys was shopping at a toyshop the way they used to be, rather than happening upon toys in a supermarket or driving to an out-of-town megastore without atmosphere to search endless rows for the toy you're looking for. An experience, rather than a chore.

John and wife Sharon, who has also been an invaluable member of the Langleys team, dealing with HR issues, have two children, William and Charlotte, neither of whom were keen to continue the family business although both enjoyed having a father who owned a toyshop.

'I think it did used to exasperate them when I brought home toys that were faulty and had been brought back to the shop, they got a bit bored of pretending to be pleased to have something that didn't actually work to play with!' laughed John.

New owner Steven Schusman spent 10 years practising as a barrister in London until deciding to deal full-time in stamps before trading in the Strand in central London, close to The Savoy Hotel. Within five years the company had branched out into the licensing of cult television show merchandise, manufacturing diecast merchandise for Doctor Who and action figures for Torchwood and Merlin, and in 2009, Steven opened The Television and Movie Store opposite The Forum in Norwich which operates in tandem with the company's wholesale division and internet retailing.

The majority of staff will stay at Langleys, but one member of staff who will be moving on to pastures new is Dorothy Muttitt, 89, who worked in the office at the toyshop and has been with the company since 1986.

'Dorothy's first job was working in Bonds Department Store during World War Two,' said John, 'she actually worked in the old Bonds store before the Germans bombed it to oblivion! She's a wonderful lady, as sparky as can be and a living recipe for a long, productive life.'

John said he would remember many things about his decades of service at Langleys, from the Teletubby rush that saw customers queueing back to Rampant Horse Street to dressing up as the Toymaster puppy to entertain passers-by (Langleys is part of the Toymaster buying group), talking toys to the late Roy Waller on Radio Norfolk to the camaraderie in the office that made going to work like going to a party, indeed he has so many happy memories that it's almost impossible to isolate just a few.

John and Sharon plan to spend retirement enjoying their camper van and John's microlite plane, from which he takes stunning photographs, although he admits he will miss being part of so many Norfolk children's Christmas this year and thinks it will be strange not to spend as much time with shop manager Chris Goulding, who has been his right-hand man for years.

'I've spent more time with Chris than I have with my wife!' he laughed, 'but he hasn't got rid of me. We went to the Beer Festival the other week and I know we will stay in touch.

'He knows what I'm thinking before I do, so it would be foolish to walk away from that!

'People say that when they have a near-death experience their whole life passes before their eyes and in a silly kind of way the last few days of owning the shop felt like that – I'd walk round and think of all the toys we'd sold, the children who now bring their children and grandchildren to the shop, all the fun we've had… it was very sad, but at the same time, it was right for me to go. I owe my livelihood to Norwich children and Norwich parents who took Langleys to their hearts and chose us ahead of bigger shops because they loved what we did and I am so happy to have been part of the great memories that people tell me they have that are linked to the shop.

'The impact that Langleys has on people is far greater than its actual size and although the toy business is just about buying and selling, we know that it's far, far more than that. It's about love and fun. When you buy a toy, you're buying a memory. That's a pretty special thing to have been part of.'

On a personal note, I would like to thank John Fielding for his invaluable help over the past 21 years – I was there during the Teletubby gold rush, the Tracy Island madness and onwards through Pokemons, Furbies, Action Men and Power Rangers.

Christmas never began for me until the Langleys and Norwich Theatre Royal Top 10 Toy giveaway photo shoot and, although we will continue the tradition and I am looking forward to working with the new owner, it will never be quite the same.

Thank you, John, for that first Teletubby put aside for my niece to the exhilarating plane trip across Norfolk and for being one of my very best and favourite contacts.