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Life Is Sweets

Life Is Sweets

Proper sweetshops are on the way back, says Tim Richardson, author of Sweets - A History of Temptation

Whatever happened to old-fashioned sweetshops, the ones with towering jars of boiled sweets weighed out by the half or quarter pound? That is just the question that occurred to Sarah Smith seven years ago during a holiday in Scotland with her husband and two daughters.
"We kept finding ourselves in sweetshops like the one in Moffat, which makes the famous toffee," she recalls. "It was then I realised that all these shops had disappeared in England and I hadn't even been conscious of it. That was it, really."

Sarah, 39, researched the confectionery business for 18 months, sourcing the best products, many of them made by small family firms. Then, in 1998, she packed in her business, a clothes store in Canterbury, bought the premises next door, and opened the first sweetshop in a chain - if three tiny outlets in Kent can be called a chain. She called the shops Sugar Boy .

The shops are like a dream come true for sweet lovers, with floor to ceiling jars crammed with the delights of sucrose - familiar barley sugars, aniseed balls and toffees, as well as more arcane goodies such as Scottish "soor plooms" or old-fashioned toasted tea cakes, which look like miniature cowpats and taste of coconut.

Smith is an evangelist for sweets and sweetshops, and it shows. Her shops only sell sweets. "We are not newsagents," she declares. "I believe that sweetshops should be small - they always were. On a Saturday we might get queues outside the shop."

Prices are child-friendly. "I make a point of selling Blackjacks and Fruit Salads for a penny each," she says. "Then a child who has just found 2p on the street will be able to buy something." Sweets are weighed, then heaped into striped paper bags. "I'm not a believer in pick n' mix: an important aspect of a sweetshop is someone actually weighing the sweets out," she explains.

The business side of the operation was clearly well researched, because within two years Smith had opened outlets in Deal and Whitstable. But Canterbury remains the flagship store.

"Not only do we have the King's School almost next door, but we get a lot of passing trade from tourists," says Smith. "Sometimes they get a bit confused. They open the jars themselves to get the sweets out because they think you buy them individually. And they often ask to have one of each, although we have more than 400 lines. We thought about doing a combination jar, but I feel that our sweets should be as they should be. Liquorice and mint do not mix."

Nostalgia is a potent sentiment when it comes to buying sweets. "People are overwhelmed with joy to find a sweet they haven't had for 20 years," says Smith. "It's very emotional." But who buys more - women or men? According to Beryl, one of Smith's long-serving assistants: "There are definitely more men than women. And the men score twice, because the wives buy sweets for their husbands."

In a trice Beryl is scurrying around filling up bags with quarters' worth - sorry, 100 grams' worth - of delicious sweets from all over Britain. Liquorice toffee, blackcurrant bonbons and rhubarb and custards. Since my visit I have found myself on more than one occasion browsing the shop's informative website. Dangerous...very dangerous.