THE owner of a historic toy shop is still serving families from Taunton and beyond – nearly 64 years after he first started working there as a teenager.

Mike Slocombe joined Watkin Toys in 1960, when it was under the ownership of its founders, Pete and Muriel Watkin.

They opened the business (initially called C Watkin) at 6 East Reach in 1940, when they moved to escape German bombing raids on London in World War II.

It was initially a cycle shop that offered a full repair and spares service, but it slowly transformed into the landmark toy shop it is today.

Mr Slocombe took ownership of the business in 1989 and continues to work behind the counter at the age of 81 thanks to his loyal customers.

“The Watkin family got blitzed in London in 1940,” said Mr Slocombe.

“They got out of London and came down here with bicycle bits and pieces and other odds and ends – that was the start of it.”

Somerset County Gazette: Watkin Toys has been based on East Reach since 1940.Watkin Toys has been based on East Reach since 1940. (Image: Newsquest)

The shop started selling only toys in around 1985, when Mr Slocombe started to take more responsibility for its day-to-day running.

He explained: “When Mr Watkin wanted more time off, I couldn’t be dealing with bicycles with greasy, mucky hands and selling toys.

“Something had to go so the bikes went, and we just sold the toys.”

Today, Mr Slocombe works in the shop six days a week. He runs the business with his wife Marlene with some help from their children, Mark and Amanda.

“I left school and tried to find a job,” he said. 

“Mr Watkin knew I was looking for a job and said he could give me a job for Christmas.

“I started in November and December, then he said, ‘do you want to stay in January? February? March? And here we are, still here.

“It all started just by walking in and getting a job and carrying on.”

Somerset County Gazette: The traditional toy shop stocks plenty of ‘retro’ toys.The traditional toy shop stocks plenty of ‘retro’ toys. (Image: Newsquest)

Having worked at the same shop for so long, Mr Slocombe has served generations of children in Taunton – and seen many return as parents.

He said: “Parents who brought their children in are now grandparents and great-grandparents. They’re still coming back.

“It makes you feel old! There’s a lot of history attached to the shop.”

Due to high demand, the colourful shop offers plenty of ‘retro’ toys such as Airfix, Lego, Scalextric, Sylvanian Families figurines and Hornby model railways alongside more modern brands.

And Mr Slocombe says his shop needs to be ready to adapt to the latest trends.

“The toy trade’s like the weather,” he said.

“You do not know from one day to the next, so you’ve got to have a bit of everything. It’s the only way you can succeed.

“We’ve got sledges up our sleeve. We haven’t brought them out yet, but we’ve got them.

“And someone will come in and say, ‘cor, you got those in quickly’. But we’ve been sitting on them.

“It’s not like food that goes off – and you’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

Somerset County Gazette: The shelves are full of colourful toys and games.The shelves are full of colourful toys and games. (Image: Newsquest)

The secret of the business's success is the loyal customers who keep coming back.

“People have cut back on their spend because of rising costs,” he said.

“Toys have become a luxury, to a degree. But people keep coming back, and they come from all over the world.

“We get people from South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia – all over the place.

“They’re families that moved abroad when they were knee-high to a grasshopper and now they’ve all grown up and got their own families, they come back to visit and they come here.”

The high street has evolved since Mr Slocombe first stepped foot in the store, but his message to support local businesses has remained the same.

He said: “East Reach is exactly the same as St James Street or anywhere else with small, independent shops.

“We’ve been using the phrase ‘come on down’ for a long time to try and drag them down out of the town.

“We were saying all those years ago, ‘use us or lose us’. That message is as strong as ever – if they don’t come, we can’t be here.”

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