Shops of Old Reading


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March 17th 2019
Published: March 17th 2019
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I grew up in Reading during the 1950’s and 60’s and have written essays about the family house (36 Hatherley Road), the Erleigh Road area, London Street, William Smith bookshop, the old cinemas and my favourite teachers. Now I want to focus on the shops of old Reading.

Between 1954 (when my father bought 36 Hatherley Road for £1,500) and 1970 (when I left for Leeds University) I lived in Reading. I have special memories of many shops in the Hatherley Road area and in the town centre. I’m not going to mention every shop I remember, only those which no longer exist and which stand out for one reason or another.

I’ll begin with the area around Hatherley Road.

A one-minute walk from our house was Winterburns dairy, owned by a Danish couple whose daughter, Tessa, went to the same school as my sister: St Joseph’s Convent at the top of Hatherley Road. Later on, a couple from Devon, Mr and Mrs Chivers, bought the dairy. Two bottles of milk, either gold top or silver top, were delivered to our doorstep each morning. During the cold winter months, the bottle tops would sometimes be punctured by the beaks of marauding blue tits, hungry for cream. My mother often sent me to the dairy on errands, and I remember the thick milky smell inside that little shop.

On the corner of Hatherley Road and Erleigh Road was a fish and chip shop. In the 1950’s and 60’s, before government health regulations came into force, the shop wrapped its produce in old newspapers. It was always a bonus to read the latest scandal in the News of the World as I ate my cod and chips.

Next to the fish and chip shop, in Hatherley Road, was Oliver's electrical shop, which specialized in repairing radios and TV’s. Oliver's was a standing joke in our house, because my parents considered the work done there third-rate. So we avoided it like the plague.

In Erleigh Road there were four shops I remember well.

A few doors away from the fish and chippie was a Chinese take-away, the Hong Kong City. It opened in the 60’s, displacing Prouten’s delicatessen. I loved the sweet and sour pork and fried rice. The sauce had a unique and scrumptious tang, and the fried rice was a delicious novelty after Mum’s potato-based cooking. Eating from this take-away was my first encounter with exotic food.

Strong's, the newsagents, on the corner of Blenheim Road, was where our newspapers, comics and magazines were delivered from. My parents read The Daily Express and The Sunday Express. I subscribed to various comics – The Beano, The Victor, Valiant - as well as the weekly educational magazines, Knowledge and Look and Learn.

Across from Strong’s was the local supermarket, Baylis. I’ve written elsewhere about my mother’s excitement over a new-fangled food called ‘fish fingers’, which she bought in Baylis and served to us for breakfast. (Incidentally, there was no healthy vegetable oil then; our fish fingers were fried in dripping.) An incentive to shop at Baylis was the award of Green Shield stamps with every purchase; the stamps were pasted into a book which, when full, entitled the customer to a gift.

On Erleigh Road, facing the old post office, were several shops. One of them was A. J. P. Johnson, the confectioner and tobacconist. Mr Johnson was a friendly man with two daughters older than me. I used to buy my sweets there – from old-fashioned jars - and my mother often sent me on errands to buy “ten tipped Woodbines”. In the build-up to Guy Fawkes Night, Johnson’s stocked fireworks. I used to stand outside Johnson’s every weekday morning waiting for the No. 31 bus to take me to Stoneham School.

Around the corner from Johnson’s, in Donnington Gardens, was a barber’s shop, where my mother used to take me for my regular haircut, a short-back-and-sides. If I fidgeted in the chair, the barber would admonish me in front of Mum.

Circa 1960, before the advent of cheap supermarket alcohol, off-licences abounded. The one I remember best was on the corner of De Beauvoir and Carnarvon Roads, an 8-minute walk from our house. It was a classy place with a good range of drinks and a very nice man in charge. My father used to send me there on occasional errands to buy cider, tonic water (to mix with his Guinness) and canned beer. Beer cans in those days were made of thick metal.

Cemetery Junction was a brisk 10-minute walk from our house. I remember one shop there that my mother patronized: the Home and Colonial Stores. I have no memory of the shop itself, only of the name, which evokes the great days of Empire.

Shopping in town on a Saturday with my mother was always a treat. After doing the rounds, we would pop into the Cadena Café for a drink. The Cadena was a vast and old-fashioned café on Broad Street. Mum would order a coffee, and I would drink my favourite ginger beer. I remember the lovely coffee aroma emanating from the Cadena (along with the reek of malted barley from Courage Brewery and the stink of fish in Smelly Alley, one of the three great smells of Reading town centre), and I dimly recall the beautiful mural which went all around the walls – of the Thames with green hills behind, lots of trees, and people in white clothes rowing and punting.

The other town centre shops I remember most vividly are Woolworth, William Smith in London Street, Golder's bookshop off King Street, Eyles on the corner of London Street and London Road, Hickies and Barnes and Avis music stores on Friar Street, Brennan’s next to Duke Street Bridge, Jacksons, and Blakes' sports shop.

Woolworth was a Reading, nay a national, institution. I particularly remember the biscuit counter. Unlike today’s neatly parcelled tubes, Woolworth's biscuits were heaped in troughs, and the biscuit girl would shovel them into a white paper bag. This was before the age of plastic bags. The young girls who worked part-time in Woolies on a Saturday tended to be from the local secondary modern schools, whereas the girls who worked in the posher Heelas attended grammar schools - Kendrick or the Abbey.

I’ve written at some length previously about William Smith, the secondhand bookshop which was such an important part of my literary life in the late 1960’s. It enabled me to build up an impressive library and remains my favourite bookshop of all time. I remember my grief when, returning to Reading from Leeds University in 1971, I discovered that my beloved bookshop was no more: the old wooden building had been consumed by fire, and most of the stock had perished in the flames. A small number of books were rescued but reeked of smoke. I know this because I bought one of them: a first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Late Lyrics and Earlier.

Golder's bookshop nestled in an arcade (now disappeared) off King Street, near the junction with Duke Street. It was my go-to place for ordering books. The man who used to take my orders – in those days mainly Enid Blyton Secret Seven books – was super-efficient.

Eyles, the pawnshop, was a source of wonder to me every time I passed it on my walks into town. Its strange sign – three hanging balls – made it exotic. So did the array of watches and jewellery behind the windows. I never once ventured inside. I have read that the shop opened in 1896 and closed in 1985 when Denys Eyles retired. It was, to my knowledge, the one and only pawnshop in Reading during my youth.

Hickies and Barnes and Avis were the music stores where I bought all my hit singles and LP’s during the 1960’s. I used to enjoy listening to The Shadows in the upstairs sound booths of Hickies. When my parents bought a secondhand Dansette record player in 1963, my mother handed me a pound note and told me to buy three singles – Wooden Heart by Elvis for her, Bachelor Boy by Cliff Richard for my sister and Wonderful Land by The Shadows for myself. (Nothing for my dad, who adored opera and hated pop music.) I bought those discs in Barnes and Avis for 6/8d each – in total, exactly one pound.

Brennan's was a cheap men’s clothing shop near Duke Street Bridge. I bought my dark green quilted combat jacket there. It kept the cold out and had several large pockets and a zip at the front. I used to go bird-watching in Whiteknights Park during the winter with my combat jacket on and my binoculars underneath. My mother did not approve of the jacket, because it was not stylish, but it was functional, and I liked it.

Jacksons' Department Store opened in 1875 and closed down in 2013. It was, and still is, one of the great landmarks of central Reading; everybody knew what you meant when you said ‘Jacksons Corner’. I passed it by whenever I went to town, and I occasionally bought clothes there. My Stoneham School blazer and tie were bought at Jacksons. I bought a snazzy sports jacket there too. I will always remember Jacksons for its unique payment system. The store operated a network of pneumatic tubes which transported cash around the building. A customer’s cash and a ticket stating the items purchased would be placed in a capsule by the sales assistant; the capsule would be delivered via the pneumatic network to the cash office; the receipt and change would be returned to the customer in another capsule.

Blake's sports shop was in an arcade (now disappeared) off Minster Street. I was a table tennis and tennis fanatic in my youth and used to admire the equipment in Blake's. I bought a Mary Shannon table tennis bat there, which served me well for years, and a Grays tennis racket, which lasted all my life and was one of the items I gave away when I sold my Reading house in 2017. That old wooden racket, purchased circa 1965, was still in pristine condition, the original strings unbroken, the plastic racket protector still in place.

I have now briefly described the most memorable shops of my youth. Only Hickies' music store is still functioning; all the other shops have been pulled down or taken over. I miss old Reading, which is another way, I suppose, of saying I miss my youth. Those shops were an indelible part of my growing up, and they will live forever in my memory.

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20th October 2021

Bringing back memories
Thank you for your blog. What memories you brought back to me!? Thank you. I remember the Cadena well, shopping with my mother in Broad Street, Baylis supermarket and of course Green Shield stamps. Just one point, I remember going to Jackson’s outfitters for school uniform (EP Collier school) but remember being fascinated by the manual cash system of wires across the shop where transactions were put into a capsule but whizzed across the ceiling in a pulley system rather than pneumatic- maybe my memory is fading lol. Oh that malty smell coming from Courage Brewery as I waited for the No22 bus to Horncastle!! Thanks again for the memories

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