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Blimey: Award-winning British shop in Harrow still surprising customers

Monday, March 27, 2017

Published By The Windsor Star | March 27, 2016

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When Blimeys British Store & Gift Shop first opened in Harrow two years ago war brides cried at the sight of food they hadn’t tasted in decades and one customer spontaneously hugged the owner to say thank you for opening a British store.

The shop that Carl and Rita Hulme thought might make a part-time business in their retirement turned into a six-day-a-week operation that has expanded twice and earned the 2015 Biz X award for County Biz Worth The Drive.

“They started to cry because they hadn’t seen this food in so long,” Carl remembers of the shop’s first week in April 2014. “So I said we’re going to call this wall Memory Lane because that’s what it seemed to become, a wall of memories for people.”

Sticky toffee pudding. A Curly Wurly and other Cadbury chocolates without the wax added in American chocolate bars. Crisps — what we’d call potato chips — in flavours like Guinness, cheese and onion and prawn cocktail. Rows of marmalades, jams, lemon curds and banoffee curds, the British combo of banana and toffee. 

The food was so popular many customers never made it past scanning the front shelves, Carl said. But unlike other British stores, Blimeys is much more than food and a Union Jack on a pillow or teapot. Tucked on Harrow’s main drag and in the midst of the Essex County wine route, Blimeys is looking to entice more than those with British roots with about 19,000 items from a handful of countries across the Atlantic.

“As the world gets smaller and people travel they crave the things that they can’t get in the country they reside in. That’s basically it,” said Carl, a 60-year-old Brit who came to Canada 30 years ago and has retired from his role as vice president of sales and marketing for a multinational company based in Britain.

Shoppers are looking for something unique, he said. There are cupcake-shaped soaps from Yorkshire, jewellery made from heather, La Rochere glassware from France, hand-made Emma Bridgewater pottery from England, and home fragrances from Lampe Berger in Paris. You’ll see Celtic necklaces, Harris Tweed, Irish sweaters and tartan blankets and capes in the Scottish section and children’s toys. Items in the shop range from around a dollar to $200.

Jackie Gilham, 52, of Windsor is a frequent shopper. Her family background is English and Scottish and she lived in England briefly when she was in her 20s.

“I walked in and I think my jaw must have hit the floor because I was just stunned with all of the selection they had. I loaded up on a bunch of British food that you can’t buy here,” she said.

A week later her mother Rena Gilham was also singing the praises of Blimeys. She had seven bags of her favourite crisps: Walkers cheese and onion.

“You can’t find it anywhere else.”

Carl and his wife Rita, who has German roots, live in Windsor but chose Harrow for the store partly to be on the wine route and partly because of the narrow shop full of character. Wood floors. Exposed brick. Tin ceilings. It’s about 12 feet wide and feels like a shop in Britain where pricey land make for narrow stores and homes.

Rita is finding British items, especially flat caps and anything Beatles, are popular with teens. “It’s amazing they even know who the Beatles are,” she said as their music played in the background.

Rita claims she thought up the name Blimey, a term used to express surprise. The shop that just finished a 600-square foot expansion in the back and will soon be getting Scottish haggis and black pudding, continues to surprise tourists and shoppers from around the region. She said people say they drove all the way from Windsor to the Harrow store and she responds ‘me too.’

“This is wine country. People have to start realizing what’s here,” Rita said.

Blimeys British Store & Gift Shop is on the main street through Harrow at 25 King Street West.