Everybody knows Norman. Situated at a T junction in Dunlop, his shop is pretty much impossible to miss if you are passing through the village. Sitting beside a bank (closing 2005) two bus stops and across from a pub, the location is the envy of any property manager. But it was not location that brought Norman to the shop, it was the death of his father Alex.
"My parents were originally from Stewarton" says Norman, "My father along with his brothers were partners in an ice-cream / fish & chip shop. Actually the building is now occupied by the Stewarton Post Office. I have fond memories as a small boy of going in the ice-cream van with my father around the local farms. My parents opened the shop here in Dunlop in 1952 under the names of Alex & Isa Neilson. Dad died 7 years later in 1959 and that's when I came into the business. I never changed the name and it still stands today as A & I Neilson Newsagents".
Anyone who has ever gone into a store these days knows just how impersonal it can be. Folk are too reliant on adding machines and you are lucky some days if you are graced with eye contact. Norman has built his business on good old fashioned personal service. "I was terrified of counting out peoples change" Norman laments with raised eyebrows. "I would sit in the house with pennies and go through the motions of serving someone. It was important to me to get it right". Next time you are in one of those mega stores, you know the ones where you need to take a helicopter from the back parking lot to get to the front doors. Take a note if the cashier counts out your change.
Photo: Norman outside the shop A & I Neilson Newsagents in 1984, his 25th year of business.
Norman moved to Dunlop in 1966 after marrying Irene. "We worked hard in the shop 14 hours a day" says Norman. "Irene and I would take shifts to cover the day. Apart from a lunch break, we were always in the shop. Over the years I have met a lot of folk and it has been very rewarding to learn folks stories in life. Some of the old characters I remember coming into the shop were John Baillie the Registrar; Willie Colquhoun the gas man; Matha Broon the joiner and undertaker; Bobby Parker with his garage and taxi service; Jim Woods the Church Beadle; Hugh Hamilton the Postmaster. We have pretty much kept a steady business of newspaper, magazine, confectionary and tobacco sales - but it didn't stop there. We have sold everything from exclusive oil paintings, personalised Dunlop greetings cards to Dunlop calendars. Pictures of Dunlop have gone all over the World that I sold from the shop here. I now sell hot pies, bridies, tea, coffee, Dunlop Cheese, you can even top up your mobile phone from new equipment we've installed. Changed days from selling sweeties and papers". Norman chuckles.
"What I never expected when I started here in 1959" says Norman, "Is the amount of folk from around the World that come through my door. Every year Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders visit Dunlop looking for ancesters buried in the kirkyard. I have been featured on television, in the news, on the radio and now on the World Wide Web. It's incredible that from a wee village store that all of this has transpired".
"A mixture of humour and reminiscence is what keeps life interesting" says Norman. Leaning back on the counter you can see Normans mind wander back to the "good ol days". "I remember one morning in the early 60's we had a tremendous snow storm and it blocked the main road to Stewarton. The newspaper van got stuck and we were all in a panic - I mean a newspaper shop with no newspapers what were we to do?" Tony Miller a local farmer drove through the fields if you can imagine, all the way out to the van and unloaded the papers into his tractor. That was the first time I had my papers delivered by tractor. Another time we learned that an old gentleman had passed away in the village. Later on that afternoon however he walked into the shop. I almost fainted".
During a Scottish bakery strike many years ago, bread was very scarce but that didn't stop Norman. "Local man Robert Donaldson brought a van load of bread all the way from England" says Norman "Folk queued up at the door for a loaf. The same thing happened during an electricity strike - folk lined up by the dozens to get their hands on a candle. These were exciting times in Dunlop".
What of life outside of the shop you ask? Norman has a great love of the countryside and you can catch a glimpse of him walking his Labrador dog through the fields of Dunlop. "My Uncle owned the farm Over Borland" says Norman "My favourite time was during hay season - especially if I got to drive the tractor". Norman has a great love for music and this is a side of him most folk never see. "I play the drums in various bands and functions around the Country". So when Norman isn't banging on the cash register - he's banging on the drums. Either way it has been a fortuitious ballad that has stood the test of time.
Photo: Norman behind the counter of A & I Neilson Newsagents where he started as a young man worrying about how he would count customers change in 1959.
"When I came here in 1959" pauses Norman "I never expected it to be my whole life - but here I am. Nowadays people are more mobile and shopping habits have changed since the 60's. We have been very fortunate in Dunlop to have many loyal customers and our location caters to the convenience of passing trade".
Photo: Dunlop Cheese, just one of many local products sold at A & I Neilson Newsagents.
But, it won't be forever! "I'll have to retire someday" says Norman, gazing out the window. "Aye ..... I suppose I'll have to give it all up one of these days". For now it's business as usual. The dedication of Norman and his wife Irene have kept the doors open through rain, hail, snow, power strikes, you name it, every day like clockwork since 1959. It will be a sad day for everyone in the village of Dunlop when Norman decides to sell his last newspaper. Norman has been a familiar face and a reliable businessman for nearly half a Century, and that is an accomplishment in retail nowadays that few could surpass. In the face of huge competition from mega malls and a thousand uniforms, it is the human spirit and personal touch that made A & I Neilson a success....
.... and by the way, to this day - Norman will still count out your change in your hand!
CLICK TO E-MAIL NORMAN ON THE WEB.
Martin J. Galloway