Open all hours - Eugene looks back on 40 years behind the counter

Dessie Blackadder

Reporter:

Dessie Blackadder

IF there's one man who is qualified to speak on Ballymena's longstanding love affair with sweets and chocolate then newsagent Eugene Diamond fits the bill perfectly.

Eugene, who has just been shortlisted for the National Lottery Retailer of the Year, is probably one of the last 'old school' sweetie shop owners left in a Northern Ireland market dominated by supermarkets and filling stations.

But there's nothing old fashioned about the Ballymena man's relationship with his customers. While he still enjoys the banter over the counter on a daily basis, he's made himself a local social media personality with his popular posts ranging from the 'daily headlines' to his chatter sparking reminiscences about the confectionery of yesteryear.

Guardian Editor Des Blackadder sat down with Eugene this week to hear just some of the stories he has to tell after four decades in his Broughshane Street shop.

You could say that Eugene Diamond 'got his start' in the newspaper industry and he's been associated with it for most of his adult life.

Born in the late 50s in a long demolished row of mill workers' cottages in James Street in Harryville, Eugene is one of nine children - three girls and six boys. Which must have been a tight fit in the James Street days.

"I was a baby when the family got a move to the houses in the Demesne Estate, just across the Braid River from Harryville. If you ask me I would say it was perfect place to grow up .. we had the ruins of a castle literally at the top of our estate and a 'forest' pretty much on our doorstep!

"The neighbours were great people and there were lots of children growing up in the Demesne at the time. We used to have great fun making huts up in the woods - which we called 'the forest' - just beside the old Intermediate School site. One of my best memories is making a hut under the pedestrian bridge over the Braid which led to the Ballykeel 'One' estate - we could hear the people walking across above our heads and we thought we were some boys because they didn't know we were there! Innocent days indeed," laughs Eugene.

There was no easy pocket money in those days so Eugene had to earn his by delivering newspapers around the sprawling Ballykeel 'Two' estate which had been constructed in the late 1960s.

"That was my first job in the newspaper business," recalls Eugene. "I got the job with the late Tam Johnston who had premises at what used to be known as the Ballykeel One shops. He was a gentleman and his shop will be well remembered by the older generation around Ballykeel and Harryville."

Having attended St Patrick's High School, Eugene's first 'real job' took him to the Murphy's Bottling Plant which was sited just off Railway Street in Harryville.

Always on the look out for an extra few quid, Eugene took on a weekend job serving in a clothes shop in the centre of Ballymena.

"That was me into the retail sector - and it was a great time to be in the clothing trade. A guy called Brian Close owned the shop which was called 'In-Gear'. It was just at the corner of Bryan Street and Church Street - the same building occupied until recently by David Bellingham.Things went well and he offered me the post of manager so I left Murphy's for good."

It was an era of glam rock, outrageous stars and some outright fashion disasters.

"Top of the Pops more or less set the style. When the Bay City Rollers hit the heights their tartan striped half mast trousers and skinny college style jumpers were huge sellers especially with the girls.

"Most guys round Ballymena were pretty much content with a pair of jeans, a gingham shirt and a Shetland wool jumper. Younger lads wore a lot of Wrangler denim known locally as the 'Wrangler suit' of jacket and 'skinner' half mast jeans.

"I remember the night that David Essex appeared on Top of the Pops wearing a 'grandad shirt' - the next day there was a huge demand for the style, we couldn't get enough of them!

"Bryan Ferry more or less brought the elegant suit back into fashion when he and Roxy Music made a comeback just after the punk era had faded. Guys all wanted the double-breasted suit with turn-up trousers at the time," he recalls.

Eugene chuckles when I ask him about the fashion disasters he encountered.

"I sold an awful lot of velvet jackets at a time," he recalls. "Black, blue, bottle green. They were very popular but I bet the guys who bought them wonder why when they look back.

"Then there was the 'parallel suit' - I can remember the favourite colour was 'electric blue'. Basically it was a sports coat worn with matching extra width trousers. You could have sailed the Atlantic with them if you'd nailed them to a mast!"

But denim was, without doubt, the major seller in Ballymena and a controversial advert for one particular brand meant that Eugene found himself in the eye of a publicity storm which made headlines far and wide.

"In those days different shops were linked to a certain brand - for example Sam of Sam's Boutique had what was effectively the Wrangler 'dealership' if I remember. Edwin Maternaghan was another big name in fashion retailing locally and he had Brutus.

"By now the name of 'In-Gear' had been changed to 'Bananas Boutique' and we were selling Easy Jeans and a new product called 'Jesus Jeans'.

"They had a full colour poster of a well-proportioned lady squeezed into a pair of Jesus Jeans with the slogan 'He who loves me, follows me'. We put it up in the window and it was a marmite job - people either loved it or hated it! One religious group based out in the country started a petition about it so we started a counter petition in the shop.

"It was the time when Ballymena couldn't appear in a news story without the words 'Bible Belt' being added on - around the same time you had the ELO showgrounds story making headlines too."

While Eugene enjoyed the fun times at Bananas, he can well remember one of Ballymena's worst days of devastation during the troubles when Church Street was blown to smithereens by an IRA bomb.

"It was on Friday, May 18, 1979 and I remember I was chatting to a friend outside the shop when a police car raced up and an officer told us to clear the area because there was a bomb in a post office van parked in the street. I had got round to Wellington Street and was talking to my good friend journalist Lyle McMullan.

"I said to him 'there's a story for you' and because there were so many bomb hoaxes in those days he replied 'only if it goes off'.

"With that the lower end of Church Street just lifted. I've never felt or seen anything like it before or since. It was a scene of utter devastation which people who lived through it will never forget. One of my vivid memories is how difficult it was to get re-opened - the shop had very distinctive rounded windows and it took a long time to get new glass panels made by Pilkingtons. And of course a lot of people will remember the 'bomb damage' sales which took place in the aftermath."

When Bananas closed its doors in 1979, Eugene reckoned it was time for a change of direction and when he came across a small shop for rent in Upper Broughshane Street he decided to take the plunge. It was called the 'First and last' because it was the first shop on the way into town and, coversely, the last as you were going out!

"I had started off delivering papers as a wee boy and now I found myself in behind the counter of a paper shop," he said.”My first rent payment was £30 a week.”

Forty years later he's still loving the job - despite a horrifying early 4.50am start!

"Sure it's only seven days a week," laughs Eugene.

In those 40 years, Eugene has witnessed the high points of the newspaper market when titles like 'News of the World' sold by the barrow load.

"You couldn't explain to today's generation just how huge the NOTW actually was. People might have bought the quality Sundays but they also bought the NOTW even if they did tuck it inside the Sunday Times! Of course they were caught out in some abysmal practices and that can't be forgiven but they did break some enormously important stories too. I still have some NOTW publicity material on a side wall of the shop. It may well be the last such material still on display in Britain but I keep it there to remind of just how big the newspaper/print industry was at the time."

But selling papers was only part of Eugene's role and he was a past master at stirring up some publicity out of all proportion to the size of his tiny shop.

"Back in the early 2000s I took a punt on getting my own 'Ballymena Rock' made up by a firm in Newry. People thought I had lost the plot because everyone associated rock with seaside resorts and not a town like Ballymena. Thankfully local people loved the idea and I had a great sale on it. Quite a few bars were sent overseas too," he laughs.

The varieties of sweets and chocolate bars Eugene has sold down through the years is staggering.

"In fact, I've come to the conclusion that people here have the 'sweetest tooth' in the world! If you want to start a debate in Ballymena all you have to do is ask someone what their favourite sweet of all time was.

"I'm a diabetic so I don't do many sweets but I have a good knowledge of wnhat the public wants and to this day people will travel from all over the country to buy a certain brand of toffee or an old style boiled sweet which I stock. Sweets especially are memory jerkers and they have tremendous nostalgia value. If it gets people talking and laughing sure it's a good thing. How many times have I heard stories about someone losing a filling to the old Riley's Toffee Rolls? And yet they still came back for more!"

And does he have a personal favourite?

"Cinnamon Lozenges all the way," he says. "As far as I know they are more or less an Irish-only sweet because people come in all the time and take away a few bags full to friends and family in other parts of the world."

Talking about local flavours, Eugene says he still has regulars who come specifically for the bottled minerals.

"You would not believe the number of people who still swear by Kali water! And the younger generation will have absolutely no idea wnat Kali Water is but older people will probably be remembering the day they took a drink of it by mistake."

If digital technology is our pathway to the future then it is a time machine which works both ways and Eugene's nostalgia posts about old sweets on social media have been delighting the local public for the past few years.

"As one who was steeped in newspapers I was a latecomer to twitter and facebook but time waits for no man so I decided to embrace it. To be honest I've had some great fun thanks to social media. People love the old pictures of products and just love to tell you their stories of why they loved a particular brand more than others," says Eugene.

The recognition by the National Lottery reflects sales which have raised more than £1.5 million for good causes down through the years. As one of the last old style newsagents the award is well deserved and the Guardian extends its best wishes to Eugene as he embarks on his 41st year 'in the trade'.

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