St Albans toy shop searches for new home after eviction threat

CLOSURE-threatened toy store Little Wonders is looking at two possible new units in which it could relocate when it has to move out of The Maltings shopping centre.

More than a thousand customers of the independent retailer, which has been in the St Albans shopping centre for the past eight years, have signed paper and on-line petitions opposing the notice to quit which has been served on the popular store.

But this week co-owner Elena Ripoll revealed that there had been some positive developments including the identification of two potential alternative units outside the centre into which Little Wonders might be able to relocate.

Agents acting for the owners of the shopping centre, European-wide commercial property company Boultbee, had originally given Elena and her partner Andy 30 days to leave the unit which is to be taken over by the bath products chain Lush.

That date has now been put back until August 27 and this week Elena and Andy were shown two possible alternative units in The Maltings but both would be temporary leases and even if they had been able to negotiate a lower rent, they would still have been liable for full business rate based on market value.

They have also seen two other units outside the centre – one in a less popular location but with an affordable rent and the other in a very good location but a high rent.

If they are to take one or the other, they are hoping that EFM, the agents for Boultbee, would agree to Little Wonders not having to pay a charge to surrender their Maltings lease and being allowed to trade with no extra rent payable until August 27, to pay for a temporary shop refit until they could afford a permanent one.

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Little Wonders had negotiated a lower rent for the existing shop two years ago because of the recession and had no idea that negotiations were going on with Lush which, as a chain, would pay a higher rent, until the toy shop was given notice to quit.

Elena said this week: “I have spoken to Lush and said we don’t object to relocating but our issue is that quite clearly negotiations have been going on under our nose with no-one telling us.”

She added: “Considering that I was only made aware that someone else wanted the unit nine days ago, I find that unethical. It would have been much fairer if we had been given six to 12 months notice but at least we have now been given until August 27.”

The publicity which has surrounded the plight of Little Wonders has had a couple of positive results – a well-established St Albans marketing store has offered its services to the shop free of charge for the next six months and some very big toy retailers have been in touch with Elena and asked if they could do anything to help.