It was Napoleon who was credited with calling England “a nation of shopkeepers,” intending it as a snub, implying the English were not brave enough to go to war.
But the fact is, you have to be brave to open a shop, a bricks-and-mortar store — especially during a pandemic, especially in the age of Amazon and especially when you have never in your life run a store before.
Who on earth would do such a thing? Enter longtime Mount Kisco residents Drew Hodgson, a British expatriate of some 30 years, and his wife, Leigh, along with Mike and Karen Ransom, their Mount Kisco neighbors and business partners (“I was the motivator,” quips Mike.)
Originally from Kendal in England’s Lake District, former musician Drew, whose regular job is in health care as an actuary, explains it like this: “We’d been thinking about doing this for years and then what with the pandemic and people not being able to get home (to the United Kingdom), we thought, let’s just do it. Let’s get on with it.”
The store’s name, The Hamlet New York, pays homage to William Shakespeare, but also evokes a typical, small English village. To accentuate the association, there is a bucolic view of Ambleside, another small Lake District town, painted on the left wall as you enter, beside an iconic, though as yet nonfunctioning, red British phone box. And Hamlet is also the name of Britain’s most popular cigar and no one who grew up there in the 1980s or ’90s can forget its witty commercials, in which some hapless individual, after some particularly trying ordeal, finds sweet solace in lighting a Hamlet cigar — to the soothing accompaniment of J. S. Bach’s “Air on the G String.”
If you’re expecting a pastiche of Old England, though, and a ragbag of “Keep Calm” mugs, plastic models of Tower Bridge and a bunch of other kitsch souvenirs, you have come to the wrong place. For a start, the space, a former bank, is extensive and attractively lit, with beautiful displays, state-of-the-art freezer cabinets and high-level carpentry.
When I drop in on The Hamlet just before its official launch, the place is a hive of activity, with everybody, including the Hodgsons’ two daughters, called in to lend a hand. They are hoping to open in just two days and there’s still all manner of things to be done, not least unpacking and stacking the shelves and tables with the very best of the British. And while there are no Proustian warm madeleines to trigger my childhood memories, I am nevertheless immediately catapulted across the Pond, not only to my youth but to contemporary Britain. Adele is playing on the sound system.
The British love their candy bars — “chocolate bars” in Britspeak — and there’s no shortage of them here, from Cadbury’s default Dairy Milk to its dense, ambrosial Wispa bar. There are breakfast cereals galore (including Weetabix, in its traditional stout box) the finest English jams and jellies from Tiptree, revered Frank Cooper marmalade, Coleman’s English mustard, pickles, relishes, sauces and of course, crisps. Crisps — that’s what you lot call potato chips — are the great mainstay of British life. Give a Brit a bag of crisps and he or she will be putty in your hands. Honestly, we can’t live without our crisps and at The Hamlet, a whole area is devoted to them, from classic Walker’s crisps to the racy Burt’s Guinness crisps. There is even — did I get this right? — a Champagne and Serrano chili crisp. Oh well, never say never — above all, about a crisp.
In the frozen food section, you’ll find English bacon, sausages and upscale meat pies and pasties (a traditional mincemeat-filled English pastry,) all touchstones of culinary British life. “We really want people to come in and have an experience here, something different from walking in to another grocery store,” says Drew.
“My thing is the books. I’ve always wanted a bookstore,” put in Leigh, walking me toward the back of the store where she has assembled a carefully curated collection of British authors, old and new. Representing the classics are novels by Charles Dickens, Charlotte, Jane and Anne Brontë and Jane Austen. There are volumes of Winston Churchill memoirs for history buffs; James Herriot for animal lovers; Shakespeare, for poets and romantics. Also J.R.R. Tolkien for fantasists; biographies of Queen Elizabeth II and Diana, Princess of Wales, for royal watchers; travel books; lots of great kids’ books, like the enchanting “Mr. Men” series; and J. K. Rowling for just about everybody. On a round table, new books, both hardback and paperback, are artfully arranged, the criterion being they should have all appeared at some recent point in time on the (London) Times bestseller list.
Just behind the table, the original bank vault, with its steel door still in situ, is now the vinyl vault, housing Drew’s all-for-sale record collection — remastered Rolling Stones’ and Beatles’ albums — (I have my eye on that “Sergeant Pepper”) — along with David Bowie, Radiohead, Roxy Music, Elton John and Oasis, to name but a few. It’s all here. And if you’re wondering what Jimi Hendrix is doing among the Brits, Drew will enlighten you. “His band was all British. He was the only American.” (Spot on: He was practically an adopted Brit and even died in London’s Notting Hill.)
Back in the main part of the store, an arresting wall of teas is hard to resist. Fancy blends jockey for position with no-frills brands like Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips, strong teas known affectionately in England as “builders’ teas,” because that’s what you give the builder to drink. Mind you, in England these days, your builder is far more likely to be Polish or Croatian but will still enjoy a cuppa.
Delightful and utterly de-lovely as The Hamlet is though, the big question is will the customers come. While we’re no strangers to kosher delis, Japanese supermarkets, Swedish furniture stores and Chinese emporia, a British grocery and gift store is surely something of a novelty. “Well, we’ve been hitting it hard on social media and the word has spread pretty quickly,” says Leigh, who will be mainly responsible for the day-to-day running of the store. And Drew confesses he never knew there were so many expats in the region, “all coming out of the woodwork now.”
But, of course, you don’t need to be British to enjoy The Hamlet. And whether you’re looking for some gourmet or everyday treats, great reads or classic sounds, or maybe you just need a new teapot, this shopping adventure will whisk you to another world.
You won’t accrue any mileage, but you’ll certainly feel transported.
The Hamlet is at 23 S. Moger Ave. in Mount Kisco. For more call 914-864-0234 or visit thehamletny.com.