An era is coming to an end in Darlington with the closure of the town’s most famous independent shop. Peter Barron reports.

DARLINGTON will never be the same again. The wonderfully wacky little town-centre shop, Guru Boutique, which counts celebrities among its many fans, is to close after more than half a century.

Owner Beryl Hankin, one of Darlington’s best-known personalities, has decided not to renew the lease on the Blackwellgate shop, though the business will continue to trade online.

“We never thought this day would come, and it’s a decision that hasn’t been taken lightly, but it just feels the right time,” said Beryl, who will be 80 at the end of this year.

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She revealed that the sudden death of her beloved husband, Ray, in December 2021, coupled with her own ongoing cancer fight, had made her re-evaluate her life.

The decision was made jointly with her fellow “Gurus”, Tony Smith and Colin Harrison, whose loyalty to the business has been a huge part of the success story.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Beryl Hankin with Colin Harrison and Tony Smith inside Guru Boutique. Picture: PETER BARRONBeryl Hankin with Colin Harrison and Tony Smith inside Guru Boutique. Picture: PETER BARRON

The current lease on the shop runs out at the end of June and Beryl, Tony and Colin jointly agreed that it wasn’t right to extend it for another three years.

Beryl underwent surgery after being diagnosed with stage three cancer in December 2021 and she is now being treated for secondary cancer.

“The doctors are pleased with me, but you never know what’s round the corner, and I want to experience other things in my life while I can. I haven’t even had a holiday for 50 years because Guru has been all-consuming,” said Beryl.

“Losing Ray was such a shock and, with the cancer scares as well, there were days when I was having to force myself to come into the shop – and that’s just not like me.

“We love Darlington, and we were doing well, but I was finding it harder and harder to smile at customers when it was something that had always come so naturally before.”

Ray died in January last year and it would have been the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary on February 14 this year.

Beryl and her mum, Irene, first opened Guru Boutique in Court Arcade on March 16, 1972, before the business moved to Blackwellgate in January 1990.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Beryl Hankin with mum, Irene, and Tony Smith in Guru's early daysBeryl Hankin with mum, Irene, and Tony Smith in Guru's early days

Over 51 years, the shop has become established as a Darlington institution, selling all kinds of weird and wonderful merchandise, including clothes, greeting cards, jewellery, gifts, ethnic soft furnishings, semi-precious stones, crystals, essential oils, candles, soaps, stationery and incense sticks.

Generations of Darlington residents talk of Guru’s mystical atmosphere, and celebrity customers have included Jim Moir, who found fame as Vic Reeves, and pantomime stars such as The Krankies.

“When my mum and I started the shop, we only thought it would last a few months. Never in our wildest dreams did we think it would go on for so long, but it’s been wonderful, despite all the ups and downs,” added Beryl.

“We’ve considered selling the business, but it would be like selling our souls, so the plan is to concentrate on building an online business. It’s sad but it’s not the end of Guru – it’s the start of something new.”

Tony, who joined the Guru team in 1973, added: “It’s been more than a business – it’s been a way of life. We never had a business plan, we just went with the flow and, somehow, it turned to magic.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Beryl Hankin with Colin Harrison, left, and Tony Smith. Picture: PETER BARRONBeryl Hankin with Colin Harrison, left, and Tony Smith. Picture: PETER BARRON

“It’s the variety of people coming into the shop who’ve made it so special, and Beryl’s got such natural warmth. She’s a one-off, with a wonderful personality that meant she was instantly liked by people.

“With the changes in town centres, it’s a million-to-one chance that we’ll ever see an independent shop last 50 years again.”

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Colin is described as the “new boy” despite being “part of the furniture” for 33 years after he fell in love with the shop as a teenager.

“It’s a fantastic feeling, knowing what an impact it’s had on so many people over so many years. They even remember the special Guru smell!” he smiled.

Over the years, the business has developed a loyal Facebook following and Beryl has pledged to maintain links with what she calls her ‘Guru Tribe’.

“We won’t have the shop after June – but we’ve got to keep the spirit of Guru alive,” she declared.