Plymouth’s Barbican is best known for its cobbled streets, specialist shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants, regarded as the perfect place to buy souvenirs from our hometown. Southside Street is known for being one of the most iconic streets; housing a building that gives a sense of nostalgia to Plymothians: The House That Jack Built.
This shopping arcade is filled with the most independent stores you’ll find in Plymouth, brimming with independent traders and hidden gems. One of these traders is Sara Nicholls; the genius behind Kooky Castle and Kook-E-Mart, both under the same roof of a toy and sweet lovers heaven. Being a fan of all things both collectable and cuddly, the stores are her brainchild and The House That Jack Built has personal connections to this eccentric business owner.
She expressed that “I used to come here as a little girl in the 80s and the 90s with my dad and it’s just a really magical and special place to me. It’s really unique, there’s a secret forest display that’s been untouched since that time and it’s just really adorable…my family is all from here and my grandmother used to own a sweet shop on the Barbican so the area has somewhat of a family legacy.”
Kooky Castle originally opened just after the last COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, and has gone down a treat with fans of anything relating to Pop culture, anime, Disney & Japanese culture. The subsidiary of Kook-E-Mart was an extension of the business, initially opened opposite the castle; offering an abundance of imported sweets and drinks from Japan, but the two have recently joined forces into one collective unit which has been a successful business venture for Sara.
“It was during lockdown that one of the shops was advertised and during COVID I ended up working in a large chain toy store; I was unsure about going back. I already did comic conventions being a collector myself, and I was already selling my collection of nerd culture, but having my own store felt like a pipe dream. But when I saw this shop advertised and I saw the price, I thought that’s actually feasible! I did it from nothing, and luckily it’s taken off very well.”
The store offers a menagerie of goods, including Independent artist work and plush (from Radiant Rat, Binding of Jess & RainyLune), Funko Pop collectables, Handmade earrings, Japanese snacks & drinks, blind boxes and carefully crafted blind bags with select themes, along with so much more scattered around the store; catering to every kook’s interests.
Sara commented that “One of my favourite things about the shop is that in the summer, people are here to have fun and do something different. We’ve had people come one summer and come back the next. I like the idea of thinking that families might be like ‘remember that weird little shop we went to by the water?’ I like to think that I’m making memories for people and that’s a really nice thing.”
Even with the store’s expansion, Sara prides herself on trying to stock something for everyone in such a small space; whilst stocking things she’s got personal admiration with as a personal collector. Anything that fits the overall kooky aesthetic of Sara’s passion that fits the general vibe of Kooky Castle is deemed a good fit for the shop.
“Our key demographic is 15-25-year-olds, lots of students and teenagers. I’ve always kept up with social media and I offer giveaways. I love the Halloween period as it allows us to add the spooky element to the shop to get people excited and we’ve offered trails in holiday periods through The House That Jack Built to compliment the main ones on The Barbican.”
With events being a key point of interest, it’s advertising like this that’s crucial to the business. The House That Jack Built is hidden away and it’s not a place you’ll find when casually wandering the high street. Sara described the relocation opening day as “madness, taking double the amount than usual”, proving just how popular the business has grown since its opening in 2021, with this move into a bigger unit being a highly fortunate venture for Sara, gaining a growing family of kooks.
“The move has been great. In the old shop(s), we could only really get 3 people in each. Now, we regularly on the weekend have up to 15 people at a time and it doesn’t feel overcrowded. People aren’t worried that they can’t come in because we’re full and people have been coming in more often. We’ve had families and groups of friends coming in several days a week and it’s a much easier space. I like having the space as it allows for more variety, and the popularity has been fantastic. I’m happy with the location and it just being me and my friends working; it’s a quirky place that people like to come to.”
Talking about the Kook-E-Mart extension of the store that caters to providing a large selection of Japanese treats and sweets, Sara expressed that “A lot of my focus has gone into making that successful. The importation of goods can be quite expensive, but it does sell out quickly. The things that we sell, including the food, tend to be based around commercial properties (Pokémon, Hatsune Miku, Dragon Ball Z), with this being the same with the Kooky Castle side with the independent art. We’ve had pieces based around Five Nights At Freddy’s, Tamagotchi; it’s things that spark nostalgia. We’re a toy shop at the core because I love toys, and everyone does or did at one point! It’s all about playing with that sense of childhood nostalgia that I love.”
Kooky Castle & Kook-E-Mart are open daily; opening from staggered times between 10 am to 12 pm and staying open until 5 pm. Whether you’re looking for a piece of unique artwork, eccentric jewellery or a blind-box figurine; it’s the perfect place to visit for any geeky stocking stuffers this festive period to support Plymouth’s most loved local businesses.