Pearl of De Langstraat: Berg & Braam

| Toby van Dijk

On a slightly gray day, I set out. By e-bike, that is. It is just a short bike ride away. I get to visit John and Gerry Braam in Heusden for coffee. I ride through the harbor of Waalwijk and pass the mega warehouses before I can enjoy the tranquility of the Bergse Maas. In the distance I can already see the Heusden Bridge looming.

At my leisure I cycle through the fortified gate of Heusden. I bounce from one cobblestone to another on the picturesque roads. It has a certain charm. Once in the right street, my eye catches the sign: Berg & Braam - candy and play things. That sounds familiar!

After parking my bike, I step inside at the same time as a group of boys about 10 years old, probably going to get some tasty sweets from their pocket money. It is a store full of hand puppets, wooden toys, board games and candy in all shapes and colors. It is not large which makes it feel very cozy right away. Gerry is having a nice chat with the young men. It seems like Gerry knows them. John is also helping another customer. When they are both finished, I introduce myself. Immediately they ask if I like coffee. Well, I like that after cycling. Gerry leads me behind the counter to the house. Suddenly we are in the kitchen.

With a running coffee maker in the background and a store bell ringing, Gerry and I take a seat at the kitchen table. Now I'm dying to know where that name Berg and Braam comes from. ''Yes, that's actually a fun story,'' Gerry says. ''We were having drinks with friends and so that's where the name came up. And our friend suddenly called out Mountain and Burr,'' Gerry says with a laugh. ''It's a combination of John's last name and John's mother's maiden name, because with my last name it didn't sound at all,'' she jokes. So that's how the name of the store was born. But what they wanted to sell next they didn't know yet. ''We first bought the property and then we started thinking about what we wanted to sell there,'' she says. John and Gerry made the turnaround in 2009. They took on the adventure in addition to their initial work.

Meanwhile, the coffee is ready. As Gerry pours my coffee, she calls out from the kitchen to John, who is standing in the store, if he would like a cup as well. The sense of conviviality is palpable. We resume our conversation. Surely Gerry has now made me curious as to how they ended up becoming a play and candy store.

''We started as a store selling toys and kitchenware,'' Gerry says. ''It wasn't a choice to start a store with this line of business. It just happened that way. You could also call it a confluence of circumstances. ''Initially I wanted a Dille & Kamille, but there were some snags, so it wasn't going to happen,'' Gerry says. Stopping a toy and kitchenware store in Heusden gave us the space to start a similar store.

Years later, John and Gerry were approached. By a fellow entrepreneur. He asked them if they were interested in taking over his candy store, since he was going to quit his candy store. They didn't say no to the candy. Only it became perhaps too much of a good thing. ''It became clear that we were better off focusing on certain products,'' Gerry says. ''We took the kitchen stuff to a refugee organization and continued as a play and candy store,'' she adds.

One learns by doing is John and Gerry's credo. In this way they have been successfully running Berg & Braam as a play and candy store for many years now. Still, I have to ask Gerry if things are going as well as in previous years. With the rise all the webshops these days, it seems to me it would be difficult to keep such a business open. Gerry agrees with me. ''It's definitely become more difficult, but we're getting into this as well,'' she says. Their daughter has also recently developed a Web shop for selling toys. ''You have to be creative these days,'' she states. Creative John and Gerry certainly are. For example, in addition to being a store, they have also become a parcel point for almost all parcel services. This ensures a constant walk-in of people. A smart move in my opinion.

The little store reminds me of my grandmother's store that also sold wood toys. Nostalgic feelings. Not only that contributes to that, but also the fact that I saw the same hand puppet on display that I used to have when I was about 10 years old. What a coincidence! ''We prefer wooden toys and dolls in our assortment,'' Gerry says. Gerry is also going along with the sustainable trend. ''Customers are finding that increasingly important,'' she notes. For example, she recently found toys made from sugar cane. ''How is that even possible,'' I think. But this is apparently a trend this summer.

When we start talking about the candy, we can't stop talking. I get the idea that Gerry does enjoy this so much. The candy attracts not only children, but also the children's parents. They like it because it reminds them of their childhood. So they are often as enthusiastic as the kids. This is because Berg & Braam has many old Dutch candies on its shelves. ''The best thing about selling candy is the kids who come here,'' Gerry says, ''they also come to us specifically to ask if we have a specific candy.'' ''What specific candy?'' I ask her. ''There is a trend going on at TikTok with Asian and American candies,'' Gerry explains.

''So then these kids come to me with their phone call, and they show me something and ask me to order it,'' she says. Then Gerry goes off to investigate herself. We joke together that the kids who come for this are actually sort of free trend spotters.

When I asked what the most popular candy was, Gerry couldn't answer right away. She calls John in. It's fun to see Gerry and John thinking together about my question. In the end, it comes down to the fact that they can't name one specific candy. ''Then surely licorice, cinnamon sticks and salmiac chunks are the most frequently chosen candies by adults,'' John says. With children, it's a different story. They, on the contrary, seek more variety.

The story behind the candy is also important to Gerry. That's why she's so interested in those fancy candies from abroad. But to me she starts a story about a special candy that found its origin closer to home. Namely Jew fat or nowadays breast honey. For older readers it may sound familiar, but I had to ask Gerry what exactly this is. ''Chest honey is a byproduct from the potato industry,'' she says. The white chunks consist of starch. The starch is transformed into a warm-sweet taste when held in the mouth. ''Besides being loved by many people, it was used in De Langstraat to keep leather supple,'' I learn from Gerry.

The conversation is nearing its end. By now my hand is paralyzed from jotting down everything Gerry has told me. She speaks with such enthusiasm about her business that she has completely taken me in. She speaks the beautiful words, ''I won't get rich from it, but mostly socially rich.'' These words describe it perfectly. At Berg & Braam, there is still room for personal attention. That's why customers find it a store of the past. That attention also produces many great stories. ''For example, there is a family that comes back every year during their vacation; I see their children grow up. How beautiful is that,'' says Gerry.

I thank Gerry for her candid story. Now she herself has to get back to work, because the store is filling up nicely again. And I go looking for butter wafers among the many candies. They are so good!

Visit Berg & Braam yourself.

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