The 161-year history of Hayward and Warwick in Saint John has finally come to an end, according to owners Royden and Suzan McKillop.

A sign posted Tuesday on the window of the iconic Princess Street china shop announced the shop would be selling off the remainder of its merchandise "effective immediately" because of a "sudden, serious" illness in the family.

"We don't want to forge on anymore with this illness on the horizon," said Craig McKillop, whose father, Royden McKillop, has worked at the china shop for 51 years.

161-year tradition

Hayward and Warwick was founded in 1855 by brothers-in-law William Henry Hayward and William Warwick.

After the Great Fire of 1877, the family built a new shop on Princess Street, where the store has been located ever since.

Royden McKillop, who was first hired in 1966 by Hayward and Warwick as a box boy, sweeping floors, cleaning shelves and unpacking crates, purchased the store from fifth-generation owners Mark and David Hayward in June 2013.

"It's part of me now," he said in a November 2016 interview with CBC. "I've been here for 50 years. I just can't get it out of my blood."

Royden and Suzan McKillop

Owners Royden and Suzan McKillop met and fell in love while they both worked at the store. They purchased it from the Hayward family in 2013. (Julia Wright/CBC)

The decision to close, according to his son Craig McKillop said, has been an emotional one. The outpouring of public sympathy since the closure was announced has been "overwhelming and much appreciated," he said.

'My phone hasn't stopped since last night when we posted it [on Facebook]. It's unreal. People have been saying how much they're going to miss it, how kind-hearted everyone has been to them."

The family did not elaborate on the illness, saying it wanted to keep the details private.

Closing-out sale draws crowds

More than a dozen customers lined up at the door before the shop opened Tuesday morning, the day after the closing-out sale was announced on Facebook.

"It's very sad," said Tanya McKinney, whose family has shopped at Hayward and Warwick for decades.

"I was a little girl when I first came here," she said. "It's a beautiful store and it's sad that it's going to be gone. There's not anywhere in Saint John that has the beautiful stuff that they have in this store."

Sandra Lawson agreed.

"I've been shopping here for 35 years," she said. "All my china, crystal —  everything, we ordered from here, from our wedding registry."

"I don't know where else we can buy this stuff. We'll have to go to another city. It's going to be quite a void."

'A big part of our lives'

The owners thanked their customers for many years of support.

In the coming weeks, all in-stock merchandise will be discounted at 50 percent off "until it is gone," said Craig McKillop. "Then, we're going to close the doors."

The timeframe, he said, "depends on the public. But we're hoping it's going to be quick."

"It's hard," he said. "It's been a big part of our life. I've never known anything but. My dad has been here since I was born."

"The store has been here forever, and they know everybody."