Many moons ago, my then partner invited me to accompany him to a corporate Racing Day. I had a hunch there was something going on between him and his client so decided my look had to pack a punch.
A day or two before the event I stepped from store to store in the West End, searching for The Dress. Eventually, I entered a tiny independent boutique just off Carnaby Street where I found an elegant, simple matt satin shift dress in dove grey; it fitted like a glove …. but didn’t quite do the job I needed. The owner approached: it looks fabulous but I can see from your face, it’s not quite right. What isn’t it doing for you?
I explained about The Races and the Suspected Affair. With a smile and not a little triumph this lovely woman declared we do that one in red! This, dear reader, is where the independent sector and its personal touch wins out – and it’s not just in the dress department either.
Two years ago, a local bakery/grocery store opened in an empty warehouse near our home in Hackney Wick. D’oh Life was a haven for fresh organic fruit and vegetables from Home County farms; the people who worked there were marvellous A variety of pastries and bread were baked on-site including Fougasse a truly delicious affair. The friendly owners served coffee, to be enjoyed in-house or out – but usually in because people met there and even if you didn’t know the other customers the spark of conversation was abundant and friendly. Doh Life’s Fougasse was so good, we commissioned many too many for our wedding last year … could we do that now? No, dear reader we could not, for across the side of Doh’s former home are painted the words when I grow up I want to be an apartment block. Indeed, our favourite local bakery was ejected in favour of another generic development offering two-bedroom apartments for the thick end of £1m.
Happily, one of D’oh’s enterprising bakers has opened her own Social Enterprise nearby; Hearth may not have the space that is predecessor enjoyed but offers the warmest of welcomes as well as delicous loaves and pastries; here you will also find apprenticeship schemes, locally published magazines and much more for the community. Thank heavens for Hearth, its fiery spirit and bountiful bakes. As well as serving their own customers, Hearth supplies fellow local independents; Refill Therapy is a remarkable retailer … simply refill whatever you need and don’t pay for the packaging: cereal, soap, olive oil, ice cream – you name it, its here … and if you don’t have your own container, they can sell you a sturdy empty one to refill next time.
Another gem was our local Premier owned by a Turkish family who guaranteed a genial welcome; shelves boasted a fantastic array of stock rivalling any supermarket at the same prices – I was in there almost every day. The Family Sisters ran the place, knew all their customers and genuinely cared.
You don’t look like your usual happy self, babe? They said one Friday afternoon. I’ve had a difficult week, I explained. Raising a finger indicating that I should wait, one walked to the wine section and returned with a bottle of my favourite Primitivo. Here you are, this will make you feel better. On the House. Cheer up!
Sadly, the Family sold and the incumbent owners are busy conversing on the phone while barcodes are zapped; no hello or how are you? No eye contact or acknowledgement that you have shopped there many times before, just a gesture to the figure on the till when it is time to pay. Months later I have, for the odd essential, reluctantly moved my loyalty to Sainsbury’s Local, boycotted when The Sisters were still in store. At least here, the automatic tills wish you a good day. For a more extensive food shop, a short ride to Village Organic at the Victoria Park Roundabout does the trick.
Here, independent shops prevail; Jen at JCD Dry Cleaners is as adept at mending and re-lining as entertaining conversation. As I stood at the counter of the Community Pharmacy the other day, a man rushed in demanding Gaviscon. It’s there, I pointed to the undercounter shelf. Ah! Cried My Pharmacist, What a good customer you are – you know where everything is! Even if I walk past without going in, a cheery wave will greet me through the shop window.
I could elaborate further for our corner of East London is independent-rich; from Gina’s Closet on the Roman Road to the fishmonger at Victoria Park and the expert cobbler on the Bethnal Green Road, these people care about their customers and make the effort to ensure you return, which is why we do.
A heady mix of Covid and rent rises has damaged so many wonderful independent stores and their neighbourly ways of doing business. I’d rather walk to the shops and spend a few pence more with a local enterprise than travel to the supermarket where purchase overload is far more likely. Everything now is an experience – for me, the independent retailer provides the best, most personal experience to be had.
Long live the independents.
© Giovanna Forte 2023
“Long live the independents.” Hear hear!