Londei’s London Shops. Photo & text: John Londei (3/3)

Tom Cornish, Tobacconist, 87 Clerkenwell Road, EC1. Photo  © John Londei

John Londei writes:

This was the second photograph I took for my book Shutting Up Shop. The tobacconist sat across the road to my studio, two doors along from ‘Morrison’s’ the chemist, the shop that started the ball rolling.

In 1956 William Hadly was de-mobbed from National Service. “A friend got me a job here telling me: ‘You’ll only be number two’. In 1959, I ended up buying the business.”

Tom Cornish opened the shop over one hundred years ago. “I never met him. He went out of business in 1911. But I still keep the picture of him – our ‘founder’ – above the clock. It shows the business has some standing.”

The shop had remained unchanged since William took over, the corner wooden phone kiosk an echo of the days when most people didn’t own a telephone. “You’d be surprised how many people comment on it. Only tobacco, I sell only tobacco, nothing else! Not even chewing gum. Every morning I’m up at 5.20, and open the shop at 7 o’clock. I shut at five in the evening. We always make sure we are in bed by 9.30. The biggest change for me was when VAT started in 1973. Most nights I do the books. The VAT has given me so much extra work.”

George Fieldwich, who had worked at a local pub, joined the shop at the age of seventy-one. William’s wife, Erna, was Austrian, and used to be a language teacher. “I enjoy the foreigners’ surprise when I speak to them in their own tongue. I am a non-smoker. I would have preferred to run a bookshop.”

William always seemed to have his pipe permanently clenched between his teeth; in fact I can’t remember ever seeing him without it. “I go all round the jars and try them all out. People come from miles around for this stuff. Once you’ve got a customer, you’ve got them forever. That’s why we don’t change the name of the shop, because it was famous.”

Erna also saw no reason to change things. “See that ‘Senior Service’ lady on the wall… We could have sold her a hundred times over. We have had many offers for her. But we always refuse.”

 © John Londei 2011

John Londei’s book  Shutting Up Shop: the decline of the traditional small shop is published by Dewi Lewis.

Londei’s London shops. Photo & text: John Londei (2/3).

Eddie Schloss, proprietor: silk & woollen merchant. 28A Goulston Street, Aldgate.  © John Londei

John Londei writes:

This was a hard shot to take; full of problems, with torrential rain, gale force winds and hardly any light.

Eddie Schloss had just seen off a difficult customer. ”They all come here telling me the same thing was offered up the road for half the price, ‘So why didn’t you buy it?’ I tell them.”

Eddie’s father, Samuel, was a Polish immigrant who settled in the East End of London and opened this shop, near Petticoat Lane market, in 1928. Eddie, his only son, left school at fifteen to work for his father. “He was a wonderful man. A true gentleman. Very fair. A good father, by God. I respected him. I loved him deeply. If my father were alive today I’d be the happiest person.”

Eddie joined the RAF and remained in the service for many years. “They allowed me compassionate leave, as my father had been taken bad. He couldn’t do it anymore. What with it being a family business, they gave me leave to come out. I took over here. I wasn’t cut out for this work. I wanted to be a doctor. Medical matters always fascinated me. I began studying it at school, but my education was wasted. But you need a different kind of patience for this work.”

Eddie didn’t seem interested having his picture taken, and it took a lot of persuading until he finally agreed. I don’t know what he was thinking as he watched us battle with the elements trying to set up the plate camera.

”Art. You’re probably doing it for art. I respect that. But I’ve got enough problems without art as well. Be honest with yourself, do I need it? I’ve got enough problems without you. I respect you as human beings. You’re wasting your time, but be my guest. But don’t expect me to spend any time on it. When I was younger I might have been impressed.

“ I would be happy to have a copy of the photo when it’s done. I won’t be impressed. I’m too old for that, but I’ll see what my wife thinks. God bless you – if your art gives you only half the problems I’ve had, you’ll have had  enough.”

 © John Londei 2011.

John Londei’s book  Shutting Up Shop: the decline of the traditional small shop is published by Dewi Lewis.

Londei’s London shops. Photos & text: John Londei (1/3)

Kim’s Dogs Beauty Parlour, 4 Bristol Gardens, Notting Hill, 1984. © John Londei.

John Londei writes:

To her customers Freeda Lizetta Regina Sophia Carson was simply known as ‘Kim’.

Freeda was German and married an Englishman who worked in Hanover. They moved to England and her husband, who was often away on business, bought her a dog for company. “It was a poodle. That’s how it started.”

As the dog’s coat grew it became progressively shabbier. “I had no idea what to do. Eventually he had such long hair I taught myself to clip him.” And so began a lifelong career. Freeda got a job at Bellmead Kennels in Windsor and in 1955 she opened her salon in Maida Vale. Ironically it used to be a butcher’s shop.

In her heyday Freeda employed several assistants, and was able to handle ten dogs a day. “It was a very chic place. A lot of my customers came in chauffeur driven cars. They came because of my work.”

Freeda poses in the picture with ‘Kim’, a fifth generation dog stretching back to her original poodle. All were called ‘Kim’. She’d had the present ‘Kim’ since he was a puppy. “He has to be on a lead at the shop. Well, I must be frank. He’s very sexy. You see all dogs are different. My other dogs could be left and did nothing. But this one’s a bugger!”

The fashion for poodles began to wane in the early 1960s. “At that time everyone had poodles! Poodles only. Now it’s terriers and spaniels.”

Freeda was over eighty; the years had taken had their toll. “I’m much too old. My hands are not strong anymore. It takes about two and a half hours of hard work to do a dog.”

The shop now stood on a desirable site; the surrounding area was being developed. However, Freeda had an old lease and couldn’t be evicted. The landlord, eager to sell the property, was forced to sit it out. Freeda stubbornly stood firm until she received a good offer from the landlord. He in turn refused to carry out repairs to the building in the hope she would leave. But Freeda would not let herself be bullied. “I’m free from debts and everything. I earn just enough. I live from day to day. Be happy, don’t worry. No stress… Besides, I love dogs.”

 © John Londei 2011

John Londei’s book  Shutting Up Shop: the decline of the traditional small shop is published by Dewi Lewis.

Old and New Soho. Photo & text John Londei. (2/5)

Gaston’s farewell party, French House, Soho. Photo © John Londei 1989.

John Londei writes:

The French House, Dean Street, W1

Gaston Berlemont, and his handlebar moustache, was as much a feature of Soho as the pub he ran. Born in a room above the pub in 1914, Gaston was still at school when he first started serving behind the bar in the evenings. Seventy-five years later the moment had arrived for his final ‘Time Gentlemen, please’.

Gaston’s father, Victor – the first foreigner to be granted a full English pub licence in 1914 – took the pub over from a German who, at the outbreak of World War One, feared internment as an enemy alien. It was actually called the ‘York Minister’ but with the arrival of the Berlemonts’, locals nicknamed it ‘The French’, and it wasn’t until 1977 that its name officially changed to ‘The French House’. In earlier days Soho was somewhat of a Gallic enclave with its own French butcher, patisserie, newsagent, cafes, restaurants and two churches. During World War Two the Free French made ‘The French’ their drinking HQ, and it’s thought General De Gaulle wrote his 1940 clarion call speech À tous les Français in an upstairs room at the pub declaring that one day France would be liberated from Nazi occupation.

Victor Berlemont died in 1951 and Gaston took over the pub. Under his tenure the pub remained unchanged; the décor remained a sombre brown, and wines, apéritifs, and spirits were the tipples of choice. It must be the only British pub where beer was served in half-pint glasses. And as for buying a packet of crisps, peanuts or pork scratchings, forget it, Gaston refused to stock them. But the unique character of the pub and its eccentric landlord had many luminaries as regulars such as Augustus John, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Max Beerbohm, Jeffrey Bernard and Peter O’Toole. Even Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier visited the pub.

On Friday 14 July 1989, Gaston retired. And of course, being Gaston, he didn’t choose just any old day to go en retraite – he choose Bastille Day, and moreover it was the day marking the storming of the Bastille’s bicentennial. And of course, Soho being Soho wasn’t about to mark the retirement of its longest established patron without throwing a lavish party that resulted in Dean Street being closed to traffic, and the pub having to close twice in order to replenish the stock of booze.

It was a magical day, albeit a day tinged with sadness at having to bide adieu to one of Soho’s favourite sons. Gaston had planned to give a speech from the first-floor window, but the inebriated roars of appreciation from the crowd were such that he couldn’t be heard, so he waved instead. Afterwards he told a reporter that he had intended to say. “Vive La France, Vive L’Angleterre, Vive La Paix.”

An obituary appearing in the Independent newspaper in 1999 reported: Gaston Roger Berlemont, publican: born London 26 April 1914; three times married (one son, two daughters); died London 31 October 1999.

… for The London Column. © John Londei 2011.