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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Clapham's last real junk shop given two months to clear out

Closing down sale of the last century: Peter and his son outside their Prescott Place shop, which looks set to disappear for good by November 
Walking east down Clapham High Street, it's very easy to miss a hidden survivor of an old but almost extinct London institution - the pavement junk-shop.

Next time you walk this sticky main drag, keep to the north side pavement, and when you get to Prescott Place (just after Snappy Snaps) look to the left and you'll see a scene that looks more like a bit of Brick Lane in the 1980s rather than Clapham in 2015.

The narrow street, which has one of Clapham's best known gay bars, the Two Brewers, on one corner, is also home to Peter Chrysostomou's second-hand store. When it's open, all manner of stuff - pictures, furniture, coats, old radios, books, potted plants, hatstands, boots, you name it …are spilling out of his store-rooms across a non-existent pavement and onto the double-yellow lines. The interior looks too crammed with stuff to enter.

Eager bargain hunters know this is a great place for nosing out old frames, china, glass, an ancient camera...you name it….Clapham's very own one-man flea-market. Surely this little bit of old London will be treasured by the new generations of style-conscious hipster-yuppies?

Not a bit of it. Peter has been served notice of eviction, and has just had one possibly final stay of execution, two months after the expiry of his lease.

He's now facing demands he clears out the premises by November 15. So the big sign advertising his  long-running "Closing down sale" is finally, sadly, going to be true.

On one of the shelves outside there are two picture frames, each containing what looks like a page of text torn out of magazines. The articles are both about the house in Clapham High Street that once belonged to the widow of Captain James Cook,  Elizabeth.  I am not sure if these are there for information or for sale, and try to catch the owner's eye. But he's shutting up for the day and framed pages are put away before I can read any of the detail.

So I decide to come back another day, and I ask him about the "Closing down sale" and how much longer he'll be there. He immediately seems suspicious: "Why? Who are you? A taxman?"

 I assure him I'm just a drifting unemployed refugee from the modern world, a low-grade scavenger of stories,  and then he opens up a lot and starts listing the various authorities by whom he's being chased. "Police, Fire Brigade, council, all the people in uniform…"

They are, he says, all out to get him and this time there seems to be no hope of avoiding the ultimate killer blow, eviction. "I've been in Clapham 50 years" he says. "But this will be the end of it."

I have no idea about the rights and wrongs of Peter's case. He's understandably stressed and distressed and feels hemmed in by people who just want to make him and his shop disappear.

All I know is that the sort of place Peter runs is now a seriously endangered species in London. It's a truly scarce commodity that should be valued. You walk past all these dreary chain stores, or even worse the endless estate agents occasionally punctuated by silly overpriced food stores or gift shops, then you see down this dark narrow street a glimpse of a pre-(Falklands)-war world of bartering, thrift, bargaining, men in big coats arguing over a bit of furniture, it's all straight out of an Ealing comedy or something earlier.

It's also real, and as such will inevitably die. But does it have to die so soon? In this new age of Mr Cameron's austerity, there are an awful lot of us who need to pick up some stuff dirt cheap, and I haven't seen many decent saucepans at the 99p Shop recently.

Peter has a son who tells me his shop used to be on the High Street, in what is now a Trinity Hospice Charity shop. This is double-edged blow for me. It reminds me that I am here as part of an attempt to update an earlier entry on the best charity shops in the SW quarter. It also reminds me I once worked for these Trinity Hospice shops. And it reminds me that charity shops - much as I love them - have severely cannibalised the second-hand retail trade. Charities have insuperable financial advantages over all their independent retail rivals. They pay no tax or VAT, they get low or zero rents, they get their stock for free and they don't pay most of their staff.

Like I said,  I love charity shops (and my nearest and dearest will say I love them too much). But it's clear they more or less wiped out that whole tribe of junkshop entrepreneurs. Some of course have joined the charity bandwagon (because there is money to be made there still - the ragging, the occasional gem that be picked up for 50p  and flogged on to antiques geezers for 50 times the price.

But, overall, this massive retail shift has squeezed out the mid-range antiques shops, nearly all the low-price second-hand book shops, and many others. Old clothes shops now have to be "retro" or "vintage" to compete.

So, back to Peter. I am hoping to talk to him at more length soon. But if anyone has any reminiscences of this shop, or knew it in any way, or knew similar shops in their area that are still operating, please for pity's sake let me know!

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