We opened in 1999 solely as a music shop. Many of the small music shops were specialist and only really interested in specialist buyers – also, they tended not to be female friendly. They were centres of knowledge but could make you feel bad, which I hated. So I decided to change that and have a hang-out, where people could enjoy CDs and of course, buy them.
A few years later I got a sense that CDs were on their way out and started to learn a lot about the food business in order to sell coffee. The kind of café I wanted to create was influenced by the Antipodean new-wave coffee shop approach such as Flat White in Berwick Street, Soho. I started to sell coffee and food as well as CDs and records: a model that was also taken up by many others: mixing bookselling, hairdressing and even bicycle repairs with coffee.
At that time it was fresh and exciting. Then, there simply weren’t the numbers of coffee shops – you could walk from Farringdon to Angel tubes and not pass one. I got to know every coffee shop in EC1 and followed their passage across London. Places like Caravan actually helped to create the area as a coffee and food destination, bringing more people into the area.
But after a while I stopped counting café openings. Coffee outlets reached a saturation point, and started to plateau. With so many places to buy coffee it became more difficult to trade and if a big loyal company moved on, you might lose £100 a day in sales.
Rent rises are a huge reason why we’re going, as well. These raise emotions as they make it more difficult for independents, as only chains can afford the prices. This isn’t always an easy equation as sometimes independents become chains, but what often happens is that rent rises are steep, and when places close because they can’t afford the new rates they remain un-let.
At the moment there are many restaurants and cafés in Exmouth Market. It does still feel like a community but this predominance has changed the dynamic and I wonder if it discourages some people from seeing it as their local area, and from having a sense of ownership.
With that, bookshops have closed and although we do still have a few independent stores it’s not a high street any longer. I don’t know the answer but we could look at planning zones or somehow enable landlords to give charities free space when places are un-let, rather than leave them empty.
After this time I don’t think leaving it to the market works. If you want diversity on the high street then there has to be another way. Otherwise streets become restaurant and estate agents mixes, a bit like Upper Street in Islington. For now, the independents are already in places like Leyton and Walthamstow which are undergoing a similar process. But over two decades it has been a great experience – and a real insight into how rapid change can affect an inner London area.