Its 7:30am as I walk through the glass fronted door and I’m still a little bleary eyed. Having just helped run a pop-up shop on Church Street, Marylebone (in association with Alfie’s Antiques), out of pure courtesy I’d been invited along to a breakfast business meeting run by Westminster council. They are discussing their early plans for an expensive regeneration scheme in the area and everyone from the police, post office and shop owners alike are huddled beside a map swigging coffee and chatting.
Antique shops this way……..
Take a walk down Church Street and you’ll walk down a microcosm of London. Within its 500m stretch sits an old style daily street market, an array of ethnically diverse shops, cafes and businesses, before crossing an invisible line that marks the start of the antiques quarter and ends in the street’s jewel in the crown- Alfie’s Antiques Market.
When Bennie Gray bought the formerly-named Jordan’s department store in 1976 the street was admittedly rough and run down. In the 40 years since, the area has prospered enticing a host of quality and fashionable antique shops to spring up around Alfie’s. Even so, any visitor today will realise Church Street remains an area of stark contrast. Alongside affluent London apartment buildings where one bed flats can sell for nearly half a million pounds, lies a melting pot of social housing and very real deprivation. And this is the acute problem facing Westminster council. Though there is a natural inclination to gentrify the area to cater for its rising affluence (and a mass of new homes already under construction just around the corner), they also understand the need to respect and support the current diversity and heritage of the street.
Its all change………
Leon Young (of Young & Son) has had an antique shop opposite Alfies for the last 16 years. He is chair of the local antique dealers association and like most of the people I met, is passionate about keeping the antiques quarter there alive and healthy. Faced with the same familiar problems of declining footfall and the effects of online trade, Leon understands that the Church Street regeneration could be a golden opportunity and not a time to sit back and be blasé. “Westminster Council own 80% of the commercial freeholds on this street and we have been negotiating with them for fixed rates and rents for the next 10 years. This will create something akin to a ‘special policy’ area for the antiques quarter here and shows that the Council see the ever rarer independent businesses as important to protect the character and quality of the street.”
When I think back on the London of my 1990s youth, I remember with sadness all the former Antiques hotspots that once dotted the capital city. From Bermondsey to Camden, many have now been permanently neutered, either through high-value building schemes or from excessive red tape and rates. For so many reasons it would be a crying shame to see Church Street slip the same way into yet another faceless road with no soul. Indeed, though the Antiques Industry as a whole is undergoing a major personality crisis and the world moves steadily online to buy their treasures, dedicated bricks and mortar destinations like Church Street still command a loyal and cult international following that those of us online can only ever dream of.
Moving from pen and paper……….
Usually when you come across a redevelopment story it is long after the battle lines have been drawn and the first blows inflicted. In this particular case everything is (at least in theory) still on the cards. As I stood chatting to Leon in his compact shop watching people wander in and out, he shared with me his own ideal plan for the street. It was a street where the pavements had been widened and tree lined, dedicated parking bays provide easy collections and access, and a thriving outdoor weekend vintage and brocante market spills out down the road, full of energy and eager bargain hunters spending their time between the stalls, shops and gourmet street food dotted around, before rolling into the regular market at the other end of the street. “I already know of several local families who would love to be involved in the market” tells Leon excitedly, “but the responsibility and oversight will need to come from the council who own the road”. I understand his point of view, as ultimately for any meaningful redevelopment programme to succeed here it will have to show how it embeds itself into and supports the community at large. At the same time it will also require a level of friendliness and engagement (that Alfie’s in particular) has already become synonymous with. At one end of Church Street the little road sign currently reads “this way to the antique shops”, and at the other it tells “this way to the market”. Wouldn’t it be great to see both halves finally embrace?
As I step out of the breakfast meeting and through the now busy fruit market, I spot a series of paving slabs on the ground that commemorate key historic buildings and facts associated with the street. Among other things I learn that the Blitz flattened most of the old buildings here and that Charlie Chaplin regularly played in a theatre now long gone. It would be comforting to know that once the latest redevelopment work has finally ended on Church Street, that there won’t be another slab added to commemorate an antiques quarter that used to reside there too.