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Open all hours: meet London's cornershop owners

By Kieran Yates
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It's there when you need booze, chocolate, loo roll and milk. The humble corner shop is every Londoner's best friend. Kieran Yates celebrates an urban institution and chats to five owners about life behind the counter.

London changes quickly: pop-ups come and go; shiny blocks of flats appear as if overnight; minimalist coffee shops stake out new territory. Yet amid all this transformation some things remain, more or less constant, like the modest corner shop. Theyíre not glam, or new, but these neighbourhood pit stops are a quiet lifeline for Londoners.

My grandparents opened a corner shop in Reading in the '70s. Like hundreds of Indian families before them, they saw ownership of a newsagent's as a way of integrating into their new country. For my grandad, engaging with locals like Ethel (who was forever losing her cat) and Ivan and Linus (two Irish builders who bought pies every day after work and ate their first ever curry in the shop) was a true grassroots cultural exchange. He got to see the eating and spending habits of British people, and they got to see what those 'new Indians in the corner shop' were like. The verdict was that they were both all right: a bit different, maybe, but the place just wouldnít feel like home without them.

The immigrant population of Britain has changed remarkably since the '70s, so who is behind your local shop counter today? From the owner who plays Indian soaps on TV to the shop that's frequented by a famous cat, we take a look - a real look - inside and find London's local pockets of convenience are filled with far more than just everyday household essentials.

Issa Tarawallie: Latin and Caribbean Food Store, Brixton Village market (pictured above)

'I'm from Sierra Leone. I've been in this area as a local for a long time, but I've only been running this place for about three years. The market and the whole of Brixton has changed a lot. The majority of my customers are Jamaicans who have been here for years buying their red beans, callaloo, ackee and saltfish for the week. I eat a lot of ackee and saltfish and I take bananas from the shop, but Iím not an expert at cooking: my sister does it mostly!

'A lot of the time English people will come in and say "What's this? Can you explain?" They buy a lot of vegetable soup. They say things like: "How do you cook pumpkin? How do you cook yam?" so I give them directions.

'I wanted to sell my traditional food because I am very proud of where I come from. A lot of Sierra Leoneans are very proud, but all you hear is about the troubles there. It is only half the story.

'I have one famous customer - Levi Roots. I sell his sauce and have his CD - he comes in every week. Sometimes people ask for selfies, and I feel proud that he comes to get his essentials here. Now I need to learn how to cook as well as him!'

Pallu Patel: Meet and Deep, Hampton Road, Twickenham

'This shop has been here for 100 years; we've been here for 22. Before I came to the UK I was working in factories in Gujarat, India. I run the shop with my family - my husband and my two sons, who the shop is named after. When I came here my English wasn't very good and I was too nervous to speak to customers, but now I talk too much!

'When we arrived there were no Indians in this area. It took a little time for people to become comfortable with us. Now, when people want a witness signature or something, we sign it, and a lot of the locals call me "mum".

'I wear English clothes - it is easier than a sari, so I wear convenience clothes for a convenience store. I never wear dresses: my husband jokes that he lives with three boys! I have a shrine, so I have Ganesh, Hanuman and Mataji looking after us. It's nice because now locals come and they say things like "Oh, it's Diwali soon!" Behind the counter we have lottery tickets because now we have to hide the cigarettes, so we put up scratch cards with names of the winners.

'Before I came here I had never heard of Heinz or Walkers crisps, or bacon. I really like chocolate, especially Whole Nut, and my husband likes Kit Kats - maybe because he works hard and needs a break. Occasionally I read Hello!- I used to read it more because I loved Princess Diana. When she died everybody who came into the shop was talking about it. We were all very sad.

'We have a famous local cat that comes to the shop every day: its nickname is "Shopcat". People always come to see Shopcat. We live here too so the shop isn't just somewhere that we work, it's our home. People say, "Oh, you need a holiday!" but it's my favourite place.'

Irfan Kunes: Newsforce Supermarket, 159 Clapton Common, Clapton

'Originally I'm from Turkey, the south-east. This business was Indian-owned but we took it over about three years ago. This shop wasn't really about catering to Turkish people, it was mostly for Eastern Europeans because there are a lot of Romanians, Bulgarians and Polish people in the area. It's a good example of cultural crossover because I've had to learn a lot about theirs, so I've come to like things like Romanian bread and cheese. I would never have tasted them if I didn't work here.

'The most popular items are Zywiec and Tyskie, which are Polish beers. There is also a lot of smoked packed meat like Mici. Some of the meats are a bit weird to me - I don't know exactly what they are.

'We have a lot of Jewish customers so we sell kosher wine. I suppose my British education has been a diverse one. We just want to answer the demands of the local people so if the area took in a large influx of Syrian refugees, for example, we would provide for them too. What is a corner shop if it doesn't reflect the community round the corner?'

Bashir Patel: Shearby's News, 402 Kingsland Road, Dalston

'My name is Bashir but the locals call me "Bash". I've been here since 2012; before I came here I worked in a supermarket in India. I never dreamed I would have my own shop. It's not a palace but I'm very proud of it. It's the kind of thing that your family back home are pleased to hear about. It's natural to be worried when you leave for a new, cold country and you wonder if you will have friends. That's one of the reasons I like having the regular customers here. It goes to show that you can take a chance and things will be good. You won't be lonely.

'I didn't know much about British sweets, but now I do, my favourite is Ferrero Rocher. My favourite magazine in the shop is called Retail Newsagent - it's very important to us to learn what's happening with other shops like us. It's a bit like a secret club!

'I like my life here, it's easygoing. I think the last time there was any excitement in the shop was when someone won £100 on a scratch card. That was exciting - well, for him.

'I like my local customers. The other day one lady came in because she forgot to pay 20 pence for toilet roll so she came back and paid it. That's what it's like here.'

Sirash Amin: General Grocery, 135 Hindmans Road, East Dulwich

'I've had this shop since 1982. I was born in Nairobi but I was lucky because I speak English, so when I first came here I worked in a garage and then a factory as a machine operator, and after that I bought this shop. After a lifetime of working, now I can relax and sit behind the counter. It's funny, I used to work very physical jobs but now you can find me arranging biscuits and crisps in my little shop! I don't like to eat them though, I like my chicken curry too much.

'The local community has changed a hell of a lot. I think the small local corner shops are disappearing now because of things like Sainsbury's and Tesco Express. It's bad but what can you do? There's no way my children are going to run this shop because both of them are going to be doctors. When they become doctors I will retire and convert this shop into flats. I suppose that's the dream, isn't it?

'I like to watch "Life OK" while serving my customers, it's an Indian channel. But my wife loves watching soaps and films like "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" when she's in the shop. English people come in and they all ask about the songs. For the older regulars, they give me their house numbers and I go to their homes and deliver things like milk and eggs. I think of myself as British - I came when I was 17 and I'm 53 now. I have a local lady called Reni who I just spoke to, and I'll be making her weekly delivery later - she has been in this area for years. So have I. I will never leave.'

Portraits: Ed Marshall

Want more cornershop goods? Take a look at our list of 24 corner-shop chocolate bars ranked in order of excellence.

Or see what happened when we asked the world's best barman to make cocktails from cornershop ingredients.

And read about food writers Caroline Craig and Sophie Missing favourite cornershops in London

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