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Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

‘It’s not a caff – it’s a social club’: We reunite regulars with their favourite haunts

Your pub landlady, your barber, your nail technician… While the city was shut down, many Londoners realised that they’d taken lots of these relationships for granted. Not anymore

By
Alexandra Sims
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After months of separation, we reunited five Londoners with the business owners they missed the most. What have they learned during all that time apart?

‘You miss everyone when they’re out of reach’

Box Clever Sports. Co-founder and personal trainer Pete and regular client Alfie. 

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Box Clever Sports is a no-frills gym in a Ladbroke Grove multi-storey car park. Pete set it up to teach schoolchildren to jab and hook and it’s become a huge part of the community. Alfie has been coming to the gym to train with Pete twice a week for four years.

Pete ‘I couldn’t wait to get everyone training again. At the start, everyone was so out of shape, I managed to make people cry, which I did enjoy. Maybe a bit too much [laughs].’

Alfie ‘The first session back, you can’t believe how rusty you are. You forget how sore you get – you quickly remember of course!’

Pete ‘All our clients know each other and I consider them all my friends. You miss everyone when they’re out of reach. Coming back, you could see people’s faces change as they interacted again.’

Alfie ‘Lots of people that I bump into on the street, I know their names because they come to the gym. You get to know people and see their transformations from when they start, then you see how they’ve changed six months later.’

Pete ‘Going from being in contact with hundreds of people every day to seeing nobody was a shock. We had to take our classes online. People have emailed thanking us for doing them because they kept them sane.’

Alfie ‘I did a few of the online classes. I enjoyed just tuning in and watching them, too.’

Pete ‘We had a few people watching while they were having their breakfast. They were there because they didn’t want to disconnect.’

Alfie ‘Nothing can replace a boxing gym. It’s probably the most intense all-round thing you can do. It’s an adrenaline rush, and it’s exhausting, which is nice in this world of sitting around and looking at screens. When I finish a session I have a calmness about me and I noticed when I didn’t have it over lockdown.’

Pete ‘I’ve been boxing since I was a kid. No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s always there. I’ve never found anything that’s as psychologically or physically hard, that’s why I love it. We’ve got someone training for our first pro fight; we’re also working on doing classes for Muslim women. I’m really proud of what we’ve created.’

Lowerwood Court car park, Westbourne Park Rd.

‘It’s a safe space. It’s full of women at peace’

Ama. Nail technician Fay and regular customer Precious.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Non-toxic nail salon Ama was set up in 2018 by Ama Quashie in Brixton, where she grew up. It also gives back to the community: it set up a nail bar in a women’s prison and plans to mentor young people at the local secondary school. Fay has worked as a nail technician for eight years. Precious has been coming to Ama since it opened and hasn’t gone anywhere else since.

Precious ‘I definitely took getting my nails done for granted before this. My nails looked so bad when I first came back, but I never felt judged.’

Fay ‘It’s great to be back and have purpose again. Seeing customers like Precious is seeing friends again.’

Precious ‘I’ve deepened my existing friendships coming here. My best friend comes here all the time, so does her closest friend and my mum. It’s a safe space. It’s full of women at peace.’

Fay ‘March was very sombre. It was like when Brexit happened: that same sombre feeling. When the government made the announcement about furlough we all watched it together in the salon.’

Precious ‘My friend and I talked about Ama all the time over lockdown, hoping that everyone was okay. As soon as it reopened I booked four appointments.’

Fay ‘Now that everyone is like “Ugh, keep away”, the fact you can touch people here and feel safe is a real privilege. Touch is so important.’

Precious ‘I trust Fay and that’s so important. At work I’m quite tentative about saying things because of how you’re going to be perceived, especially as a Black woman. With Fay it’s really freeing to be able to say what you want.’

Fay ‘When you know that you’ve made people feel good it’s a real sense of achievement. It may seem like so little to some people, but it’s everything to these women.’

Precious ‘You can recognise Ama nails. I was on the bus and saw a woman with these amazing lightning bolts on her nails. I was like, “Excuse me, where did you do your nails?” She said “Ama”. I just knew it!’

Fay ‘Ama is a sanctuary: it’s what every salon should be.’

340 Coldharbour Lane.

‘I don’t call this a caff – for me it’s a social club’

E Pellicci. Co-owner Anna and regular Eric.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Grade II-listed café E Pellicci opened in 1900 and is still in the hands of the same family. Food is prepared by Mama Maria – queen of the kitchen since 1961 – at home now rather than in the kitchen, due to the pandemic. Her children, Anna and Nevio Jr, serve it. Local character Eric Hall has been eating at the caff on and off for 70 years.

Eric ‘How long have I been coming here?’

Anna ‘Too fucking long.’

Eric [Laughs] ‘My mum used to bring me as a kid, when I was two or three months old. I went to school up the road here and I’d come in for lunch.’

Anna ‘It’s lovely to be back again and see people. We missed it, it’s like seeing family again.’

Eric ‘About 20 years ago, I’d moved away from the area and hadn’t been to the caff for about ten years. One day I happened to drive down Bethnal Green Road and saw the caff. I walked in and nothing had changed. The father behind the counter said, “Eric Hall, it’s you.” I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been coming every week since.’

Anna ‘People become extended family: you hear all the moans and groans and half of them end up coming to your wedding. Some people have been coming for so long we’ll have a big blow-out argument, but it’s all forgotten the next day.’

Eric ‘I’m an old schmuck, I don’t know about Zoom, I’d rather have a face-to-face conversation. When it reopened, boy, I realised how much I’d missed it. I don’t call this a caff – for me it’s a social club.’

Anna ‘London is such a big place and you can often feel so lost here. So we try and introduce people to each other. It’s really important for us to keep that here, and keep people talking, because that’s being lost in London, isn’t it? We don’t care if you’re a film star or Kevin round the corner who sells potatoes. Everyone’s the same to us.’

Eric ‘It feels like family. I really believe that once you’ve been here you’ll always come back. Not only is the food great – I’ve never had a bad meal here in all the years I’ve been coming – but it’s the atmosphere and the people that really make it.’

Anna ‘It’s all about community. The East End has always been a melting pot. My parents were Italian immigrants; there are big Bengali and Jewish communities, everyone and anyone comes and makes their home here. It’s changing, but we try and keep the East End heart and soul here.’

332 Bethnal Green Rd.

‘One of the joys of regulars is they will spend as much as they possibly can’

The French House. Landlord Lesley and regular customer Tim.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Lesley is The French House’s third landlord in 106 years and has been at the helm since 1989. Tim has been coming to the bar at least twice a week since 1976 – he was one of the last people in the pub on March 22 and among the first to visit again when it reopened on July 4.

Tim ‘I’ve genuinely missed it. It’s brilliant to see old friends and it’s great to see Lesley with a smile on her face: she is the best landlady.’

Lesley ‘The first two weeks [of being closed] I went into a real down. Soho was boarded up and there was nobody around, but I opened up the windows and chatted to anyone passing by.’

Tim ‘A few of us regulars met up in St Anne’s churchyard over the road and had a few glasses.’

Lesley ‘We have a huge number of regulars: it’s a village pub, really, and one of the very few things that’s left from old Soho. When I came here in 1989 I got to meet Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and all the old Soho characters that drank here.’

Tim ‘The place has certainly kept its character: it just gets more eccentric. Lesley’s done so well to cope, because she thought the pub might close. A few regulars got the crowdfunding together and money came in from all over the world so she could cover the rent.’

Lesley ‘The response was amazing. I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude. Someone called me “everybody’s mother” and it’s in my nature to be like that. The pleasure of other people is wonderful. One of the joys of having loyal regulars is they will come and deliberately spend as much money as they possibly can.’

Tim ‘It’s the best bar in the West End as far as I’m concerned. Once you’ve visited, it’s difficult to get away.’

49 Dean St.

‘It’s somewhere you feel safe to get stuff off your mind’

SliderCuts. Owner Mark and regular customer Abi.

Photograph: Andy Parsons
Photograph: Andy Parsons

Mark has been a professional barber for 17 years. He started SliderCuts in 2010 and the likes of world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and presenter Reggie Yates have visited for a shape-up. Abi has had his hair cut by Mark every two weeks for the last three years.

Mark ‘It’s good to be back and talk to people again. I love cutting hair, but I also enjoy the conversations I have with customers. It’s nice to have that again.’

Abi ‘When I get my hair cut it’s like my identity’s coming back. My hair looked atrocious over lockdown – my girlfriend had to give me some touch-ups at home. So being back in the chair I feel like I’m coming back into myself. I’d like to say my haircut’s unique.’

Mark ‘It is unique.’

Abi ‘I’d been looking for a barber for a long time. A friend told me about Mark so I visited him and he got it right off the bat. I’ve never been to anyone else since.’

Mark ‘I always had an interest in hair. I used to look at Carlton from “Fresh Prince” and think he had a really good haircut. When I got to secondary school I had no money to go to the barbershop, so I picked up the clippers and tried it myself. I started shaping up some people in my area. “Slider” became my nickname and when I was 18 I got an apprenticeship in a barbershop.’

Abi ‘Coming here is definitely more than a haircut. Mark shares his life experiences about how he’s developed his business or juggled money. They’ve helped me think about my situation, too.’

Mark ‘I’ve never had a break like [lockdown] in my whole career and it made me realise how much responsibility my job carries. Every barber is a councillor slash therapist. People have asked me about marriage problems. I’ve had conversations where it’s like “This person got murdered next to me.” Some of these conversations have happened before they’ve spoken to anybody else.’

Abi ‘This is somewhere you feel safe to get stuff off your mind. I’ve known Mark for a long time and we often share more than we need to. That’s how I consider someone my friend, when you’re actually going deep.’

Mark ‘The barbershop is really important in Black communities. Everybody has got things on their mind and there aren’t a lot of spaces that people can go to express those things. I’m talking to people who may not be able to talk to their mum, dad, sisters, brothers or friends. SliderCuts is an important place.’

176 Hackney Rd.

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