Photographer Rachel Smith still remembers the moment she first stepped into James Smith & Sons, the umbrella shop on New Oxford Street which dates back to 1857. She’d just moved to London and remembers thinking the shop had ‘the wow factor’. That feeling returned when, years later, she started work on a book about London shopfronts with her friend, writer Emma J Page.
Smith expected to focus purely on, well, the shopfronts. But as the project progressed, she realised that the shopkeepers were key to the story. ‘I had to photograph the owners,’ she says. ‘They’re as connected to the shop as the shop is to them. Their personalities really come across in the shops. You learn as much from the people as you do from the shop’s façade.’
As she photographed across the city, she picked up snippets of London stories. At East End caff E Pellicci, she met Anna (whose grandmother was Elide Pellicci). She gave Smith a slice of apple pie, a cuppa and a brief history lesson. ‘She was telling me about the Krays,' she says. 'They hung out there and knew the people in Pellicci’s really well.’
The ‘higgledy-piggledy’ Hurlingham Books is another shop that stood out. The owner showed her a hole in the front window, which was made by a snowball. ‘They never repaired it, which makes me laugh’, she says.‘The books just cover where that piece of glass fell out.’
The project has become even more pertinent as shops try to weather the storm of the pandemic. ‘They’re the fabric of London,’ says Smith. ‘Some of the shops [in the book] are the city’s oldest. It would be awful if they disappeared.’ She wants to document the capital’s shops as they are now. ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.’
In the age of internet shopping, this book is championing local independent businesses. ‘These shops are part of where you live, and they show a sense of community,’ she says. ‘Support your local shops. If you don’t, you never know if they’re going to disappear.’
‘London Shopfronts’ by Emma J Page and Rachael Smith is out on Sep 30, published by Hoxton Mini Press. £22.95.
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