This was a message as simple as it was heartbreaking. Written in felt-tip pen and attached with a bit of Sellotape to the door of the shop, it read: ‘We will be closing early at 5pm today as Dad passed away yesterday.’
And then came the sucker punch: ‘Sorry for any inconvenience.’
The shop is called Lena Stores and it is located at the end of my North London street.
The writer of the note, the son and co-owner of this family-run shop, whom I’ve only ever known as Mr Patel, was standing behind the counter looking a bit shell-shocked.
The writer of the note, the son and co-owner of this family-run shop, whom I’ve only ever known as Mr Patel (pictured), was standing behind the counter looking a bit shell-shocked
I passed on my condolences and then asked why on earth he was still open. ‘But it’s my customers,’ he said. ‘We never close.’
This is true. Lena Stores is open 365 days a year, from seven in the morning until eight at night, come rain, shine, snow drifts or a police cordon shutting off the street after a convict had escaped from a prison van and was hiding out in someone’s garden shed.
Most readers, no doubt, will know of somewhere similar in their locale, an open-all-hours store, usually family run, that has become a focal point of a community and a beacon of reliability in a fast-paced and ever-changing world.
Lena Stores has rescued me on Christmas Day when I ran out of butter and the turkey was drying out, and on Easter Sunday when it turned out someone (OK, their father) had eaten the youngest child’s chocolate egg.
Written in felt-tip pen and attached with a bit of Sellotape to the door of the shop, it read: ‘We will be closing early at 5pm today as Dad passed away yesterday’
In the 11 years we have lived here, Lena Stores has become part of our life, a place that stocks not just newspapers and a pint of milk, but every conceivable light bulb and battery, three types of pickled onions, spices, pesto, cherry jam, nappies, baking powder, cheap toys for the kids to spend their pocket money on . . . and so much more.
And holding fort, behind the counter, has always been Ashok Patel, who died earlier this month just a few days short of his 70th birthday, having run Lena Stores with his oldest son Raj, 47, for the past 21 years. Nearly 6ft tall and broad-shouldered, this gentle bear of a man would sit perched on a heater behind the counter wearing two jumpers in winter, or stand basking in the sunshine and chatting to customers in summer.
He was known as ‘The Big Man’ by some, ‘Pops’ by others. To me, he was Old Mr Patel to distinguish him from his son, Young Mr Patel.
The Patel family, like thousands of other Patels in Britain — not least our current Home Secretary — came originally from Gujarat in India, a region famed for its entrepreneurs and adventurers, many of whom settled in Uganda, Africa, where Ashok was born.
And holding fort, behind the counter, has always been Ashok Patel (pictured), who died earlier this month just a few days short of his 70th birthday
There, his family had a good business with an interest in a chemical factory, a cinema and a shop. ‘We were always told they had a Rolls-Royce. They were very successful and had a good life,’ says Raj.
But then Idi Amin, Uganda’s despotic president, started his purge of Asian Ugandans, booting them out of the country.
As many as 27,000 found shelter in Britain in the early 1970s, many becoming shopkeepers.
Ashok and his family, however, went back to India, where he became a rice and tobacco farmer. But he found life hard.
‘My uncle was already in Britain and he told us to come over; he sponsored us to come to the UK. He said it’d be a better life,’ Raj says.
‘My uncle was already in Britain and he told us to come over; he sponsored us to come to the UK. He said it’d be a better life,’ Raj (pictured) says
In 1987, Ashok, his wife, Lalitaben, and his three sons came to England. Raj recalls the moment he arrived as a teenager, speaking no English. ‘London was very beautiful and very clean. It was so different from our village in India, where we only had electricity for a couple of hours a day.’
From the day he arrived in Thatcher’s Britain, Ashok worked as a grocer, initially with his brother in a corner shop in Tottenham, North London, before saving enough to open his own: Lena Stores in Islington, which he took over in 1998.
Yes, the customers came to Lena Stores for groceries, but mostly for Old Mr Patel, who would dispense free lollipops to children and gossip to their parents and grandparents.
The shop itself is tiny, about a quarter the size of a typical Tesco Express. The freezer cabinet filled with Magnum ice creams, bags of peas and (very good value) £1 garlic bread baguettes, has a handle held together with gaffer tape.
The lino floor is scuffed. The superglue is stacked next to the Patak’s vindaloo sauce, and the balls of garden twine are shoved into a cardboard box along with large nail brushes, a shower mat and some 13-amp, three-way mains adapters.
But amid this chaos lies a staggering array of food, drink and household essentials. It is a microcosm of all that is best — and surviving still — in Britain’s high streets.
Not the Britain of self-service tills and chains selling vapid coffee.
No, the Britain of quirky independent shops, run by dedicated, hard-working families who choose to open their doors and serve their customers — even when they are grieving.
Napoleon may have meant it as an insult, but Britain still is a nation of shopkeepers — just. Nearly one in ten people in Britain works for a shop and the retail sector makes up five per cent of the British economy.
In 1987, Ashok, his wife, Lalitaben (pictured together), and his three sons came to England
Of course, most of our groceries are bought from one of the big four supermarkets: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. But there are thriving corner shops, despite all predictions they would be killed off by internet shopping and the march of the supermarkets.
Of the 46,388 convenience stores in Britain, about 33,000, or nearly three-quarters, are independent, according to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS). That number has fallen in the past few years, but not dramatically so.
‘About 15 years ago, all the prophecies were that there would be no more independents left. That’s definitely not happened,’ says James Lowman, ACS chief executive.
True, more and more convenience shops are now owned by a big supermarket chain. ‘But it’s a very slow move,’ Lowman adds. ‘The best shops in Britain are still run by independent shopkeepers, who are close to their customers.’
And few were closer to their customers than Ashok Patel. After he died — he was fully diagnosed with cancer only last month — a tribute was posted on a local online message board and it triggered an outpouring of grief that was immediate and heartfelt, giving lie to the idea that there is no sense of community in inner-city London.
The residents felt they had lost not just a local shopkeeper but a pillar of the community.
One, Emily Grazebrook, said: ‘When I first moved to the area ten years ago, my husband and I had very little money, as we had put it all down as a deposit for a flat.
‘I went into Lena and asked if they would take a cheque for some groceries. Ashok and Raj welcomed me to the neighbourhood and told me to put my cheque book away — I could pay them when money came in the following week. I was so moved by their kindness.’
When I told my children that he had died, they were genuinely upset. ‘We know 99 per cent of the children who come in here,’ Raj tells me
That struck a chord with me. If I ever nipped out to get some vital missing ingredient and then found I’d forgotten my wallet, Old Mr Patel always told me I could pay him later. He never kept a tally of all the credit; he trusted that you’d remember — which I would sometimes do, with a pang of embarrassment, only days later.
When we moved into the street, my eldest child was just six, my youngest not born.
But all four of my children have taken their first crucial steps to independence by being sent to the end of the road to buy cereal or a loaf of bread, knowing Mr Patel would help them find the item and count out the correct change. They were always safe there.
When I told my children that he had died, they were genuinely upset. ‘We know 99 per cent of the children who come in here,’ Raj tells me. ‘And we have seen so many grow up. When they first arrive, we can’t see them from this side of the counter.’
Toddlers barely able to peer above the rack of Kit Kats and Lion bars, but soon old enough to buy stationery or their first can of beer before going off to university.
‘Many of the naughty teenagers who have caused trouble grow up and come in later to apologise to us,’ he adds. But there was one incident when the youths were more than just naughty: they were dangerously violent.
One December morning in 2012, three men, aged 25, 22 and 18, entered the shop, drunk, wielding knives and intent on stealing alcohol and anything else they could get their hands on. Ashok Patel was manning the shop on his own that day and he kept a baseball bat under the counter. ‘When the boys came, he fought back,’ recalls Raj. ‘I always said if he was ever threatened, he should just hand over the cash. It’s not worth it. But he always got so angry. He said: “I’ve been working long hours, seven days a week, I’m not going to give away my money.”’ And he didn’t.
Then 63, he fought the three thugs, whom the judge later declared, when they were sentenced, ‘deliberately set out to commit a robbery on a vulnerable person’. At first, Ashok was successful, pushing them out the door. Then he slipped and the three youths returned, with one stabbing him in the head, another using the baseball bat to attack him.
‘The blade was this close to his brain,’ his son says, holding his thumb and finger half an inch apart. He was left in a pool of his own blood, while the three stepped over him to steal beer, milk tokens and £220 in cash.
Remarkably, Old Mr Patel was back behind the counter within a month, with his arm in a sling and his head bandaged like Mr Bump. He’d gladly show his scar to any customer.
‘He was a very strong man,’ says his son. He certainly was.
‘He just loved working in a shop,’ adds Raj sadly. ‘He loved meeting people and being part of the community.’
The number of Gujarati shopkeepers in Britain is falling markedly — mostly because their children and grandchildren have little desire for the long hours and meagre rewards. Raj’s children, Keya, 24, and Jaimini, 22, both went to Brunel University. One is now a businesswoman, the younger training to be an accountant.
‘My father was very proud of them,’ says Raj. ‘I’ve asked if they want to take on the shop, but they don’t want to.’
It is easy to romanticise this first generation of immigrant shopkeepers, who worked all hours to make a better life for their families. But they are as much a part of Britain’s story as the coal miners, wheelwrights and lamp-lighters of previous generations.
The majority of us no longer attend a parish church or a local butcher at whose counter we can gossip, but most still have a corner shop. If you’re lucky, it will be run by someone like Mr Patel.
Only when they are gone will we understand how these shops and shopkeepers have helped weave the fabric of this country together. Run by families who kept the shutters up and the lights on, rather than cause an inconvenience.