For fifty years, Browns of Bow has helped decorate, renovate and build the East End and cemented itself as a DIY shop with a heart in the middle of Bow.
Lakenham Place, off Bow Common Lane, could be anywhere, anyplace; 1970s low-rise council blocks encircle a courtyard, neighbours are connected by an outside terrace that rings around the block, their watchful eyes peer down from windows on the row upon row of parked family-cars, a smattering of greenery, and a fenced in small basketball court.
Except here, opposite the basketball court, and wedged between Doug’s Dogs, an upmarket doggy day care and dog-walking service, and Aariz, an Asian supermarket, is possibly the most helpful DIY shop around, Browns of Bow.
Set up in 1972, Browns of Bow was established by Stanley Philip Brown, an East Ender who hailed from Poplar. Brown started off as a rent collector and general helper to a local landlord, eventually working his way up to becoming a builder and opening his own business.
Fifty years on, the business is now owned by Paul Grindy, not a Brown by birth but by marriage. Grindy’s wife Jane is Brown’s granddaughter and Grindy, who’s in his early 50s, speaks of the Brown family with deep affection, calling members of the unit grandad, aunt, or uncle, partly out of respect but also familial affection.
Although an Essex man, Grindy’s family’s heritage is also rooted in the East End, so much so, his grandparents are buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. He’s a jolly man with a gravelly timbre. He chuckles, offers me cups of tea, and speaks of his customers with warmth.
Grindy married into the Brown family in 1994. Jane, his wife, is Stanley Philip Brown’s granddaughter. Grindy didn’t get the chance to meet the founder, for he died in 1981, aged 60. Grindy started working for Brown’s eponymous firm as a teenager in 1990. Dating Jane at the time, her family needed him in for a two-week holiday cover, and from there, Grindy never left.
At that time, Browns was based at the wooden gated 31 Lockhart Street, where the road turns a satisfyingly neat 90-degree angle. It’s a soap-opera television set designers’ dream; late-Victorian terraced housing hugged Browns, and the lofty trees of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park behind give the area a mild bucolic feel. Such was the atmospheric location that local artist Mira Connolly painted the scene, in one of her nighttime series during lockdown.
Opening the gates to Browns, you’d be greeted by a rambling builders’ merchant yard, packed full of bricks, wooden planks, ladders, the gentle hum of activity ever-present as hefty boots plodded their way around the yard, dropping off and collecting ware.
Throughout this time in the 1990s and 2000s, the Lockhart Street site comprised Grindy, Jane, Jane’s father, Michael, and Jane’s uncle Raymond Eaton.
This location was ideal to serve the area’s growing number of students, landlords, and young families who were attracted to the area’s cheaper housing, but good links to the nearby Queen Mary’s University, the edgy Shoreditch nightlife, and the city centre.
Grindy fits the mould of a builder merchant: he is practical and resourceful and gently teases the younger generations’ reliance on parents to fix most of their DIY needs. ‘The parents, they come in to fix up their house for their kids.’ Nails, nuts, and bolts are bought to put up shelves, construct furniture, or repair door handles. Browns’ selection of Crown and Dulux paint is also popular for a quick spruce up of a rented place or new flat.
Grindy is happy to lend some advice, but sometimes it isn’t always well received. ‘You get people thinking some gaffer tape will fix all sorts… Some people are hell-bent and just won’t listen. They’ve got their own mind made up.’ His advice is not to patronise, but to equip people with basic life skills.
‘It’s bit like the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.’ It’s a mantra he’s instilled in his two daughters, Charlotte and Paige, who were taught from an early age to pick up tools and mend.
Although now at Lakenham Place, the time at Lockhart Street holds special memories.
The Browns team became the informal keeper of the keys for neighbours. ‘We held keys for most of the people, because a lot of the old girls would lock themselves out because they would be chatting away and the door would slam, and they come over kind, ‘Can I have my key,” I’d go over, open up, bit of chat, and bring the key back.’
‘But gradually, over the years, we’ve just seen a decline of people moving away or they’ve passed away.’
‘It is sad when you lose people, because it’s memories and silliness, you know, and the jokes that we’d tell each other.’
But with each generation comes a new wave of people, some whose families are born and bred East Enders, others who have been drawn to the East End’s charm. And it is all these interactions that made Grindy feel like here is home. ‘It feels likes I am from here, part of the neighbourhood,’ he says while looking out the window to the courtyard.
The move was foisted upon them. Browns’ landlord wanted to build flats in the yard, and so Browns relocated to the current site. The team wanted to buy the old building from the landlord but, as with many small patches in London, its fate was to become flats.
This move also coincided with the retirement of Jane’s uncle, Raymond.
This might have seen a natural end to Browns, but Grindy wanted to keep it going so he and his wife took it on full-time. Jane manages the accounts but works from home. His two daughters helped from time to time as teenagers, but now they are in their 20s with young families of their own.
While Grindy is unsure as to the future of the business, for now he is happy to journey in most days from his home, an hour’s drive away in Billericay, and continue to see familiar faces. So, despite his Essex home, is he an East Ender?
‘I’m more of an Essex boy,’ he chuckles. He doesn’t like pie and mash and is not a fan of jellied eels either.
While he may not see himself as an East Ender, Grindy certainly possesses East End traits. Family first, hard-working, self-reliant, warm character, and a tinge of nostalgia for what the East End once was.
If you enjoyed this article, then read our piece on Thompson’s, the 80 year DIY dynasty on Roman Road.
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