Coffee and Fripes offers customers coffee with a side of vintage browsing © Social Streets CIC

The shops you didn’t know you needed: the rise of The Roman’s concept store

A tequila chaser with your garms? Why the East End’s spin on the concept store could save the high street. 

Nothing stands still in Tower Hamlets.

Our borough has been at the epicentre of constant political and social reform. From the rallying cries of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Suffragettes to Charles Booth’s poverty-identifying maps, Thomas Barnardo’s ragged schools, and Clara Grant’s farthing bundles, the borough’s people have always been inventive about solving social issues.

Today is no different. The East End spirit has prevailed on the high street as it emerges from the pandemic, with the arrival of the ‘concept store’ – East End style of course!  

Undeterred by the diminutive building sizes on Roman Road, the village level of footfall, and the peaceful evening economy, these shop owners have turned their limited 30m2 of space into hardworking multi-purpose spaces that can adapt to all conditions (even another pandemic we suspect). Like a James Bond car that can zip around on land, turn into a boat on water, and fly off into the sky, these East End ‘concept stores’ are no less inventive than the back of Del Boy’s Robin Reliant.

These small but resourceful stores are increasing by the month. We have not one, not two, but three of the newest arrivals setting this trend right here on The Roman. 

Coffee & Fripes’ gentle waft of roasting coffee served with a side of vintage clothing emerged in January; dog shop, deli, and doggy day-care centre Dogbliss opened in March; and A.F/Poète, a tequila bar cum fashion store cum coffee shop is opening next to Ona’s Sushi Baro in June. Will this work, we hear you cry? 

We think it just might…

Given its confident attitude and strong-willed character, the East End has been at the forefront of great economic change. Successive wave of immigrants brought their unique set of skills and ideas, helping the area to flourish into the diverse community we know today. Tower Hamlets was built on entrepreneurship and innovation.

Today, despite the adversities it faces, that entrepreneurial spirit still burns bright. According to the ONS, in 2019 the borough had the seventh-highest rate of business births out of London’s 32 boroughs.

It’s this plucky enterprising East End attitude that ensures its survival, and the survival of its much-loved local businesses that colourfully pepper our high streets, that stand resolute in the face of recent challenges.

The rise of e-commerce and the pandemic disrupted business models and shops have had to adapt to meet these retail challenges by seeking ways to diversify their revenue pool. And this is where the community-centred concept store might just come up trumps in this uncertain climate because our East End spin on a concept store already has a proven track record. 

There’s Muxima, the bar-slash-arts space in the heart of Bow that has been sharing it’s cavernous shop space to local artists, chefs, and craftspeople for the last 10 years, switching seamlessly from cafe to bar. 

Then there’s Bottlejob in Globe Town, whose downstairs bar holds exhibitions from LoCA, a contemporary arts organisation. They might be a little squeezed on space, but they generously offer the use of their postcard stamp plot to residents and it works; combined, they have almost 15 years’ worth of trade under the belt. 

Like Muxima and Bottlejob, Coffee & Fripes shares its clothes-lined shop-cum-cafe floor with community events. It is currently working on an event with Babes on Waves, an organisation that brings together black women, women of colour, and non-binary people together to realise their entrepreneurial dreams. It chimes with its ethos of promoting female-led business. While her target market were Millennials, its owner, Aïssatou Diallo, says that the number of parents and older East Enders who use her cafe and shop for clothes has surprised her.

It’s this all-round appeal that makes it more inclusive. Diallo says that business owners are ‘less scared of trying to deliver new things to customers’ partly, as she explains, because they want to ‘offer more of a comprehensive experience to customers’, but also because the pandemic forced cafes and shops to reinvent themselves by adding new services and products to their existing offerings to stay in business, and this paid off for many.

Perfectly positioned near Victoria Park, Dogbliss’ focus is on Bow’s large animal-loving community. The shop’s owner, Boroka Villanyi, says she hopes to create a hub where dogs and owners can come to socialise. This idea came from her ‘crave’ for a wider community of meetups and classes. This concept, although not fully formed, is already working: people, she says, are seeing what she’s trying to achieve and spreading the word amongst their dog-walking friends. ‘News spreads fast in the dog community’, she smiles. 

As for A.F/Poète, we may have to wait to see how this community concept store plays out but we’re all eyes and ears.

Parallels could be made between such community stores and the Del Boys of the mid-20th century (minus the dubious business practices of course); Del Boy could go from whipping out from his suitcase a new pipe for your blocked sink one moment, to selling you a high-end antique watch from the back of his cheery yellow van the next. They both stem from that same resourceful gutsy attitude that pervades the East End, but now it is modernised and polished for the 21st century consumer.

The high street is still reeling from effects of the pandemic and the challenge from e-commerce, but there is hope for a reversal of its fortunes by taking the lead from Roman Road’s new range of community-led concept stores. 

If you enjoyed this article, then read our piece on whether social media is helping or hurting the high street.

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