Gina’s Closet, the bric-a-brac sanctuary of Roman Road

Gina’s Closet, the Aladdin’s Cave of bric-a-brac on Roman Road, has been a second-hand treasure trove since 1991. Jeannette ‘Gina’ Hoare is the curator of this museum of knick-knacks, and her happy-go-lucky nature has spilled into her shop, just as the contents of the shop spill out onto the street.

Through Hoare, Gina’s Closet has become a sanctuary of sorts where local characters go to relax and share the load of their troubles. But with a rent increase looming, her position on the road as the guardian of all things wild, wacky, and wonderful, is now insecure.

Eclectic taste

Hoare is a lover of all things weird and wonderful; from boules balls to bass guitars to Buddha vases, the walls are stacked with things that could only be picked out by her. ‘There isn’t really a template I follow. I just think that’s nice, or I know that would sell, or it might just be weird,’ she says. ‘The template might be me though!’

At first glance, the shop seems awash with clutter, but then your eye catches on special things. A pair of Converse with Cliff Richard’s face, a ceramic bowl shaped like a cartoon car, an intricate painting of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Eventually, every object from glitzy high heel to ornate mirror begins to show its individuality and charm.

Hoare’s eclectic taste shines through the loaded shelves of Gina’s Closet, but she keeps the best things for herself. ‘Every clearout or job that I’ve done, I’ve always kept some little trinket out of it. Just something that I think, I like that, and I’ll keep it.

‘I’ve got, um… not strange taste, but…’ she ponders with a smile. ‘I once found this funny little marionette, all done in leopard, and I do like leopard. My sister said you do pick up some freaky things. It’s just little things like that. I used to collect dolls, and I’ve got a vase and all the dolls of all different types, colours – they’re all in this vase just looking out. That’s why my sister says I’m freaky,’ she laughs.

But Hoare doesn’t seem to care whether her taste is up for question. Even when TV’s Mary Portas came to Gina’s Closet from the show Mary, Queen of the High Street, the changes she made didn’t last long. Hoare joined her in stripping the shop out, but promptly put it back together afterwards. ‘The way we laid it out was lovely, but it just didn’t work because my customers looked in and they thought “that looks like it might be expensive now”.

‘I could see what she was saying, but for me, the customers who come in – old ladies, students – spend a pound or two. People started to look in, but they weren’t coming in. It was lovely, I didn’t have to put the stuff out, I had tables laid out all nice, but no,’ Hoare says. It sounds like a loss of a slightly easier life, but she seems happy to have sealed her personality back into Gina’s Closet. ‘Gradually it’s become the junk shop again,’ she smiles.

Roman Road’s mother hen

Hoare’s personality is spliced into the furnishings of her shop, and combined with her breezy and accepting nature, the place has become a friendly face for locals from all walks of life.

Currently helping Hoare is Terri, who has been at her side since Christmas. ‘Terri’s been a drinker and she’s been sober for 19 years, and now she comes here and helps,’ she explains. ‘It’s that sort of place, people come along who’ve had troubles. Terri helps me, and as much as she helps me it helps her. I trust everyone.’

Over the years of interaction with customers, Hoare has had plenty of time to wonder why people feel safe with her in Gina’s Closet. ‘I think maybe because I’m quite an easygoing person, I’m not a judgmental person and that’s it. Nothing would really faze me.’

As one of nine siblings, it’s understandable that Hoare is so easygoing and unfazed. But the shop has a part to play in her role as Roman Road’s godmother. ‘Because this is a strange shop, it probably appeals to a lot of people who have got mental health issues. I’ve probably got them myself.’

‘I’d like to think that I’ve helped a few people over the years. A guy came here, a customer, and he said he felt like killing himself. He said he felt very low, and I think he’d lost his partner. I said if you’re low, just come down and have a little chat. I said sit down and stay a little while if you want to.’

The way Hoare speaks about customers sounds like she is talking about her many family members. As she sits on the corner among the outpour of vintage furnishings, she greets almost every passerby with the warmth of a dear friend. ‘I think sometimes people wouldn’t have trusted people that I’ve given trust to,’ she says. ‘I’m happy to be kind and help people when I can.’

Hoare’s charitable soul is visible through her furry family: ‘I’ve got two Pomeranians and two Yorkshire Terriers.’ There’s Millie, a Yorkshire Terrier at a ripe old 16. ‘She runs around wetting herself, but she’s always happy. Delphi’s 15, and he’s had cancer. Mimi’s one of the Poms, she’s 11, and she’s a rescue so she’s a bit troubled. Then there’s Zaza – she’s 10, she’s okay. Poor Delphi always gets picked on by the others – they’re just spiteful,’ she laughs lovingly. ‘But they’re all too old to do any real damage.’

Guardian of the street

When you’ve been up and down the Roman a few times, it’s a soothing image to see Hoare relaxing in the glow of her pastel green walls, occasionally enjoying a glass of prosecco with her friends on an ornate chair and Curtis Mayfield at full volume. She’s had 28 years to get to know the locals up close, and people love her. ‘I’m part of the furniture myself now,’ she laughs.

Over the years, Hoare has seen a lot of change to the area, but she’s stuck on her patch of Roman Road. ‘My shop’s being sold so I might have to leave this shop. I’m not really thinking about it but I know it’s on the cards,’ she says, but, ‘I wouldn’t leave here. I like it, I like the people, I like the vibe round here.’

From the visitors to the Roman from afar, to the regulars who pop in to sit and relax on her corner, Hoare’s value within the community is clear. She has been resilient through changes up until now, and it’s difficult to imagine what the street would be like if she gets pushed out of her shop.

Hoare often speaks of her dream of turning her inpromptu pavement social club into a more formal club. ‘I thought I’d like to have a little jazz club upstairs,’ she says. With her inimitable style and ‘live and let live’ attitude, we’re sure this would have been the best dive club in the ends.

Gina’s Closet, a sanctuary for all objects and people wild, wacky and wonderful, is a reminder of what the high street does best and what online shopping can never hope to do. Not only does it offer a unique shopping experience, but it also plays a central role in the health and wellbeing of the local community. With her future uncertain, we can only hope there is a fairy godmother looking out for Gina too, and that shop manages to find a new site.

Front of Gina's Closet, vintage shop on Roman Road
Gina in Gina's Closet with bass guitar
Gina with local friend
Gina in Gina's Closet holding high heel
Gina's Closet interior
Objects for sale in Gina's Closet
Objects for sale in Gina's Closet

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Anna Lezard

Anna Lezard is a recent graduate from the University of Amsterdam with an MA in New Media and Digital Culture. You might see her cycling around East London on a rattly pale blue bike or enjoying a nice pub.

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