Taj Stores, then & now
The gentleman on the right is Abdul Khalique, standing with his shop assistant, in the early nineteen fifties outside the very first Taj Stores in Hunton St (now Buxton St, where Allen Gardens is today). Abdul Khalique’s brother Abdul Jabbar, the founder of the grocery store, commonly known then as “Jabber’s Shop”, was a seaman who came here from Bengal (as it was called at that time) to Spitalfields in 1934 after leaving the navy. He worked in textile sweatshops for two years before opening his store, which he ran with his Irish wife Cathleen.
These sparse facts, which I learnt from Abdul Jabbar’s nephew Jamal (who never met his uncle), are all that is known of this brave man (pictured below) who travelled across the world and undertook the risky venture of starting a business in another continent, working so hard to build it up until his death in 1969. I think he would be quite amazed to visit the Taj Stores today in Brick Lane and see how his modest enterprise has blossomed.
I enjoyed the privilege of a tour of the aisles recently in the company of Jamal (Abdul Quayum), who has been involved in the family business since he was 17 years old, and now runs the store jointly with his elder brother Junel (Abdul Hai) and younger brother Joynal (Abdul Muhith). It is a wonderful experience simply to explore here and savour the rich selection of produce on offer from all over the world in the Taj Stores. I love to study the beautifully organised displays of exotic fruit and vegetables, printed sacks of rice, tall stacks of brightly coloured cardboard packages, cans, bottles and jars – each with their distinctive fragrances. Then there is the cooking equipment, towers of plastic jugs and bowls, steel pots and pans, and scourers. There is a compelling poetry to the vast intricate diversity of all the attractive things collected here and it is a phenomenal feat of organisation that the brothers have pulled off, bringing this huge range of supplies together from the different corners of the globe.
Jamal explained to me how the business is run nowadays between the three brothers. Jamal does the hiring and the paperwork, while Joynal takes care of the day-to-day buying and selling, and Junel runs the catering supply and wholesale side of the business. “The beauty of it is, we have different responsibilities. We are a modern muslim family and we treat each other like friends.” says Jamal proudly.
Their father Alhaj Abdul Khalique first came to the United Kingdom in 1952 as a student, before becoming involved in running the business with his brother. In 1956 the grocery shop moved to larger premises at 109 Brick Lane (opposite where Eastside Books is now), and then when Abdul Jabbar died in 1969, Abdul Khalique ran it with his brother Abdul Rahman. The pair are seen here looking every bit the sharp business men they were, in this handsome studio portrait taken at that time.
As the Taj Stores prospered, they moved again in 1979 to the current site at 112 Brick Lane and an era ended in 1994 when Abdul Khalique died – then the family business passed from the brothers who had emigrated to this country, into the stewardship of the current generation who were born here.
In recent years the stores have continued to expand with the purchase of the premises next door and this year sees the launch of the online business. When I took my portrait of Joynal, Junel and Jamal recently (reproduced below), the brothers explained to me that they now look back to their roots and, in the tradition of nineteenth century businessmen turned benefactors, they are funding a school and a mosque, building social housing, investing in irrigation and two cancer clinics back in Moulvibazar, Sylhet, Bangladesh – the home town where Abdul Jabbar set out from all those years ago when this story began.