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Des & Lorraine’s collection

March 22, 2010
by the gentle author

On Saturday morning I went round to visit Des and Lorraine’s junk shop in Bacon St – sandwiched between a second-hand catering equipment dealer and a tattoo parlour, you might not even notice the discreet entrance if you did not know it. Although I had admired the crow painted upon the double doors by the street artist Roa, I was unaware of the wonders that are contained behind this unassuming frontage.

Des led me through the low-ceilinged narrow passage lined with old wardrobes into the shop itself. At first, as you enter a shadowy antechamber, you realise the ceiling is higher and hung with things that give the feeling of being in a deep forest with heavy branches overhead. Then you find yourself in an old stable with a cobbled floor, a corrugated iron roof and spaces opening up on all sides, each crowded with furniture accumulated in the gloom, giving way to indeterminate darkness.

This is where Des and Lorraine have dealt in junk for the last thirty years. Without windows, the chill is tangible, and I understood why Lorraine is commonly seen wrapped in a hat and scarf, and whenever possible sits in the car outside during the Winter months. They are busy people, constantly coming and going, collecting and delivering, and it took me several days to get this opportunity to speak to Des when he had a moment, yet even now he was hovering, as customers came and went throughout our conversation.

I was touched that Des describes himself as dealing in junk because, while antique dealers consider themselves superior within the hierarchy of professionals, for the inquisitive customer junk possesses the greater romance. With antiques there is an implication of higher monetary value but with junk it is all about the intrinsic poetic quality. So, to my mind, it is greatly to his credit that Des is unapologetically a junk dealer.

Wherever you look in Des and Lorraine’s magnificent junk shop, the detail is overwhelming and you must be sure to look upwards because there is a panoply of old stuff hung above, creating the impression of an eccentric galaxy of objects in a frozen moment. Like his friend Brian in Shadwell who I wrote about last year, Des likes to collect, but where Brian likes effigies and life-size model animals, Des collects old toys and other curios that look good hanging in the roof. The airplanes and vehicles create the sense of motion in Des’ universe, while the other items, like the signs and musical instruments, the gas mask and the giant potato peeler – just visible at the top of the photo above – give it a surreal poetry that is all its own. Gazing up into this thicket is like looking into a dream, yet Des appears to be a down-to-earth fellow. “Certain things I like to keep. Most of this stuff here is from childhood. A lot of people ask to buy these things but they are not for sale. It’s all stuff that’s become collectible. It’s stuff I bought, except the horse which belonged to my kids and they left it out in the rain.” he explained to me, surveying his marvellous collection with proprietorial satisfaction.

Seized by an idea, “Let me show you one of the strangest things I ever found,” Des said and, visibly excited, began burrowing through a stack of old boxes. Pulling out an old holdall, he produced a slim booklet and held it open to show me a photograph of a mermaid. I scrutinised his mild features for any hint of irony that might reveal he was pulling my leg, but his brown-eyed gaze was without any concealment. I was baffled. “You’re kidding me?” I said, but he shook his head. “Where did you get it?” I asked. “I found it, in the course of my work.he explained dispassionately, “This was while ago, but it cost me quite a lot of money at the time.” I was disarmed. Des continued, “It has a spine running the length of its body and some scientists from Cambridge University verified it by carbon dating as over two hundred years old.”

As the conversation spun into the unknown territory, towards a weird place familiar only to Des, I asked, “Where is it?” Pre-occupied with sorting rusty old spanners, he indicated a dusty corner casually,“I used to have it set up there but now it’s at home,” he said, “I’ll send you picture from my phone this evening.”

Willingly consenting to the notion of a mermaid photographed by a mobile phone, I gave Des my number and said goodbye. The picture which you can see below arrived that evening, Des’ mummified mermaid in a glass tank sitting upon his dining table. Not wishing to be a killjoy, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusion upon its authenticity as a mermaid, but from this picture I do believe it is an authentic specimen of some kind from a nineteenth century display, a cabinet of curiosities or a freak show, and that itself is good enough for me.

Be assured, Des and Lorraine are happy to allow customers to rummage in their shop, as long as they ask permission first. You really need to go round for yourself to this last outpost of the mysterious kingdom of junk, because who knows what you might find there.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Kasia permalink
    March 22, 2010

    There is a similar mermaid mummy in the british museum (the old library bit – curiosity section)
    This sort of “souvenir” was often sold to sailors in far away exotic lands in 18th/19th century.
    It was made of half mummified monkey and a fish.

  2. Anne permalink
    March 22, 2010

    How weird? It’s amazing that places like this exist. So this is the shop where all our ‘stuff ‘ goes when we no longer want it!

  3. March 23, 2010

    I remember being shown the BM “mermaid” in the basement storeroom of the old Museum of Mankind 30 years ago. I’ve never forgotten the shock of revulsion at this pitiful object; I can hardly believe it is now on public display. Goodness knows what the true origin of this one is.

  4. March 24, 2010

    My Dad’s house is like this…. we’ve told him when he dies we will just give him a Viking funeral, him on a bier in the middle of it all and we torch the lot… he quite likes the idea…

  5. March 29, 2010

    Looks like a ‘Fijian mermaid’
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiji_mermaid

  6. November 16, 2015

    I am very lucky this is my dad and mum shop we have had it for over 30 years Me and my brother was baby’s when my mum, dad got the shop had a very good childhood and lots of good memories at the shop and my 3 kids love it just like me and my brother did XX

  7. leslie tidwell permalink
    January 4, 2016

    My husband and I are coming to London with my daughter for the first time this next summer and can’t wait to check out this wonderfully, curious junk shop!

  8. Margaret Morley permalink
    October 22, 2016

    Long ago I read your book and subsequently visited the shop. I chatted to Lorraine about the mermaid. It is a shop “like they used to be” and soon I am about to take a visitor around Spitalfields so will definitely be visiting them again!
    Last time I was there we had lunch in an equally funky cafe next door !
    I am a huge fan of “Spitalfields Life” :-)

  9. Sally permalink
    March 13, 2017

    Sadly, as you may well know, Des is now closing the shop at the end of March 2017 due to an excessive rise in the leasehold. I feel we’re now losing the last remaining quirky shops in the east end of London. I highly recommend that everyone gets down there to see this wonderful emporium before it goes – they are open every day whilst slowly emtying it. Too sad.

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