Leo Epstein, Epra Fabrics
When the genial Leo Epstein, proprietor of Epra Fabrics says, “I am the last Jewish trader on Brick Lane,” he says it with such a modest balanced tone that you know he is just stating a fact and not venturing a comment. “If you’re not a tolerant sort of person you wouldn’t be in Brick Lane,” he adds before scooting across the road to ask his neighbour at the Islamic shop to turn down the Friday prayer just a little. “I told him he can have it as loud as he wants after one o’clock when I’ve gone home.” he explains cheerily on his return – now we can hear ourselves think. “We all get on very well,” he confirms,“As one of my Bengali neighbours said to me, ‘On Brick Lane, we do business not politics.’”
While his son Daniel was in Israel organising Leo’s grandson’s wedding, Leo was running the shop single-handedly, yet he managed – with the ease and grace of his fifty-five years experience – to maintain the following monologue whilst serving a string of customers, cutting bolts of fabric, answering the endless phone calls and arranging a taxi to collect an order of ten rolls of velvet.
“I started in 1956, when I got married. I used to work for a company of fabric wholesalers and one of our customers on Brick Lane said, “There’s a shop to let on the corner, why don’t you take it?” The rent was £6.50 a week and I used to lie awake at night thinking, “Where am I going to find it?” You could live on £10 a week then. My partner was Rajchman and initially we couldn’t decide which name should come first, combining the first two letters of our names, but then we realised that “Raep” Fabrics was not a good trade name and so we became “Epra” Fabrics.
In no time, we expanded and moved to this place where we are today. In those days, it was the thing to go into, the fabric trade – the City was a closed shop to Jewish people. My father thought that anything to do with rebuilding would be a good trade for me after the war and so I studied Structural Engineering but all the other students were rich children of developers. They drove around in new cars while I was the poor student who could barely afford my bus fare. So I said to my father, “I’m not going to do this.” And the openings were in the shmutter trade, I didn’t ever see myself working in an office. And I’ve always been happy, I like the business. I like the social part.
In just a few years, the first Indians came to the area, it’s always been a changing neighbourhood.The first to come were the Sikhs in their turbans, and each group that came brought their trades with them. The Sikhs were the first to print electronic circuits and they had contacts in the Far East, they brought the first calculators. And then came the Pakistanis, the brought the leather trade with them. And the Bengalis came and they were much poorer than the others. They came on their own, as single men, at first. The head of the family, the father would come to earn the money to send for the rest of the family. And since they didn’t have women with them, they opened up canteens to feed themselves and then it became trendy for City gents to come and eat curry here and that was the origin of the curry restaurants that fill Brick Lane today.
Slowly all the Jewish people moved away and all their businesses closed down. Twenty years ago, Brick Lane was a run down inner city area, people didn’t feel safe – and it still has that image even though it’s a perfectly safe place to be. I’ve always like it here.”
At any time over the last half a century, you could have walked up Fashion St, crossed Brick Lane and entered Epra Fabrics where you would have been greeted by Leo, saying “Good morning! May I help you?‘ with respect and civility, just as he does today. After all these years, it is no exaggeration when he says, “Everyone knows me as Leo.” A tall yet slight man, always formally dressed with a kippa, he hovers at the cash desk, standing sentinel with a view through the door and West along Fashion St to the towers of the City. Here you will find an unrivalled selection of silks and satins. “This is Brick Lane not Park Lane,” is one of Leo’s favourite sayings, indicating that nothing costs more than a couple of pounds a metre. “We only like to take care of the ladies,” is another, indicating the nature of the stock, which is strong in dress fabrics.
“I lived through the war here, so the attack wasn’t really that big a deal,” he says with a shrug, commenting on the Brick Lane nail bomb of 1999 laid by racist David Copeland, which blew out the front of his shop, “Luckily nobody was seriously hurt because on a Saturday everything is closed round here, it’s a tradition going back to when it was a Jewish area, where everything would close for the Sabbath.”
“Many of the Asian shop owners come in from time to time and say,‘Oh good, you’re still here! Why don’t you come and have a meal on us?‘ You can’t exist if you don’t get on with everybody else. It was, in a way, a weirdly pleasant time to see how everyone pulled together.” he concludes dryly, revealing how shared experiences brought him solidarity with his neighbours. Leo Epstein is the last working representative of the time when Brick Lane and Wentworth St was a Jewish ghetto and the heart of the shmutter trade, but he also exemplifies the best of the egalitarian spirit that exists in Brick Lane today, defining it as a place where different peoples co-exist peacefully.