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At KTS The Corner

September 10, 2011
by the gentle author

Everyone in East London knows KTS The Corner, Tony O’Kane’s timber and DIY shop. With Tony’s ingenious wooden designs upon the fascia and the three-sided clock he designed over the door, this singular family business never fails catch the eye of anyone passing the corner of the Kingsland Rd and Englefield Rd in Dalston. In fact, KTS The Corner is such an established landmark that it is “a point of knowledge” for taxi drivers.

Yet, in spite of its fame, there is an enigma about KTS which can now be revealed for the first time. “People think it stands for Kingsland Timber Service,” said Tony with a glint in his eye, “Even my accountant thinks it does, but it doesn’t – it stands for three of my children, Katie, Toni and Sean.” And then he crossed his arms and tapped his foot upon the ground, chuckling to himself at this ingenious ruse. It was entirely characteristic of Tony’s irrepressible creative spirit which finds its expression in every aspect of this modest family concern, now among the last of the independent one-stop shops for small builders and people doing up their homes.

On the Kingsland Rd, Tony’s magnificent pavement display of brushes, mops and shovels, arrayed like soldiers on parade, guard the wonders that lie within. To enter, you walk underneath Tony’s unique three-sided clock – constructed to be seen from East, South and North – with his own illustrations of building materials replacing the numerals. Inside, there are two counters, one on either side, where Tony’s sons and daughters lean over to greet you, offering key cutting on your left and a phantasmagoric array of fixtures to your right. Step further, and the temporal theme becomes apparent, as I discovered when Tony took me on the tour. Each department has a different home made clock with items of stock replacing the numerals, whether nails and screws, electrical fittings, locks and keys, copper piping joints, or even paints upon a palette-shaped clock face. Whenever I expressed my approval, Tony grimaced shyly and gave a shrug, indicating that he was just amusing himself.

Rashly, Tony left his sons in charge while we retired to his cubicle office stacked with invoices and receipts where, over a cup of tea, he explained how he came to be there.

I’m from from Hoxton, I went to St Monica’s School in Hoxton Sq. To get me to concentrate on anything they had to tie me down, but, if anything physical needed doing, like moving tables and chairs, I’d be there doing it. My dad did his own decorating and my mother wanted everything completely changed every year or eighteen months, so he taught me how to hang wallpaper and to do lots of little jobs. After Cardinal Pole’s Secondary School, I did an apprenticeship in carpentry and got a City & Guilds distinction. Starting at fifteen, I did four years apprenticeship at Yeomans & Partners. Back then, when you came out of your apprenticeship, they made you redundant. You got the notice in your pay packet on the Thursday but on Saturday you’d get a letter advertising that they needed carpenters at the same company. They wanted you to work for them but without benefits and you had to pay a weekly holiday stamp.

I went self-employed from that moment. At the age of nineteen, I started my own company. I covered all the trades because I learnt that the first person to arrive on a building site is a carpenter and the last person to leave the site upon completion is a carpenter. Nine out of ten foremen are ex-carpenters and joiners, since the carpenter gets involved with every single other trade. So, over the years, I picked up plumbing, heating, electrics. When I started my company, I wouldn’t employ anyone if I couldn’t do their job – so I knew how much to pay ‘em and whether they was doing it right or wrong.

This was in 1973, and Hackney Council offered me a grant to do up a building in Broadway Market. I just wanted an office, a workshop and a warehouse but they said you have to open a shop. So, as I was a building company, I opened a builders’ merchants and then, twenty years ago, I bought this place. When I bought it, it was just the corner, there was no shopfront. I designed the shopfront and found the old doors. I used to come here with my dad when we were doing the decorating for my mum, because they made pelmets to order here but, as a child, I never thought I’d own this place.

Tony is proud to assure you that he stocks more lines than those ubiquitous warehouse chains selling DIY materials, and he took me down into the vast cellar where entire aisles of neatly filed varieties of hammers and hundreds of near-identical light fixtures illustrated the innumerable byways of unlikely creativity. At the rear of the shop, through a narrow door, I discovered the carpentry workshop where resident carpenter Mike presides upon some handsome old mechanical saws in a lean-to shed stacked with timber. He will cut wood to any shape or dimension you require upon the old workbench here.

Tony’s witty designs upon the Englewood Rd side of the building are the most visible display of his creative abilities, in pictograms conveying Plumbing & Electrical, Joinery, Keys Cut, Gardening and Timber Cut-to-Size. When Tony took these down to overhaul them recently, it caused a stir in the national press. Thousands required reassurance that Tony’s designs would be reinstated exactly as before. It was an unexpected recognition of Tony’s talent and a powerful reminder of the secret romance we all harbour for traditional hardware shops.

Tony with his sons Jack and Sean.

A magnificent pavement display of brushes, mops and shovels.

The temporary removal of Tony’s wooden pictograms triggered a public outcry in the national press.

In the Kingsland Rd, you may also like to read about

William Gee Ltd, Haberdashers

Arthur’s Cafe

At the Geffrye Almshouses

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Marina permalink
    September 10, 2011

    That pavement display is an absolute work of art!

  2. Kenny permalink
    September 10, 2011

    I wonder why ” fork ‘andles ” springs to mind ;-)

  3. Ree permalink
    September 10, 2011

    Like shops in small towns in Kansas when I was a boy…Going in with my father to by DIY things…Fascinating places

  4. September 11, 2011

    What a wonderful shop. I think it’s important we support these small businesses to keep them in our neighbourhoods. We have a hardware shop near here, and to tell you the truth, the displays look a bit like a dog’s breakfast, but it’s where I go to when I need nails, glue or tools. Strip-lit aisles over flowing with all things cheap from China have been removed from my radar.

  5. Ruth permalink
    September 11, 2011

    My local DIY shop! I love being able to breathe in the smell in the timber workshop when getting some wood cut. To my shame I’d never noticed the clocks; I shall make sure to examine them all next time I’m in.

  6. September 16, 2011

    What I love so much about your blog is that you tell the stories of interesting but very real people (or allow them to tell them themselves). I have to stop myself sometimes from spending hours browsing through all of the articles because I find people’s stories so interesting! Thanks again, James

  7. Sarfaraz Loonat permalink
    September 22, 2012

    Beautiful…

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