Steve Dobkin, Bacon St Salvage
“People see a big guy, six foot tall with a bit of a growl on his face – but they don’t realise that when you get to know me, I really am a pleasant person.” confessed scrap dealer Steve Dobkin yesterday, as we sought refuge together in the warmth of the makeshift cubicle that serves as his office, squeezed between the piles of second-hand kitchen equipment which are the source of his livelihood. Yet such an apology was entirely unnecessary because Steve has a reputation as the gentle giant on Bacon St.
Operating from an eighty foot shed at the Western extremity of the street, Steve always has an intriguing array of steel furniture standing on the pavement and if you enter his premises you find yourself surrounded by towers of it, receding into the gloom and piled up to the ceiling. Outside, on the wall facing the car park, is a magnificent ever-changing gallery of street art of which Steve is the patron. “I don’t understand it, but when they ask, I say ‘Do what you want.’” he admitted to me with a shy smile.
Last Winter, the cold became too much for Steve, standing around in the tin shed all day in all weathers, so he build a wooden shack to keep himself warm. “I always thought, ‘Don’t have an office, you can put catering equipment there,’ but you’ve got to take care of yourself because none of us is getting any younger.” Steve confided, as the dusk gathered and the temperatures fell outside.
“My dad Sam Dobkin used to sell furniture down here in Brick Lane in the seventies, you could sell any furniture then as long as it was cheap. He was a scrap dealer always looking for an outlet. The first time I came down here was when I was around six years old, in 1972. I worked for him at weekends and holidays. I began selling off the back of a truck but I knew that – rather than selling it all for scrap – you could get more money if you had somewhere to keep it and resell it.
Nowadays, our stuff is all cleaned up and guaranteed, but in those days what you saw was what you got – just stuff straight out of a skip. It’s a form of progress, I work with electricians, gas fitters and water fitters to get everything repaired. People are buying more this way because it’s cheaper and they can see it working here. People like that extra bit of service. I try to give the customer what they want, if we can modify it by cutting equipment down to size, we will. You can spend fifty grand fitting out a kitchen or you can do it here for five. If you are opening up a restaurant, you want to do it as cheap as you can and get better stuff later when it takes off.
I love my job. I love being here. I like getting up in the morning and coming here. When someone pulls up outside and you jump into the truck to take a look and make deal, that’s a buzz. I’m always thinking – Who’s calling up? – What am I going to be getting? – What am I going to be selling it for? Sometimes, they ring you up to sell a lot of flooring but when you get there you’re buying a lot of catering equipment – that’s a real buzz. That’s the kind of excitement you get.
Things have been much better since the recession. Whereas before kitchens were too busy, now they’ve got time to look around and think about replacing stuff. I’ve already sent out two loads of sold equipment this morning and I was serving three customers at the same time, measuring stuff up and answering questions – it gave me a headache. I’m like my dad in that I could sell snow to the Eskimos.
You’ve got communities that come in here, they’ve got different ways to speak and you have to learn it. English people, they don’t bid for it, but Chinese and Turkish people they like to make a bid, whereas Indians will grind you into the ground if you let them. It’s different cultures, you stand your ground and be patient. No one community spends more money than another. And I’ve got to be friends with Indian people, they bring me curries. I never had so many curries since I came here. I never even had curry before I came here! You work with the people that turn up, you can’t start shouting and screaming or you’ll never make any money. I always try to find the best in everyone.
I had my first premises in 1990 in Grimsby St in one of the railway arches, next a place on Cheshire St and then one on the far side of Bacon St before I came here in 1999. I don’t know where the time has gone, but it’s been very good.
As soon as I get the right amount of money, I’ll be off – except I don’t know what the right amount of money is! You want to sell up and you think about what you’d do with the money, but then you think of all the things you’d miss. I’d miss getting up the morning and coming down here. I’m not interested in being rich, just happy with my little shop trickling along nice and easy. I have no website, no advertising and when I leave work, I switch my phone off. I don’t even like it when I get too many customers here. One day I’ll be the manager, the next day I’ll be out cleaning the cooker. I’ve got two people that work with me but I’m no better than anyone. My son Perry and daughter Louise work here with me too, but I wouldn’t take it on if I was them. They haven’t done it since six years old like I have, they don’t know the same love for it that I have.
I’ve come to like people more because of this job. I’ve no grudge against anyone. When I first came down here, it was hard – but as the years have gone by I have realised it is not personal. I’m trying to sell at the best price and they’re trying to get it as cheap as they can. All around this area, it’s a great place to work. The first three months you’re a newcomer – but after that, if your stall breaks everyone will come to help you. If you think you’re going to make fortune you won’t, instead you’ll discover a great sense of community.”
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman
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