At M&G Hardware & Ironmongery
If you need to have a key cut, get scissors sharpened or buy a sturdy metal bucket, there is no better place in Whitechapel to go than M&G Building Supplies, Hardware & Ironmongery at 20 Cambridge Heath Rd, where you can be assured of a generous welcome by proprietor Sarfaraz Loonat. Sitting behind the counter like the captain at the bridge of a great ship, he waits poised to supply your every need in do-it-yourself and household maintenance. In his mind, Sarfaraz has an exact virtual replica of the shop and, by searching this mental labyrinth, he can instantly recall where every single size and type of nut, bolt, watering can, hinge or spanner can be located in the crowded shelving, cupboards, racks and draws of his actual shop. Sarfaraz relishes the opportunity to offer a personal service that cannot be matched by the superstores and, for connoisseurs of ironmongery and hardware, M & G is a rare delight.
If you should ask, Sarfaraz will be proud to tell you that the business was started in 1884 by James de Hailes, as a locksmith and ironmongers, just around the corner in the appropriately-named Key Close. He will bring out the old photographs and explain that the shop moved to its present location after the original premises was destroyed in the blitz, and he will inform you that it once occupied three generations of the de Hailes family. First there was James, then his son James George, and finally his daughter Dorothy who ran it with her husband Ronald Bull until September 1985, when they put the shop up for sale. At sixty-two, Dorothy, who had worked for her grandfather James since she was a small girl, recalled affectionately, “My only clear memory of him was when burnt me with his cigar by accident.” Adding regretfully, “It is sad to go, but we have worked here a long time and we want a bit of enjoyment.”
Fortunately, Malagar Singh bought the shop, succumbing inexorably to the irresistible magnetism of ironmongery and cherishing the endeavour with equal devotion to that shown by the de Hailes family – so that when he came to retire four years ago, he was diligent to appraise his successor. This was the point at which the young contender appeared, ambitious twenty-seven year old Sarfaraz, graduate in business management and rising employee of Philip Green’s Arcadia Group in the West End. “For two years I enjoyed working there,” Sarfaraz admitted to me, leaning over the counter at M&G to confide, “but when I decided to get married, I need more money to buy a flat for me and my wife to live in. And, even though I saved the company hundreds of thousands of pounds in my work preventing fraud, they refused to give me a pay rise. It was always my dream to have a business of my own. So I sat down with my grandfather, my uncles and my father, explained my situation and told them that I needed to do something with my life.”
Sarfaraz was overjoyed when his grandfather suggested that he consider the hardware store.“We had a family meeting and they said they’d back me,” Sarfaraz explained, “It was a bit daunting though, when I went along to meet Mr Singh. He was quite up for it, but he said, ‘You’ve got to work here for two weeks and if I like you, you can have it.’” Then, once Sarfaraz confessed that he had no holiday weeks left that year, Mr Singh turned dogmatic. “If you really want this, you must hand in your notice,” he insisted, challenging Sarfaraz to show the whole-hearted commitment which running a hardware store entails.“I wanted to implement the corporate way of doing things at once,” Sarfaraz told me with a blush at his former self, “but Mr Singh insisted I abide by the traditional way. My wife Mohsina came along and worked with me – and, after four weeks, Mr Singh handed over the keys and left.”
And so, with an interest-free loan from his family and after selling his car, Sarfaraz began a new life at M&G Ironmongers as a married man. “It was a complete unknown but with the love and support of my family, it was possible,” Sarfaraz assured me with a tender smile, “they gave me the confidence to believe I could do it.”
“After four years, I have paid back my family. I remember the first day I woke up and had no debt on my head – the shackles were off! I had two fantastic years at first, followed by one year of not taking a penny home due to a drop in sales caused by the economic crisis – we lived hand to mouth – but then this past year has been my best yet. People search on Google to learn how to do-it-yourself, and they are slowly buying tools and making their own toolkits. Through the recession, they have gained confidence in doing household repairs themselves. Often couples come in together, fathers come in with their children or they bring their friends. People are working together to get things done.”
In the meantime, Sarfaraz and his wife had two daughters, and all their friends and relatives now assist in keeping the shop staffed until the children are of school age. “Then it will be me and my wife together in this shop full-time and our aim will be to work towards buying a house for our family.” said Sarfaraz, eagerly envisaging his future.
“Most Asian shopkeepers they go for takeaway chicken or mobile phone shops, but I wanted to do something different. There aren’t many Indian Gujaratis in the hardware trade, it’s mostly white guys and some Sikhs.” he declared, growing passionate in his personal manifesto, “Offering a friendly service is very important to me. If people come in to buy two screws, I will give them five. I want them to know I am trying to look after them, it’s not just about the money. I expect to be here behind the counter with my wife in twenty years time. This shop has a story and a history, and I’m not going to be the one to let it die.”
Making an unexpected radical choice, Sarfaraz Loonat swapped the corporate world for that of the independent shopkeeper and, at thirty-two years old, he has found that the challenge has given him more self-respect and and satisfaction, as well as bringing him back to heart of his family and the centre of his local community in Whitechapel.
Sarfaraz Loonat - “It was always my dream to have a business of my own.”
Sarfaraz’s nephew Mohammed Mayat helps out in the shop.
De Hailes’ Locksmith & Ironmongery in Key Close, Whitechapel, 1890. James George de Hailes stands on the far right with his father James next to him.
M&G Building Supplies, Hardware & Ironmongery, 20 Cambridge Heath Rd, Whitechapel, E1 5QH
You may also like to read about Sarfaraz’s father and uncles