Around East End Pound Shops
Bargain World in Bethnal Green stocks between four to five thousand discount items
If any readers are susceptible to shopping upon impulse, I suggest you avoid Bond St and make the acquaintance of our East End pound shops, where you can indulge your consumerist tendencies freely without emptying your wallet. Thus, seeking the innocent pleasure of browsing in these discount stores, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I could allow ourselves to be seduced by the magnificent array of things we never knew we wanted, with relative impunity.
- Like the jumbo bags of elastic bands in assorted colours, the back scratchers, the traditional whisks, the modelling balloons, the bamboo canes, the decorative paper plates, the packs of safety pins in different sizes, the tin harmonicas, the carved domino sets, the plastic sewing kits, the USB cables, the gluetraps for flies, not to mention all the everyday stuff, the bins and the brooms and the bowls. Divorced from the order imposed by more conventional shops, in pound stores everything gets jumbled together – toys and kitchen equipment, confetti and tools, stationery and bathroom accessories – and the plenitude of random items conjures a heady fairground atmosphere of gleeful anarchy.
In Whitechapel, next to the tube station, in the handsome building that was once the Working Lads’ Institute with a gymnasium, swimming pool and lecture theatre, we had the honour to visit “Poundbusters, the original Pound Shop” and meet Balbir Singh. Mr Singh was the visionary retailer who first brought pound shops to this country, opening up Poundbusters here fifteen years ago with instant success. Previously, Mr Singh ran the shop as a budget hardware outlet for five years, but on a trip to Chicago he was captivated by the dollar and 99 cents stores he found there, and decided to return and reinvent his business as Britain’s first pound shop. Anyone that loves discount shopping should make the pilgrimage to this temple at 279-281 Whitechapel Rd, which Mr Singh describes affectionately as “the mother of all poundshops.”
Yet Mr Singh confided to me that poundshops may prove to be a short-lived phenomenon. His rent has increased from £20,000 to £60, 000 while he has been in business here and the current 20% rate of VAT means he only receives 80p from every pound spent. Meanwhile goods from China, which is the origin of most of the stock for pound shops, are going up in price. During the boom years, Mr Singh had six stores and now he only has this one. I left him there, a lonely figure, sitting discreetly in the shadows just inside the door and observing the flow of people through his shop.
Remarkably, there is another pound shop almost next door to Poundbusters and in Bethnal Green we found a run of half a dozen pound shops nestling together, allowing enthusiasts like myself to go from one to the next, whiling away time, drawn in by the infinite variety of human ingenuity on display. At first, I could not understand how these shops could possibly operate in competition with each other, but then I concluded that this cluster in Bethnal Green comprises a destination in its own right. The best in the Bethnal Green Rd is undoubtedly Bargain World – for the friendliness of the staff, led by manager Khaled Mostar, and the astonishing range of four to five thousand items on sale. This is one of six shops run by Mr Chopra for the past ten years and the customers here were keen to offer their endorsements, including a doting mother who had magnanimously just bought her son a bumper pack of five hundred water bombs “to keep him out of trouble.”
Poundshops are the successors to the penny arcades of yesteryear and they feed the appetite for budget hardware and trinkets left by the closure of Woolworths. And, such is the nature of their vast ever-changing stock, that I can never walk past one without popping inside on the off-chance of a useful discovery like a bargain harmonica or a new whisk.
Poundbusters, next to Whitechapel tube, the original pound store.
Balbir Singh, the man who brought pound shops to Britain, pictured with his son Avtar.
Nasrun behind the cash register at Poundbusters in Whitechapel.
Tony from E. Pellicci pops on to buy some extra glass tumblers at Bargain World.
Khaled Mostaq at Bargain World, Bethnal Green’s friendliest discount store.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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