Les Bobrow, Wood ‘N’ Things
One of the most popular shops in the Spitalfields Market is Les Bobrow’s Wood ‘N’ Things where you can buy traditional wooden toys, fancy dress and all kinds of party tricks and novelties. Of all the shops in the market, his is the one that serves the widest range of people – locals, City types and tourists – as well as appealing to children as much as to adults.
Universally appreciated for the playfulness he brings, in contrast to the mundanity of the chains that surround him, Les Bobrow is one of the last of the originals from when these shops first opened after the Fruit & Vegetable Market moved out and one of the few independent businesses to bring a distinctive quality to these former market buildings today.
Yet in spite of the success and drawing power of Wood ‘N’ Things, Ballymore, who manage the building, want to kick Les out when his lease expires in February and replace him with another High St chain store selling women’s fashion, in a further move towards rendering the market as generic any shopping mall. Naturally, Les is disappointed – after building up his business in the market over all these years – to be told he is no longer wanted. He is frustrated at the obtuseness of his landlords.
“My idea of a market is bit of everything,” he suggested to me,“We have a very busy website and a third of my customers come that way, so my shop brings people to the market. They come out of here and they go into the other shops, but nobody comes to Spitalfields to go to a chainstore – they can do that where they live.” Les told me that he believes the management want to maximize the number of High St brands in the market in order to increase the value of their asset for a potential sale of the building. The short-term nature of this thinking denies the economic reality – when Les’ business is thriving, enabling him to pay the inflated rent of £85,000 per annum, while many of the multiples have little turnover but are supported by their corporate owners who want to maintain a brand presence in the area.
A proud East Ender, Les revealed that his grandfather arrived from Poland as a refugee in the nineteenth century and opened a shop selling furniture in Fashion St in the eighteen eighties, just a hundred yards from Les’ current shop in Brushfield St. “I came down here as a child with my father to Club Row and then we used to walk through Spitalfields to Petticoat Lane, and I watched them loading up the trucks here in the market” Les recalled, “So when I heard that the Fruit & Vegetable Market had moved out, I thought this was the place to come. It was just eighteen months after they left and I started one Sunday selling seven items I had made out of wood, there was a key box, an egg box and a towel holder, and I never took a penny the first week. The stall cost me twenty pounds.”
Unemployed at the time, Les determined to persevere in Spitalfields and he made a few more items for the next Sunday, and he sold them. “Being on the stall gave me less and less time to make things, so I started buying handmade wooden toys. And it really took off because there was a niche in the market, so then I started looking around for a shop.” he explained, “But they were all out of my reach until a small one became available in 2001. Then, in 2004, I moved in here and I never looked back.”
The appeal of Wood ‘N’ Things derives from Les’s personal taste and idiosyncrasy, and reflects his cultural heritage too. He lives a mile from his shop and all his staff are local people, which means that they have a personal relationship with many of the customers and the profits stay within the local economy. The same is true of plenty of other independent shops, underlining the significance of these small businesses to the East End.
The London markets have always been an arena of possibility where people can create a living out of nothing but their own ingenuity, and the story of Les Bobrow’s shop is a classic example of a success story born of ingenuity and hard work. It is obvious that even the multiples require a vibrant culture of markets and distinctive independent shops surrounding them if they are to succeed, which makes Ballymore’s short-sightedness in the case of Wood ‘N’ Things especially frustrating.
Wood ‘N’ Things, Old Spitalfields Market, 57 Brushfield St, E1 6AA
Portraits copyright © Phil Maxwell